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Secret of Monkey Island Thoughts

Aeschylus

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(That said, the first half of Primordia was designed pretty haphazardly, the second was designed pretty much along Gilbertian lines, and I think the first half plays better, so there probably is some danger that in the hands of a mediocre designer like me, the method leads to worse outcomes.)
Well, I wouldn't strictly agree with this -- I think the best puzzles of Primordia were in the latter half of the game, but I also didn't find puzzle design to really be Primordia's strength, not that is was particularly weak either.

In terms of the 'door and key' conundrum of adventure game puzzle design, as I see it there's a couple different approaches that have been successful in classic games. One approach (which I tend to prefer) is to have a broad overarching goal, sometimes vaguely defined (King's Quest, QFG) or sometimes more clearly (DoTT), and then have a large world to explore full of doors and keys that can be encountered in a variety of orders, and are interrelated. A second approach is the one taken by e.g. Gabriel Knight, many Daedalic games, most of the Space Quest games, etc., where you have much more tightly defined goals and controlled worlds to explore, which you tend to progress through one at a time. I think this one is easier to design competently, but harder to do really well. The best examples will contain red herrings and distractions from the main goal that LOOK like doors and keys (and may be later, allowing for some flexibility in the order things are presented). The Monkey Island games tend to hybridize these two approaches, with varying degrees of success -- I actually think CoMI did it best in a lot of ways, but eh, to each their own.
 

MRY

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Also, I feel like you're mixing up two issues here. One thing is not having enough information (explicit or implicit) to figure out the connection between D and A, B and C, and just blindly try everything with everything. We can all agree that it's bad.
Then we are in agreement.
But what you're complaining about, it seems, is the ability to do A, B and C before you know that you need to do D. And that's what I cannot wrap my head around.
Where did I advocate for that? What I advocated for is structuring the game so that before you need to do D, you have a reason for doing it. Not forbidding the doing of D, but increasing the likelihood that D.reason comes before D.operation.
I mean, let's talk about a hypothetical monkey and banana example. I think we can all agree that "I need to get a monkey, and to do that I need to offer it a banana" solution doesn't require any leaps of logic. But why don't you want the player to get the banana before he knows there's a monkey in the game? And how would you go about it? I see only two options here:
1) Place the banana after the monkey - but if you apply that approach to every puzzle in the game, you'll end up with something extremely linear.
2) Place the banana before the monkey, but don't allow the player to get it before he meets the monkey - but that's, frankly, just awful design that would lead to a ton of needless backtracking.
Obviously the answer is #1, not #2, and it doesn't make the game linear. Here, the solution is amazingly, stupidly easy: you put the monkey at the piano during Part I of the game. Poof! Problem solved! The player will have seen the monkey before he gets to the banana, no matter what. He will have messed with the monkey and been unable to distract it and that will be in the back of his head for later. The game does the same thing with all sorts of things, like the pirate's pegleg, the tools in the woodworker's shop, the door to the crypt in the graveyard. It's how good puzzles work.

Incidentally, as I explained above, that is exactly how Monkey Island 2 handles the Scabb Island in the first part of the game, and it's not "linear" in the sense of only having a single acceptable order of operations. It's "linear" in the sense that the areas are constructed so that you see the locks before you see the keys, and by the time you've walked around, you know what your goals are. But there are no hard constraints on where you can or can't go, it's just that the design is thoughtful about how you position things and use environmental cues, how you foreshadow future puzzles, etc.

So it's 100% obvious to me that it's not impossible for this approach to work, since it's in MI2, and it does work, and it works brilliantly. Also, not sure if you read Ron's article (or any of his articles about adventure game design) but it seems worth pointing out that this is how the best adventure game designer thought about puzzles. The criticisms I raise (some of which he also notes) are instances of his not applying his own rules consistently, not me inventing rules that he would reject as problematic. So what we're talking about is an approach described by a great designer who employed the approach to make a great adventure game.

As you make a more open game, this becomes a lot more difficult to do. The more open the game, the harder it is to have any confidence that the player will see the lock before the key. But just because it's hard doesn't mean that it's wrong -- just that you have to work as a designer to think about how it should cohere. One fairly straightforward approach is to hierarchies of locks and keys, where you basically do something like


ZONE A: ENTER -> stuWINust NOW VISIT ANY ZONE YOU WANT
ZONE B: ENTER -> gmp10pmg dj7jd a4a 1
ZONE C: ENTER -> hnq11qnh ek8ke b5b 2
ZONE D: ENTER -> ior12roi fl9lf c6c 3

Ugh, this is not very coherent, and to be clear I WOULD NEVER SUGGEST SOMETHING SO ARTIFICIAL, but the basic idea is that you have three main "zones" where the puzzles cross over between them. The numbers represent items, the letters represent puzzles that can only be solved with numbered items. The farther up the alphabet you go, the higher up numbers you need to solve the puzzles.

[Again, before I have to deal with this, I WOULD NEVER SUGGESTED SOMETHING SO ARTIFICIAL -- you want some of the puzzles not to require items, you don't want to make people constantly pingpong between zones, you don't want every puzzle line to end with an item, you don't want every puzzle line to be the same length or structure. Please don't derail on that point.]

The idea is that you start in Zone A. You enter from the left. As you walk through, you encounter WIN locked behind puzzles you cannot yet solve. This can be anything. Win can be, "So you want to be a pirate? You have to bring me buried treasure, the sword master's sword, and something stolen from Elaine's mansion." So WIN is [Be a pirate] and s is [treasure] and t is [sword] and u is [loot]. You can't get at WIN yet because you don't have those three keys, but you know what the keys are.

Now you can choose to go to any other zone you want. In each zone you have a number of "free" items (i.e., keys) -- just things to pick up -- and then a greater number of "locked" items. The player is allowed to see all of these puzzle lines when he walks through an area. In this instance, you're making the player walk to the end of each zone to get the free item. YOU WOULD NOT DO THIS. IT IS JUST A STYLIZED CONCEPT. Anyway, he's able to do a little in that zone -- he can walk through it, he can get item 1, and he can use item 1 to unlock item 4 -- but as he goes, he sees a bunch of puzzles he can't do. So he goes to Zone B, gets item 1 and maybe item 4, and then goes to Zone C.

In Zone C, he can solve puzzles, so as he walks through he can unlock item 5, then pick both pick up free item 2, then he can use 1, 2, 4, and 5 (or some subset) to get item 8. Now he can go back to Zone B and unlock item 7, or he can press on to Zone D. In zone D, he can get 9, 6, and 3, and now he could double back to Zone C and get 11, or back to Zone B and get 7 and 10, etc., etc.

The game isn't linear -- the player always is free to go around as he wants -- but it's structured in a way that increases the likelihood that he has seen the puzzles before he gets the items. In fact, this approach essentially requires it.

The final touch is that the lower the item number, the more "obvious" the tool is. Thus, items 1-3 would be, say, a shovel, a bag of coins, and a rope. Items 4-6 would be, say, a flintlock musket, a bolt cutter, and a compass. Items 7-9 would be a monkey, a waiter's uniform, and a trombone. The reason why you do this is because you don't need any motivation beyond what you can sketch in 30 seconds for the player to want a shovel, coins, and rope -- but a monkey, a uniform, and a trombone require some context to make them sensible things for the player to pursue. It isn't that bad if a player takes a shovel before he finds an X in a pirate's game. But having the player jump through hoops to get a trombone is kind of lame if he doesn't know that he needs to blast off a note to wake up the sleeping watchman, or whatever.

Anyway, this is all easier said than done, but I do think it is the foundation of good adventure game design, and something that, if lacking, leaves the whole game feeling kind of pointless.
 
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Infinitron

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Well well: http://www.filfre.net/2017/03/monke...lbert-made-an-adventure-game-that-didnt-suck/

Monkey Island (or, How Ron Gilbert Made an Adventure Game That Didn’t Suck)



Shortly after completing Maniac Mansion, his first classic graphic adventure, Ron Gilbert started sketching ideas for his next game. “I wanted to do something that felt like fantasy and might kind of tap into what was interesting about fantasy,” he remembers, “but that wasn’t fantasy.” Gilbert loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which took guests through a whole pirate adventure in fifteen minutes, climaxing in a cannon duel between two ships. He only wished that he could linger there, could get out of the little boat that carried guests through the attraction and wander amid the scenery. What the need to keep shoveling amusement-park guests through a paid attraction disallowed, a computer game could allow. Thus was the idea for The Secret of Monkey Island born.

The game casts you in the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a lovable loser who wants to become a pirate. Arriving on Mêlée Island, a den of piratey scum and villainy, he has to complete a set of trials to win the status of Official Pirate. Along the way, he falls in love with the island’s beautiful governor Elaine — her name sets the game up for a gleeful The Graduate homage — and soon has to rescue her from the villain of the story, the evil ghost pirate LeChuck.

The Disnefied piracy wasn’t hard to do, especially after Gilbert discovered a charming little historical-fantasy novel by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides. Nor was the goofy humor that was so much his stock in trade as a game designer. What did make things complicated, however, was his desire to create a more playable, forgiving adventure game than even Maniac Mansion had managed to be. Gilbert admits that he was struggling, with no more than the beginnings of a design document or, for that matter, a design philosophy, when a mandate came down from Lucasfilm Games’s parent company’s management: they wanted an adventure game to go with the upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Such a mandate was unusual for the privileged little artists’ enclave that still was Lucasfilm Games at this time, but, given the freedom they had so generously been granted for so long, they were hardly in a position to argue about it. Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, and David Fox joined forces to grind out the Indiana Jones game, while Monkey Island went on hold for more than six months.

It was just possibly the best thing that could have happened. The delay gave Gilbert time to continue thinking about adventure-game design in the abstract, to continue groping toward that elusive something — or, better said, somethings — that would make his future games different. Hardly a theorist by nature, he nevertheless sat down and wrote out a manifesto of sorts as a way of codifying his opinions, titling it, in inimitable Ron Gilbert fashion, “Why Adventure Games Suck.” This semi-legendary document, probably the most influential ever written on the subject of adventure-game design, was published in the December 1989 issue of The Journal of Computer Game Design (the paper-based adjunct to the Computer Game Developers Conference).

Some of what Gilbert has to say in his manifesto feels a little rambling and esoteric today, while the vast majority of what does feel relevant we’ve already had reasons to discuss on other occasions — what with the general state of adventure-game design in the 1980s, sometimes on all too many other occasions. Still, the document itself and the ideas it contains can only be regarded as hugely important to the evolution of the adventure game.

Consider what the manifesto has to say about the age-old problem of locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.

I forgot to pick it up

Never require a player to pick up an item that is used later in the game if she can’t go back and get it when it is needed. It is very frustrating to learn that a seemingly insignificant object is needed, and the only way to get it is to start over or go back to a saved game. From the player’s point of view, there was no reason for picking it up in the first place. Some designers have actually defended this practice by saying that “adventure-game players know to pick up everything.” This is a cop-out. If the jar of water needs to be used on the spaceship and it can only be found on the planet, create a use for it on the planet that guarantees it will be picked up. If the time between the two uses is long enough, you can be almost guaranteed that the player forgot she even had the object.​

The other way around this problem is to give the player hints about what she might need to pick up. If the aliens on the planet suggest that the player find water before returning to the ship, and the player ignores this advice, then failure is her own fault.​

In The Secret of Monkey Island and all of the Lucasfilm adventure games that would follow it, Gilbert and his colleagues implemented an extreme remedy to this problem. Rather than admitting a failure to pick up the right object at the right time to be even potentially the player’s “own fault,” they made certain it was always possible to go back and get said item. Locking yourself out of victory, in other words, became literally impossible.

Now consider what the manifesto has to say about arbitrarily killing the player and about another related old bugaboo, requiring knowledge from past lives.

Live and learn

As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without “dying” or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time. This is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.

As an exercise, take one complete path through a story game and then tell it to someone else, as if it were a standard story. If you find places where the main character could not have known a piece of information that was used (the character who learned it died in a previous game), then there is a hole in the plot.​

Again, Gilbert and the rest of Lucasfilm would push much further that even the above would imply in their own future designs. Despite the claim that “danger is inherent to drama” — a claim, one has to assume, about which Gilbert must have come to think better — they made it impossible for the player to die, no matter what she did.

Gilbert tells us at the end of his manifesto that he’d like to “get rid of save games” altogether.

If there have to be save games, I would use them only when it was time to quit playing until the next day. Save games should not be a part of game play. This leads to sloppy design. As a challenge, think about how you would design a game differently if there were no save games. If you ever have the pleasure of watching a non-game player playing an adventure game you will notice they treat save games very differently than the experienced user. Some start using it as a defense mechanism only after being slapped in the face by the game a few times, the rest just stop playing.​

It’s this idea of designing adventure games as if saves didn’t exist that’s the real key to understanding what made The Secret of Monkey Island and the Lucasfilm adventures which would follow it so different, even so revolutionary. Everything else springs from this one adjustment in perspective. I last played The Secret of Monkey Island nine months or so ago, when my wife and I were on a little holiday in Venice. Each evening, after a long day spent exploring the alleys and canals, we’d retire back to our cozy little hotel and I’d poke at Monkey Island for an hour or two on my laptop before bed. Having played heaps of older adventure games for years prior to getting to Monkey Island — the life of a digital antiquarian sadly doesn’t leave much time for games that aren’t on the syllabus! — I must have experienced it much as its first players did. And I have to say, it’s downright difficult to express how freeing it was to know that I didn’t need to save every ten minutes, didn’t need to stress over the potential of somehow locking myself out of victory with every action. Instead, I could feel free to explore and experiment, knowing the game would take care of me. I don’t say that every game needs to be this way, but I do know that The Secret of Monkey Island is, along with its immediate Lucasfilm predecessor Loom, perhaps the first adventure game I’ve ever played for this blog that felt like a natural holiday companion, something to relax into and just enjoy rather than assault with deadly seriousness. And yet The Secret of Monkey Island in particular manages this feat without ever feeling trivial. The game represents a remarkable historical watershed, as of an entire culture of game makers and players waking up and realizing that all the little aggravations they had thought adventure games had to include really didn’t need to be in there at all.


Cheerfully blatant anachronisms like the grog machine and Stan the used-boat salesman are everywhere. Ron Gilbert has mentioned the grog machine as one of his great lessons in “copyrights and trademarks.” Apparently getting it to look enough like a Coke machine to make the joke work but not so much that Lucasfilm was likely to get sued was quite the exercise in triangulation.

Taken apart from its immense importance as a model for future designs at Lucasfilm and elsewhere, The Secret of Monkey Island might initially seem a less than overwhelming package. It exists in very typical adventure-game territory for its era, at first glance dismayingly so. We’ve got yet another sad-sack loser of a protagonist, wandering through a comedy landscape built from pop-culture detritus, anachronisms, and meta-humor. The whole ought to read as lazy as most such efforts. Yet two things save the day, both of which feel intrinsic to the people who wrote the game, Ron Gilbert and his two assistant writers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. The first is the marvelously unaffected quality of the humor. The game is consistently, off-handedly funny without ever conspicuously straining to be in the manner of its peers. Where their humor is labored, Monkey Island‘s is effortless. And then there’s the related quality of a certain sweetness about the game. Guybrush Threepwood is the ultimate innocent. He just wants to be a Disney version of a pirate and to rescue and win the hand of the beautiful Elaine; guile is a foreign concept to him. Not only is The Secret of Monkey Island that rarest of beasts, a self-styled comedy adventure that’s genuinely, consistently funny, it’s about as likeable a game as has ever been made. This is a game where when a cannibal asks you how to “get ahead” he means… no, that one’s just too much fun to spoil.

The Secret of Monkey Island isn’t flashy or self-consciously spectacular in the way that so many contemporaneous Sierra adventures strained to be, but it is sophisticated in its aesthetics in a way few other games of its era can match. Still working with 16-color EGA graphics (a 256-color VGA version, from which the screenshots in this article are drawn, was released within a few months of the original), artists Steve Purcell and Mark Ferrari used their limited color palette to good effect to evoke the various moods of the various environments, while Michael Land crafted a gentle reggae-influenced soundtrack to plink away unobtrusively in the background or swell up into the foreground as circumstances dictated. Playing The Secret of Monkey Island really does feel like wandering through a delightful pirate theme park (a quality which the rather infamous ending of the sequel, which we won’t go into further in this article, would take very much to heart).



Most of all, The Secret of Monkey Island thrives on its puzzle design. The game’s plot plays out in four chapters, within each of which you have broad discretion to solve puzzles at your own pace and in your own order. (“Give the player options” is another commandment in “Why Adventure Games Suck.”) Its most famous puzzle, “insult sword-fighting,” says much about the game’s personality as a whole: instead of fighting with swords, pirates in this game like to fight via insults. You need to collect these insults and their ripostes as you explore, then apply them just right to win the “sword fight.” (Hey, anything’s better than a sharp sword in the gut, right?) The idea was born as Ron Gilbert was watching old pirate movies of the Errol Flynn stripe, and noticed that the opponents spent as much time verbally as physically assaulting one another. What with a verbal joust being far easier to implement in an adventure game than a sword-fighting engine, it didn’t take him long to run with the idea.

But really the entirety of the puzzle design, top to bottom, is just superb, managing to be funny and clever and occasionally challenging without ever devolving into the random using of each object on each other object. Throughout, attention is paid to you the player’s time and sanity in a way very few games of the era bother to do. For instance, at one point you need to follow another character through the jungle to find a secret location. Most games of the time would happily make you do this over and over, every time you want to return to said location — not least because doing so could serve to boost the length of the game at no expense. The Secret of Monkey Island only makes you do it once, then proceeds to do it for you from then on. “No point in having to solve the same puzzle over and over,” said Gilbert. Amen to that.

The game’s system of nudging you on to the correct solution to many puzzles is subtle to the extent that many players never even notice it’s there — and this, it must be said, again feels like the way it ought to be. At the beginning of the game, you’re expected to fulfill three tasks to prove to the pirates on the island that Guybrush has what it takes to become a pirate as well. As you poke around the island, your challengers actually take note of what you’ve done, and will offer some hints based on your progress if you go back and talk to them. “We want to guide the player subtly through the game,” said Gilbert’s colleague David Fox. “If the game works right, it should know that you’re stuck somewhere and it should give you a little help in a subtle way, so that you can solve the puzzle without feeling like it was solved for you.” In the context of 1990, the year of The Secret of Monkey Island‘s release, this was astonishingly progressive design. “As opposed,” remarked Fox wryly, “to the kind of game where the designer seems to be saying, ‘Aha! I’ve got you this time!’ and you have to spend three hours of gameplay to find some hidden object that you need to solve one puzzle.”

A rare example of a game where every element complements every other element, The Secret of Monkey Island has gone down in history as one of the finest, most justly beloved graphic adventures ever made. And for any aspiring adventure designer, even today, it’s a veritable master class in how to make an adventure game that most definitively doesn’t suck.



Released in October of 1990 as Lucasfilm’s second adventure of the year, The Secret of Monkey Island shared with its immediate predecessor Loom its pretend-the-player-can’t-save approach to design. Loom, however, had been a bridge too far for many traditionalist adventure gamers. What with its aggressively minimalist interface and portentous setting and story, it felt like an adventure game filtered through the aesthetics of a European avant-garde film. But The Secret of Monkey Island was, to strain the metaphor, all Hollywood. Whatever its innovations, it was also very much a meat-and-potatoes adventure game in the old style, complete with a menu of verbs, a comic tone, lots of object-oriented puzzles to solve, and a length more in keeping with that people had come to expect from a $40 boxed adventure game. It was thus far better equipped to deliver the gospel of “Why Adventure Games Suck” than Loom had been. While Loom had been greeted with critical uncertainty, reviewers fell over themselves to praise The Secret of Monkey Island, which wasted no time in becoming Lucasfilm Games’s biggest hit to date. It marks an enormously important watershed in the history of Lucasfilm’s adventure games in general, the moment when they commercially and creatively came fully into their own. The classic era of Lucasfilm adventures begins in earnest with The Secret of Monkey Island, which would become nothing less than the ideal most of the games that would follow would strive, sometimes perhaps a little too self-consciously, to reach.

Its commercial performance aside, The Secret of Monkey Island‘s enormous importance in the history of the art of adventure-game design in general shouldn’t be neglected. For many designers working at other companies, Ron Gilbert’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach hit home with the force of revelation. Both Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series for Sierra, and Bob Bates, co-founder of Legend Entertainment, brought up The Secret of Monkey Island unprompted in recent interviews with me as a work that made a huge impression on on them. By no means would all designers push as far as Ron Gilbert had in the name of making a more playable adventure game. Corey Cole’s design partner Lori Ann Cole, for example, pronounced herself to be against “capricious” death in adventure games, but insisted that the possibility of death needed to be present to foster “personal involvement” and “an emotional stake” and to elevate the game above “mere amusement” — all of which positions strike me as perfectly reasonable for the very different sort of adventure games she and Corey were making. Still, everyone serious about the art of adventure-game design simply had to reckon with The Secret of Monkey Island, had to decide what its lessons really were and how to apply them. The game’s impact was such that to speak of a pre-Monkey Island and post-Monkey Island era of adventure games wouldn’t be at all out of order.

As the 1990s began, times were beginning to change inside Lucasfilm Games. With the fire hose of cash that had been the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises now ebbing and no new sequels in either blockbuster franchise on the horizon, Lucasfilm in general was concentrating on becoming a more commercially savvy organization. These changes inevitably affected the games division. Just about the instant that The Secret of Monkey Island was hitting store shelves, a major corporate reorganization was in progress at Lucasfilm, which saw the games division given far more resources — their personnel roll grew from about 25 to more than 100 between 1989 and 1991 — but also given much closer supervision. They would now be expected to justify each of their projects to the accountants. This transformation of Lucasfilm Games from sideline to major profit center was by no means viewed as a comprehensively bad thing by everyone working inside the games division — it did after all lead to them finally being let loose on the Star Wars intellectual property, something they’d been wishing for for years — but it would change the character of the place and the games that came from it forever.



The changes meant that the two sequels to Loom which Brian Moriarty had hoped to make would never be realized; Moriarty was instead sent off to work on a new educational-games initiative. A sequel to the big hit The Secret of Monkey Island, however, became a major priority under the new order, especially as Lucasfilm, now devoting lots of resources to flight simulators and those aforementioned Star Wars games, had no other adventures on their calendar for 1991. Released in December of 1991, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge didn’t disappoint commercially. Benefiting from the enormous good will accrued by its predecessor, it became another bestseller, and won a number of the game-of-the-year awards that a tardy industry should have been awarding to its predecessor (inertia being the force it is, most of the awards for 1990 had gone to Sierra’s pretty but horribly designed King’s Quest V, which served as its own argument for “why adventure games suck”). Today, the sequel remains almost as beloved as the original among hardcore Lucasfilm fans.



Personally, though, I’m not such a big fan of Monkey Island 2 as I am of its predecessor. Ron Gilbert had spent two and a half years designing, writing, and developing the first Monkey Island, alone or with others. He was given just a year for Monkey Island 2, a game that’s at least 50 percent larger, and I fancy I can see this disparity in the end result. The writing is neither as sharp nor as sweet. For the first time in a Ron Gilbert game, some of the humor is more gross than clever — spitting, with attention to the color and consistency of your loogies, is a major puzzle mechanic — and some of the rest is weirdly mean-spirited. Guybrush Threepwood has been transformed from the gee-whiz innocent of the first game to a bit of a raging asshole, the type of guy who steals a monocle from an innocent character who can’t see a thing without it and locks another guy who didn’t do anything to him inside a coffin. I don’t know to what I should attribute the change in tone — whether to changes going on inside Lucasfilm Games at the time, to changes going on in the personal lives of Ron Gilbert and/or the other members of his writing team, to the pressure of getting a bigger game out in much less time, or simply to happenstance. I know only that it doesn’t sit that well with me.


Captured by LeChuck in Monkey Island 2. The game will arbitrarily let you use only one item you’re carrying to effect your escape, and there’s no way to know ahead of time what that item is. Guess what that means you have to do…

In terms of puzzle design, the sequel also marks a big step down from its predecessor. While the no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach to design is still present, Monkey Island 2 constantly violates another of the dicta found in Ron Gilbert’s manifesto.

Arbitrary puzzles

Puzzles and their solutions need to make sense. They don’t have to be obvious, just make sense. The best reaction after solving a tough puzzle should be, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that sooner!” The worst, and most often heard after being told the solution, is, “I never would have gotten that!” If the solution can only be reached by trial and error or plain luck, it’s a bad puzzle.​

Monkey Island 2 is full of these sorts of, to use Ron Gilbert’s own words, “bad puzzles.” Many solutions are so outlandish that you can stumble upon them only by using every object on every other object. At one point, for instance, you’re carrying a monkey around in your inventory (don’t ask!) when you come upon a closed water valve you need to open. Using the monkey on the valve does the trick because “monkey wrench.” Now, credit where it’s due, there’s some real wit to this. Yet it’s the sort of thing absolutely no player will ever think of on her own, especially given that the game hasn’t heretofore shown any interest in this sort of wordplay. (And that’s without even beginning to consider the problems of localization to other languages than English, which tends to render a puzzle like this into a complete non sequitur.) As you get deeper into the game, there’s more and more of this sort of thing, along with pixel hunts, an infuriating maze, and puzzles that can only be solved by trying to pick up every seemingly immovable item on the screen. Monkey Island 2 at times seems like an experiment in how annoying an adventure game can be without technically violating Lucasfilm’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends policy.

Arbitrary puzzles that can be solved only through trial and error would prove to be Lucasfilm’s Achilles heel going forward; too many of the games to come would feature puzzles designed more to create a laugh at how ridiculous they are than to be interesting or satisfying to solve. The end result is to create a feeling in the player of playing the interface rather than participating actively in the game world.


Despite my complaints, by no means was Lucasfilm’s progressive design philosophy completely abandoned for Monkey Island 2. The puzzle you need to solve to get through the swamp is a prime example. After you figure out what object to use as a paddle, the game solves the puzzle for you on each return visit.

Perhaps aware that they had crossed a line in trying to make Monkey Island 2 more difficult than its predecessor, Lucasfilm added a “Lite” mode to the game which scales the complexity of the puzzle structure back dramatically. Unfortunately, most players agree that the Lite mode goes too far in the other direction, removing most of the interest from the game. Taken together, the very presence of the two modes speaks to a design that didn’t quite hit the sweet spot of the first game, and to a design team that at some intuitive level may have realized this.

Shortly after completing Monkey Island 2, Ron Gilbert left Lucasfilm Games, resulting in a long hiatus for Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck, and company. Given my snail’s pace through history, there will thus likely be an almost equally lengthy hiatus before they’ll grace these pages again. For now, I can only strongly encourage you to make the time to play The Secret of Monkey Island if you haven’t already. It’s as strong a comedy adventure as you’ll ever see, and as historically important an adventure game as any released since Crowther and Woods’s seminal original Adventure. While you can take or leave its sequel as you see fit, The Secret of Monkey Island is one adventure game that everybody really ought to play. It’s just that important. And even better, it’s just that good.

(Sources: the films From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years and its associated extras; the book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; A.C.E. of April 1990; The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, and Fall 1991; Computer Gaming World of December 1990, June 1991, October 1991, November 1991, January 1992, May 1992, and November 1992; Retro Gamer 34. Also Ron Gilbert’s blog, The Grumpy Gamer.)
 
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MRY

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There's a lot to respond to there. Let me start by noting that this is one of the stranger, sadder bits of writing I've come across:
I last played The Secret of Monkey Island nine months or so ago, when my wife and I were on a little holiday in Venice. Each evening, after a long day spent exploring the alleys and canals, we’d retire back to our cozy little hotel and I’d poke at Monkey Island for an hour or two on my laptop before bed.

Anyway, that out aside, I'm not sure whether it's worth doing a point-by-point response, but I'll try to hit the major themes.

DA's writing (like lots of good polemicists') uses a lot of hyperbole and the technique of comparing the highlights of one thing with the low points of the other. For example, a review of Monkey Island 1 that praises not making you follow the guy through the forest each time (contra DA, I can't think of any other adventure game that would make you redo that every time, but perhaps I'm forgetful -- doesn't QFG2, for example, let you fast travel to locations in Shapeir after you've found them?) but neglects to mention that you have to reuse the same puzzle fight insults over and over again for at least half a dozen fights if not more is either (1) suffering from blindspots or (2) engaged in chicanery. I assume DA just loves MI and isn't being tricksy, but still. MI is has plenty of boring tasks that you're made to do over and over again (like grinding the insult fights, using the rubber chicken on the zip line, tediously navigating boat to beach to boat to beach to get to the cannibal village). MI also has plenty of nonsensical puzzles -- like the rubber chicken, using the compass as a magnet to get the key, making the soup to get to Monkey Island -- that are comparable to the monkey wrench puzzle. The "monkey wrench" has become an icon of bad puzzle design (a lesser version of the GK3 mustache) but you can't build an argument from it. And I would say that hotspot hunting is generally worse in MI1 than MI2 -- particularly on the ship segment.

The criticisms of the tonal change between the game seems off, too. Guybrush's change in personality is part of the point of the story -- it's not an instance of the writers being asleep at the wheel. They might have made a bad decision, but the whole point is that after Guybrush became a pirate he became an asshole, too -- boastful, flashy, insufferable -- and that as a consequence he lost Elaine. That he grows (in a bad way, but a real way) from MI to MI2 is one of the clever things about the series, and something surprisingly absent from, say, the King's Quest titles despite their tracing a family over multiple generations. Complaining that the spitting puzzle is too gross is ridiculous, obviously -- the first game also includes gross-out humor, ranging from the disgusting soup to the disgusting shrunken head to shoving a giant q-tip into a giant ear. It's not like MI2 has poop-flinging monkeys or something. If there were a single grossest moment it's not the spitting puzzle but the mayor of Phatt Island. Humor-wise, the biggest change I noticed was a move away from some of the more Borscht-belt style funny natives/funny Eyetalians stuff.

Finally, in my dotage I've become more mixed about the "live and learn" philosophy. Monkey Island often uses a form of puzzle design in which you try, fail, and then have to repeat some boring task or watch some boring animation. Often puzzles have to be distorted in some respect to create a non-death failure state. It is not immediately obvious to me whether this is better than having the player die and reload, provided the game is quicksaving for him consistently.
 

RapineDel

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A lot of those criticisms can be applied to the vast majority of Adventure Games around that time. Things advanced pretty quickly and SOMI is still a pretty big step above Lucas Arts previous games like Maniac Mansion 1, Last Crusade, Loom etc. There's a few things in the game you noted as being bad that objectively are probably true, but I think they're far more predominant on replays where you know where everything is/how to solve everything and just want it all to hurry up. I should mention that on replays of SOMI I've noticed a lot of the things you have. I think Melee Island is overall golden age adventure quality, it's most of Monkey Island itself that's a bit of a step down.

However one of the things that makes older adventure games more memorable for me comes from a lot of that difficulty and tedium believe it or not and I think it was unintentional. Looking at LeChuck's Revenge (though it applies to SOMI too), the amount of times I talked with the same people, revisited the same places would've been pretty staggering but having to do all that gave a really worldly feel that I remember fondly. Kind of like how older RPGs feel more like real worlds because of less fast travel, attention to detail over size etc. I think in that obsession to make everything perfect, convenient and objectively well designed a lot of what made it memorable can actually be missed. The Monkey Wrench is a stupid puzzle in an otherwise great game but the amount of attachment I reckon people grew to the game world given the added pacing/exploring needed to try and solve something like that may have actually been for the best. The Goat puzzle in Broken Sword 1 is quite similar. An out of place, silly puzzle, but without it I would've been in and out or Ireland quickly, instead i spent a whole lot of time there and it's far more nostalgic and memorable as a result. I think the key there is that if the game world feels real, interesting and engaging puzzles that feel ridiculously difficult aren't something people mind as much. It's when the game is lacking in all those departments and you just want to move on is when people go to walkthroughs or just close the game.

That's not to excuse bad game design in itself as I suppose you could apply what I'm saying to any game, but I can't name many modern adventures where I've had to spend much time in one place because a lot of developers seem to be scared of making any puzzles too difficult out of fear it'll lead to negative feedback (not applying that to your game, MRV as I haven't played it but I plan too in the future as I've heard good feedback).
 

V_K

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Monkey Island often uses a form of puzzle design in which you try, fail, and then have to repeat some boring task or watch some boring animation.
Which is the same thing you'd have to do if you died and reloaded. Only if your last save was from too far back, the amount of repetition would me much more.
 

Falksi

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For any flaws it has, Monkey Island is still a magical game. The music, the atmosphere, the humour etc. I still thoroughly enjoy every play through even after all these years.
 

RK47

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Dead State Divinity: Original Sin
Monkey Island had Tides of Numanuma beat in pure entertainment value.
Lucasarts Adventure games are really great stuff I recommend everyone to try them all. IMO I really dislike the Dig and Full Throttle the most out of all LA games. FT was too short and simple while Dig was just boring puzzle piece stuff.
 

taxalot

I'm a spicy fellow.
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No. Fuck you. Walking around in circles scrolling the mouse everywhere to see if you missed something and combining every time with anything is not fun, despite how pretty the backdrops are.

Jesus fucking christ, what is wrong with you, people.
 

RapineDel

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No. Fuck you. Walking around in circles scrolling the mouse everywhere to see if you missed something and combining every time with anything is not fun, despite how pretty the backdrops are.

Jesus fucking christ, what is wrong with you, people.

You should probably stick with Putt Putt and Freddy Fish then.
 

MRY

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Monkey Island often uses a form of puzzle design in which you try, fail, and then have to repeat some boring task or watch some boring animation.
Which is the same thing you'd have to do if you died and reloaded. Only if your last save was from too far back, the amount of repetition would me much more.
Well, so two things. My point was mostly that I think Sierra-style deaths have perhaps been overcriticized because there are lots of puzzles designed around trial and error, and having the "error" loop be "die and reload" rather than "have to painstakingly walk across multiple screens" is not really any worse. The second thing I'd say is that death animations are often quite funny / clever (consider The Immortal as a non-adventure-game example), so there actually may be points where die/reload is more fun than ~die/grind. (An example of the ~die puzzle annoyance could be the trap door in MI2 or the catapult in MI1.)

Anyway, to be clear, I think MI1 is a very good game, just not as good as MI2.
 

Falksi

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Taxalot, that's like saying "moving your hand around a vagina to find a clit, and thus rubbing it until said woman comes is hard work and not fun".
Practically and technically you're right. But if you're actually a human being, who can detach from logic and mathematical POVs, you can indulge and embrace the raw, emotional nature of what's there to enjoy.
 

V_K

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The second thing I'd say is that death animations are often quite funny / clever (consider The Immortal as a non-adventure-game example), so there actually may be points where die/reload is more fun than ~die/grind.
Why not just die/undo last action then? I think Stasis/Cayne do that, and it doesn't even take away from the horror element.
 

taxalot

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Taxalot, that's like saying "moving your hand around a vagina to find a clit, and thus rubbing it until said woman comes is hard work and not fun".
Practically and technically you're right. But if you're actually a human being, who can detach from logic and mathematical POVs, you can indulge and embrace the raw, emotional nature of what's there to enjoy.

I don't go around trying to combine all the shit in my inventory with a woman's vagina.
Are you saying that I should ?
 

Falksi

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definitely! look behind you, a three pronged monkey wrench.
 

Boleskine

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catfood

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Swampy_Merkin

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I have had secret monkey thoughts in my life.
 
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