Issue 2.6: Travels With Murray, Part 3
A Narrative Analysis of Guybrush Threepwood’s “Hero’s Journey”
Table of Contents (Vol. 2, Issue 6: Sunday, Mar. 13, 2022)
Summary & Housekeeping
Feature: “Travels With Murray, Part 3” (~27 minute read)
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
Game & Word-of-Mouth
Summary: Today, we’ll wrap up our journey to Monkey Island by taking our magnifying glass to a few pivotal scenes in The Curse of Monkey Island’s plot, continuing our analysis of the game’s deconstructive methods, and linking the scenes to the timeless Hero’s Journey.
Updates & Errata: This article originally claimed—quite reasonably—that Disney appeared to have no plans whatsoever for the Monkey Island IP (Intellectual Property). However, since publication, a brand-new Monkey Island sequel was announced, under the Lucasfilm banner.
Hey, I don’t have a crystal ball, and sometimes my analysis turns out to be wrong. And this is the first time in years that I’ve been this happy to be this wrong about something.
Housekeeping: Substack has a new reader app, and it’s free! I’ve been using it over the past week, and it’s a much better and easier way to read my newsletter. It’s more responsive, multimedia is better integrated, and it frees up my inbox.
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Feature: Travels With Murray, Part 3
🚨🚨🚨SPOILER ALERT!!! 🚨🚨🚨
This post contains MAJOR visual and story spoilers for The Curse of Monkey Island, and a big story spoiler for Thimbleweed Park. You've been warned!
Ahoy, me hearties!
Last week, we met some of Monkey Island’s awesomely wacky characters. Today, we’re going to follow one of them on his journey. The Hero’s Journey, that is!
The Monkey With a Thousand Faces
If you’re at all familiar with Joseph Campbell, you know about The Hero’s Journey, which Campbell mapped out in his seminal work: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
And if you don’t know… actually, you do know, because it’s the granddaddy of story structures. Also known as the Monomyth, almost all (or, at the very least, most) stories bear this structure to some degree. Not just Western stories, either—it has been found in stories from cultures across the globe (completely independent of each other), in every medium, across centuries and millennia.
And despite the name, the Monomyth doesn’t just apply to mythology! Whether in campfire ghost tales, fables, folklore, movies, novels, video games, poetry, TV, or even advertising, the Hero’s Journey can be found practically anywhere a story is being told.
Conversely, the Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure so deeply embedded in our psyches that writers and aspiring writers often use it subconsciously, not even realizing they’re using such an ancient story device!
But beware—if you do learn about the Hero’s Journey (as you’re about to), you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Most likely, it’ll deepen your appreciation of your favorite stories (especially if you’re the analytical/tinkering type of person). But it might instead spoil your enjoyment of them. The latter is highly unlikely, but still possible. Hence the warning.
The Hero’s Journey at a Glance
The Hero’s Journey consists of 17 sequential stages (meaning, they happen in order), which we can more broadly group into three sections (or “acts,” if you prefer): Departure, Initiation, and Return.
The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
The Crossing of the First Threshold
Belly of the Whale
The Road of Trials
The Meeting with the Goddess
Woman as the Temptress
Atonement with the Father
The Ultimate Boon
Refusal of the Return
The Magic Flight
Rescue from Without
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Master of the Two Worlds
Freedom to Live
Don’t worry if all of that reads like Greek (or worse, jargony academic gibberish) to you. All you need to know is that it maps out the different stages of the protagonist’s growth and character development as she embarks on, carries out, and returns from her journey (aka, “the plot”).
Now, keep in mind that a story doesn’t have to include every one of these steps to count as a Hero’s Journey. Plenty of stories don’t. They will, however, include plenty—if not most—of them. Or at the very least, the “biggies.” As long as the story follows the three-act structure of Departure → Initiation → Return, then it at least nominally follows the Hero’s Journey.
Guybrush’s Hero’s Journey
Guybrush aspires to be a hero. So naturally, he also goes through his own Hero’s Journey in each Monkey Island game. Sometimes, he actually does become heroic!
I’m not going to go through Curse’s entire plot, cross-referencing it to the Monomyth. I wouldn’t have the patience to write it. If you’ve played the game, I wouldn’t be telling you anything new. And if you haven’t, I’d be spoiling the entire story for you—and this is a game you really should play for yourself at some point.
So instead, I’d like to examine a few moments that best illustrate the overarching Hero’s Journey structure of Departure → Initiation → Return, while also highlighting some of the clever humor, Easter eggs, wider narrative themes, and deconstructive devices weaved into these scenes. So… shall we begin?
AKA “The Part where the Hero Leaves Home,” this act encompasses the story’s beginning (obviously). We’re introduced to the setting, meet the main cast (and at least some of the supporting cast), and witness the setup for the conflict between the hero and villain.
The Call to Adventure
In The Hero’s Journey, the “Call to Adventure” is whatever sets the Hero off on her epic journey, and it’s often (but not always) the story’s very first scene.1 This can take the more literal form of a deity, authority figure, or distressed love interest beckoning the Hero to begin her adventure. But it can just as often be a more figurative “call.” Here’s a wide range of examples from popular media:
The villain kidnaps someone important to the Hero—usually a child, sibling, or significant other. [Examples: Taken, Laberynth, Super Mario Bros.]
The villain or his agents destroy the Hero’s home, town, country, or planet, sometimes even murdering her family in the process, for bonus pathos. [Examples: Star Wars: A New Hope, Babylon 5, every other Final Fantasy game]
The Hero hears whispers of a hidden treasure, heist opportunity, or some other once-in-a-lifetime score that can earn her a life-changing amount of wealth, and starts hatching a plan to capitalize on it. [Examples: Treasure Island, Ocean’s Eleven, Rat Race]
Recent and unexplained paranormal phenomena compel the Hero to investigate… and then, things get weird. [Examples: Stranger Things, E.T., MOTHER]
As part of her job (or to fulfill a loved one’s dying wish), The Hero carries out some seemingly mundane task that turns out to be anything but. [Examples: Knives Out, Kentucky Route Zero, literally every detective story, ever]
The Hero finds a mysterious pendant, computer chip, microfilm, cash-filled briefcase, orphaned child, or another such plot token that lands her in the crosshairs of the vastly more powerful and sinister forces trying to retrieve it. [Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Book of Eli, Dumb & Dumber]
In Curse’s case, Guybrush’s call to adventure comes from the titular curse: after unknowingly proposing to Elaine with a cursed ring, Elaine turns into a solid gold statue. Amusingly, the curse kicks in right as she’s about to punch Guybrush, freezing her in an expression of pure, unadulterated rage that’s just… so Elaine. It’s perfect.
This means that unless Guybrush wants to spend the rest of his life married to a heavy, p***ed-off statue that always looks ready to clock him, our plucky protagonist had better get crackin’ on lifting that curse. At this point, Guybrush has heeded the call to adventure, and his quest begins.
“Supernatural” Aid: “El Pollo Diablo”
Guybrush’s quest to lift Elaine’s curse starts on Plunder Island, part of the "Tri-Island Area" consisting of Melee, Booty, and Plunder Islands. You can tell the game’s writers enjoy thematic naming.
Besides serving as Guybrush’s departure point, Plunder Island is a treasure trove of puns, send-ups, and references to pirates and pop culture in general. For starters, the name is obviously very piratey. After all, a pirate that doesn't plunder can hardly be called a pirate! The island—fittingly, for a tropical isle—is mostly jungle, beaches, and coves, with a Spanish-style colonial fort and an equally colonial-style port town: Puerto Pollo.2
This is where Guybrush gains help from a “supernatural aid” to help cross the threshold from the “known” world he knows (Plunder Island), and the “unknown” world his Journey will take him to. Again, this can mean literal supernatural aid—Greek mythology provides numerous examples of this—but in Curse’s case, it’s a bit more subtle than that.
Guybrush’s “supernatural aid” could refer to his conversation with the Voodoo Lady, who actually does have supernatural powers—most prominently, clairvoyance—and whose advice is aimed at (and is as useful for) the player as much as for Guybrush. But her advice alone isn’t enough to cross the threshold. Besides, such an interpretation treads uncomfortably deep into highly problematic territory.
No, the “supernatural aid,” in my view, is purely metaphorical. I’ll explain.
Like every name in Monkey Island, “Puerto Pollo” is imbued with deeper meaning than just a surface-level throwaway gag. True to the port town’s name, feral chickens cluck, peck, and roost throughout the port and island.
Chickens are so central, ubiquitous, and important to this place that local folklore’s boogeyman is actually a giant chicken. El Pollo Diablo (literally, “The Devil Chicken” in Spanish) is an enormous and extremely ornery3 avian beast who roams the island seeking revenge on poultry eaters.4
The colorful Captain Blondebeard, despite this rumor, runs a fried chicken restaurant on the island. And someone (or something) keeps setting his chickens loose. Hmmm.
Our Hero’s “supernatural aid” manifests in a highly amusing segment where Guybrush impersonates El Pollo Diablo to hijack a ship. To set up the sequence, I must first fill you in on some background information.
In order to lift the Curse, Guybrush must find another ring of greater value than the cursed one. There’s rumored to be one on another island, which means that in order to embark on his quest, Guybrush needs to find a map, recruit a crew, and commandeer a ship—the only ship on the island, conveniently enough.
You can row up to the vessel (amusingly named “The Sea Cucumber”) and sneak on board, but the ship's pirates will simply make Guybrush walk the plank.
Unknownst to the pirates, Guybrush simply jumps into the dingy he rowed to the ship, so he’s perfectly safe. The first mate suspects as much, and points out that he didn't hear a splash. But after Guybrush shouts "SPLASH," the pirates are sufficiently convinced to drop the matter.
This plays out exactly the same way, no matter how many times you board the ship—unless you think of sawing off the plank beforehand. The pirates, now deprived of their preferred instrument of punishment, fall back on tarring and feathering Guybrush. After a few seconds of silence, Guybrush—completely covered in feathers, save for his now-googly eyes—asks the pirates what happens next:
Guybrush: So… what do I do now?
Pirate: Uh… hmm. I don't know, we've never done this before. Aren't you humiliated?
Guybrush: I guess so. But no more than usual.
Pirate: Oh. Well, in that case... just get lost, then.
Guybrush then wanders the island disguised as a “supernatural” chicken. This is the “aid” that eventually—through a ridiculously convoluted, Rube Goldberg-esque series of puzzles and events that must truly be seen to be believed—helps him take command of the ship.
Despite how obviously Guybrush isn't a giant devil chicken, he fools almost everyone on the island. The Barbery Pirates call for pitchforks before Guybrush wisely skedaddles. Murray rejoices at the sight of another EVIL monster. Blondebeard knocks Guybrush over the head with a frying pan. Only Kenny—the swindling young entrepreneur we discussed last week—sees through the "disguise." He finds it just as amusing as we do.
As mentioned, the disguise sets Guybrush up to eventually get the ship’s crew to abandon it, leaving it wide open for Guybrush and his crew to take charge. The details are… complicated, and not terribly important for this article. If you really want to know, you’ll just have to experience the game for yourself. Otherwise, just know that Guybrush’s improvised chicken costume helps him get started on his quest.
This entire sequence works so well because it combines the series' trademark deconstructive panache with a longtime comedy staple: the chicken.
Chickens are inherently funny creatures. They make funny noises. They frantically flap around when spooked (and they are very easily spooked), as if they’re trying to fly away but forgot that they can’t. They’re so easily frightened, in fact, that they’ve become synonymous with cowardice. They peck their food off the ground in an inexplicably amusing manner. They’re the T-Rex's direct descendants, which is funny on multiple levels.5 Even the very word "chicken" is funny. If you want to make someone laugh, you can't go wrong with chickens.
Indeed, chickens and humor are as iconic a duo as peanut butter and lettuce.6 Think of rubber chickens, the chicken dance, or the chicken that crossed the road. And that's just the crest of the comedic rooster.
So, what do you do if you want to deconstruct the universal human reaction of assigning monstrous qualities to strange things that go "bump" in the night? Make the monster something you couldn't possibly be scared of.
Ghostbusters’ fearsome world-destroying demon took the form of a giant marshmallow man. Monty Python and the Holy Grail made a deadly beast out of a cute little bunny rabbit. And Monkey Island gave us an island community terrified of a monster... that happened to be a giant chicken. Perfect.
In making the legendary monster a devil chicken, Curse does comedic double-duty by also making light of a normally harrowing and humiliating punishment: tarring and feathering. I should note, however, that this wasn't historical pirates' preferred punishment, as they wouldn't want to waste tar they could use to maintain and fix their ship's hull. Notably, the tarring-and-feathering pirate actually points this out, explaining his preference for another mythical pirate punishment: walking the plank. Thus, Monkey Island deconstructs two pirate tropes with one gag. Clever!
Oh, and the tarring-and-feathering comes back to bite Guybrush later. After the Cucumber wrecks during a storm a couple of chapters later, Haggis notes that they can't repair the hull because the previous crew had left no tar on board. He wonders how any self-respecting pirate crew could be so reckless as to sail without stocking up on tar, not knowing what really happened to said tar. This is a great example of the narrative device known as "Chekhov's Tar."
Crossing the First Threshold: “Insult Swordfighting”
The Hero’s first big milestone in his quest is “crossing the threshold” from the known world to the unknown world. The threshold needn’t be a physical one, though it often is. And on first glance, the threshold in Curse appears to be leaving Plunder Island after commandeering the Cucumber.
However, I disagree, for two reasons. First, because Guybrush doesn’t get very far before needing to return to Plunder Island—and in the Hero’s Journey, crossing the threshold is permanent. The Hero does not return to her known world until after the quest is over.
Second, at this point, Guybrush hasn’t yet proved himself “worthy” or “ready” to cross the threshold. This is where a certain snobby pirate called Captain Rene Rottingham comes in.
When we first meet Captain Rottingham, he’s being attended to by the Barbery Coast pirates on Plunder Island. Rottingham is, in a nutshell, an over-the-top French stereotype, dialed up to 100. Snooty, arrogant, very thick-accented, finely dressed, mustachioed, and extremely vain, his hair even resembles a King Louis-style powdered wig… but as it turns out, it's real.
We find out because Rottingham makes the unfortunate mistake of sitting in between Guybrush and the solution to a puzzle. So naturally, he has to go. Specifically, Guybrush needs Rottingham to vacate the barber’s chair so Guybrush can get a trim. But given Rottingham’s vanity and astoundedly high-maintenance hairdo, Guybrush would’ve had to wait for a veeeeery long time.
So instead, Guybrush fools Haggis into thinking Rottingham's meticulously-maintained hair has lice in it. Upon discovering the planted lice, it’s DEFCON 1 at the Barbery Pirates’ salon. Haggis brandishes a cutlass and lops all of Rottingham's hair off with one fell swoop, rendering him completely bald, before tossing him out of the barbershop. Boom, Guybrush is now a step closer to the puzzle's solution.
But Rottingham didn’t just lose his hair because of Guybrush—he also overheard Guybrush telling The Barbery Coast Pirates about his quest to "save" Elaine (which involved finding some valuable treasure along the way). Figuring he'd take the treasure before Guybrush and exact vengeance on him at the same time, he boarded Guybrush's ship and stole his treasure map.
Rottingham is a great example of what Campbell calls a Threshold Guardian. Since the Hero must prove herself “worthy” or “ready” to do cross the Threshold, the Threshold Guardian thus acts as a gatekeeper of sorts, “testing” the Hero so she can prove her readiness.
It’s also important to note that a story can contain multiple thresholds, each with its own Guardian. The threshold between the known and unknown worlds is usually the biggie, however—mainly because it marks the boundary between the story’s opening and middle acts.
Anyway, just like the thresholds they guard, Threshold Guardians can be literal Guardians—like police or military guards blocking the gate/road/pass out of town—but they can just as often be metaphorical. A Hero’s crippling fear of the outside world, for instance, can act as a Threshold Guardian.
In Curse, the Threshold Guardian takes the form of a bald French stereotype with a huge axe to grind against our Hero. The entire chapter consists of Guybrush working to overcome this Guardian, allowing him to prove himself as a pirate and finally cross the Threshold.
In order to get the map back, Guybrush must best Rottingham in the Monkey Island series' most famous gameplay device: insult swordfighting.
Insult swordfighting—the Monkey Island universe’s most popular measure of a pirate’s “pirate-ness”—made its first appearance in Secret. It has a fairly straightforward premise: in this world, simply beating your opponent in combat doesn’t suffice. You also need to deliver the best insults. It's not the strangest thing in the series, by any means. But it's also not as odd as it first sounds.
Narratively, it makes sense because the insults are timed to throw your opponent off guard. And in terms of gameplay, it cleverly adds a puzzle element to combat sequences, which usually translate very awkwardly (at best) to adventure games.
The most famous insult from Secret has become one of the series’ most iconic lines:
“You fight like a cow!”
Curse adds a twist to the venerable art of insult swordfighting: at sea, you can’t just lob any old insult at your opponent. Your insults and retorts have to rhyme. For example:
Insult: Every enemy I’ve met, I’ve annihilated!
Retort: With your breath, I’m sure they all suffocated!
Captain Rottingham is undefeated at insult swordfighting because his insults are too obtuse (too French, perhaps) for his opponents to come up with a good comeback. But Guybrush, slowly but surely, practices on other nearby pirates, increasing his proficiency and expanding his repertoire of rhymed insults enough to beat Rottingham and reclaim the treasure map.
Oh, and the Barbery Coast Pirates? They mostly get distracted by passing whales and break out into song instead of helping out. Words will not suffice here; you need to hear their ridiculously catchy and cleverly-rhymed tune for yourself:
This chapter is pure, unadulterated Monkey Island. It skewers the pirate swordfighting duels that have helped define the genre since Errol Flynn’s heyday. It also plays them completely straight: Guybrush and Rottingham are deadly serious about this peculiar style of combat, and not even once do they call the premise into question—throw in Peter McConnell's rousing, catchy, and piratey score, and you'll get quite invested in it, too.
The writers' wit and creativity are also in full force, and their love of wordplay—a love so intense they built an entire chapter around it—is evident to even the most oblivious player. But the chapter also pokes fun at the wordplay itself: the only way to get the Barbery Coast Pirates to stop singing is to come up with a line that can't be rhymed.7
Hell, this whole sequence should be called The Spirit of Monkey Island. How's that for a sequel name?
AKA “The Part where the Hero Is Actually on the Quest.” The middle leg of the Hero’s Journey takes place after crossing the first threshold, but before getting near her objective. This is where the Hero is challenged, tempted, tricked, hampered, set back, or otherwise discouraged from completing her quest. Overcoming these challenges leads to growth and character development for the Hero, until she’s ready to face the villain and complete her quest.
Naturally, since this is an old-school graphic adventure game, these challenges take the place of insanely illogical and hair-pullingly dense puzzles.
The Road of Trials/Challenges and Temptations: “I’m Dead, Now What?”
Guybrush’s road of challenges takes place on Blood Island, which—unusually for this series—is a peaceful and reasonably pleasant place for having such an ominous name. Its main claim to fame is the giant volcano that the local "cannibal"8 tribe worships, and which once served as the island's main tourist draw before it suddenly stopped erupting.
Echoes of the island's touristy past reverb throughout the island, primarily through the hotel owned by the wealthy Goodsoup family. Naturally, this is a roaring font of puns: Minnie Strone Goodsoup and Won-Ton Goodsoup, for starters.
The Goodsoup family also owns a giant crypt in the cemetery—the island's other main "attraction." The cemetery is also where Murray helps Guybrush solve a puzzle, and where Stan sets up his life insurance business.9
There's also a neighboring "Skull Island”—which is actually shaped like a duck—where Guybrush swindles a smuggling kingpin out of a diamond he needs to break the curse.
I've seen fan forums and wikis call this chapter "dark" because it's set at night and deals extensively with death—Guybrush has to fake his death at least twice to advance the story—but I'm not convinced. As I mentioned, Blood Island is a pretty chill place. And even the "dark" elements like death, ghosts, and cursed ferrymen are played almost entirely for laughs.
For example, one puzzle involves spiking an alcoholic beverage with a hangover remedy. Guybrush does this to fake his death, be buried in the crypt, and retrieve part of the ring needed to break the curse on Elaine. But before he downs the concoction, he turns to face the player and delivers this admonition:
Guybrush: It just occurred to me that mixing medicine and alcohol is a really stupid and possibly lethal thing to do. If I were a real person instead of a loveably inept cartoon character with the potential for a few more sequels, I wouldn't even consider it!
He then turns back to the bar, and picks up the spiked drink. Bottoms up!
Again, classic Monkey Island. This is a prime example of another device the series revels in: breaking the fourth wall.
"The fourth wall" is the idea, foundational to storytelling, that the characters should never indicate that they're in a story. The term comes from the way stage actors maintain this illusion: by pretending that the side of the stage facing the audience is a wall, visible only to the actors, but which the audience can see through. Thus, adding a fourth, imaginary "wall" to the three real walls surrounding the stage.
One of the most critical rules in storytelling is to never break the fourth wall—continuing the stage example, this means never breaking character, looking at the audience, or speaking to them as if the “fourth wall” weren’t there.10
Maintaining the fourth wall is important for keeping the audience invested in the story.
Suppose anything indicates that the characters are aware they're playing a role in a work of fiction. This will immediately shatter the audience's suspension of disbelief, drastically lower the stakes of the story’s conflict(s), and result in the audience disengaging from the story altogether.
Audiences engage with stories so they can escape into another world and put themselves in someone else's shoes. Therefore, breaking the fourth wall defeats the whole purpose of telling a story.
However, there are exceptions. For instance, if the point itself is to smash the audience's disbelief. In that case, maintaining the fourth wall becomes entirely optional, and may well impede the writer’s narrative goals. It should come as no surprise, then, that breaking the fourth wall is a favorite tactic of parodists worldwide.
Creators can toy with the fourth wall in many ways, some subtler than others. A character can lean on the fourth wall, which is when they subtly hint at their awareness of the audience's existence without explicitly stating it. If you've ever seen a movie where the character looks at the camera after delivering a line, then slyly winks or smirks before turning back towards the scene, that character just leaned on the fourth wall.
Characters can also break the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience as the audience (but while still in character), or by displaying suspiciously specific knowledge and awareness of a genre's tropes and conventions. The former is one of Deadpool's favorite shticks. The latter can take many forms; for example, a character in a horror movie who warns his friends not to split up, “because people who split up always die in these movies."
The author, director, or characters can also completely dismantle the fourth wall by outright stating or revealing that the whole story was, in fact, a story all along. The endings of Blazing Saddles and Austin Powers: Goldmember, among others, come to mind.
Monkey Island makes use of all these devices. After all, breaking the fourth wall is an easy and helpful way to establish a character's “genre savviness” and mark him as fully aware of the genre being deconstructed. Guybrush addressing the audience about the dangers of mixing alcohol and medicine serves precisely these purposes.11
Guybrush and LeChuck toy with the fourth wall even further during the game's final chapters. Let's examine them!
The Abyss: “Carnival of the (Fourth Wall Be) Damned”
At some point, Guybrush "saves" Elaine from the curse. Unfortunately for them, almost immediately after the curse is lifted, Guybrush and Elaine are both captured by LeChuck’s minions.12 The ghost pirate then brings them to “Big Whoop,” LeChuck’s nefarious "Carnival of the Damned," on the eponymous Monkey Island.
Besides providing one last glorious interaction with Murray, this chapter represents the story’s climax—the point in the Journey in which the stakes and tension are highest—and shows just how deep the characters' awareness of the fourth wall goes. It also plays up the vendetta between Guybrush and LeChuck by letting the two personalities bounce off each other. Let’s examine this aspect first.
At this point in the story—the “abyss,” or the Hero’s lowest point—LeChuck has locked Guybrush in a booby-trapped gondola car. LeChuck intends to torture and then kill the plucky would-be pirate, but only after the nefarious pirate demon’s done talking:
Guybrush: How did you find Big Whoop?
LeChuck: That be a long story. Are ye sure ye want to hear it?
Guybrush: Does the torture start after we're done talking here?
Guybrush: Go on, then.
Naturally, Guybrush drags this out as long as possible by interjecting, stalling, and encouraging LeChuck to elaborate on trivial and insignificant details, much to the latter’s annoyance:
Guybrush: This whole amusement park... why? LeChuck: The Big Whoop Carnival was me most brilliant idea! Once I had the power of Big Whoop at my command, I could make Elaine mine at last!
Guybrush: I see. But again, why an amusement park?
LeChuck: I'll be gettin' to that. I knew Elaine would need a little coaxing, and that I'd be needing an army. A horrible army of the undead!
Guybrush: Okay, but why an amusement park?
LeChuck: Are ye goin' ta let me finish?! I'm not talking just to hear myself talk, you know!
Guybrush: You're right, I've been rude. Please go on.
Guybrush can also try to reason with the demonic ghost pirate to spare his life. Remember how I talked last week about Guybrush and LeChuck settling into their respective narrative roles? This conversation, more than anything, proves that Guybrush (as well as, most likely, LeChuck) is aware of the bigger picture: that they're all just characters in a video game.13
Guybrush: Pretty please, don’t kill me.
LeChuck: Why shouldn’t I?
Guybrush: If you kill me, there'll be no more Monkey Island sequels. No sequels means no work for you. You'll become just another has-been that nobody's heard of.
LeChuck: Ohhh, that could never happen to ME! I'm LeChuck!
Guybrush: Do you know the name "Bobbin Threadbare"?
LeChuck: Uh… no.
It doesn’t work. In any case, Guybrush eventually decides he's heard enough of LeChuck’s rambling and plugs his ears, shouting "LA LA LA LA, I can't hear you!", much like a petulant schoolchild would. Annoyed at this, LeChuck curses Guybrush to look the part as well, shrinking him to a child’s size before taking Elaine and buzzing off somewhere.
Now, let’s loop back to the Hero’s Journey. As I’ve alluded to, Guybrush being trapped in a child’s body, stuck in a demonic amusement park, unable to face LeChuck or save Elaine, represents his Abyss. The Abyss is the Hero’s lowest point, which he must overcome (and in doing so, become “reborn”); if successful, he’ll be stronger than ever, and finally ready to complete his quest.
In Guybrush’s case, he climbs out of the abyss by lifting LeChuck's curse off of him, which grows him back to normal size and finally frees him to give chase.
Before we move on, I want to look back at LeChuck’s curse, and repeat a question I made last week: why did LeChuck merely curse Guybrush instead of killing him outright, which he’d first set out to do?
It could've been because Guybrush ingeniously manipulated LeChuck, provoking him into merely cursing him instead of outright killing him. But considering Guybrush’s not the sharpest cutlass in the armory, I think it's just as likely, if not more, that LeChuck knew, deep down inside, that Guybrush was right: no more Guybrush means no more sequels, and thus no more work and a life of obscurity for LeChuck.
AKA “The Part where the Hero Returns Home.” Her quest complete, the Hero returns to her known world, stronger/wiser/better off than she was at the beginning. In older epics and myths, the return voyage constituted a whole act in and of itself. In more modern stories, the return voyage tends to be highly truncated, as audiences tend to lose interest and disengage fairly quickly once the climax is resolved.
Apotheosis, Crossing the Return Threshold: “Epilogue”
The game ends rather quickly—after one last “final boss” puzzle, Guybrush escapes while LeChuck is buried under a mountain of ice. The quest is finally over. In the Hero’s Journey, this moment is the Hero’s apotheosis (which roughly means “pinnacle”).
The game moves on to the return—which in modern fiction, usually consists of only the denouement, and is therefore very quick (The Return of the King notwithstanding). Curse is no exception. Guybrush is shown “crossing the return threshold,” newly married to Elaine, and sailing off into the sunset while the supporting cast waves the happy couple on. The End.14
I could go on for much longer, but cataloging just this one game's story devices, jokes, and references—never mind the entire series—is an impossible task. Both for me as a writer and you as a reader. So I hope the preceding examples sufficiently conveyed my message. But if they didn’t, and you want more Guybrush, you can always purchase Curse on Steam and GOG and discover its rich tapestry of storytelling and humor for yourself.
In The End
I've really only just scratched the surface of Curse's several deconstructive devices, outside references, witticisms, and fourth-wall-breaking antics. Breaking the fourth wall, in particular, is so prevalent in the game for the same reason it's so common in parodies, writ large. To successfully parody something, you can't take it seriously.
And what better way to get the audience to not take a story seriously than have the characters not take it seriously? All that stuff I said earlier about immersion breaking? It only applies if the audience is meant to suspend disbelief and take the story seriously. By having the characters reveal it's all make-believe, the audience can lower its guard and use their disbelief to join the characters in deconstructing and spoofing a work or genre.
It's an invitation to not take the story—and, by extension, life—too seriously.
Why do Bond villains always set up ludicrously elaborate traps that Bond can escape from, instead of just shooting him right off the bat?
Why does Mario fight Bowser in some games but play tennis or race go-karts with him in others?
Why do the pirates in Curse tar and feather Guybrush, and make him walk the plank, when a real pirate would've just shot or marooned him instead?
Who knows? And, ultimately, who cares?! Sure, it's absurd, but ultimately, what isn’t? So we should either laugh at it all, or repeat to ourselves the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra:
"It's just a show; I should really just relax."
After The End
Remember how we talked about the difficulty of deconstructing and reconstructing genres? As we've seen, Monkey Island successfully pulled off both. So how did that bode for video games about pirates, or the pirate genre more broadly?
In the grand scheme of things: probably not that much, one way or another.
Yes, the game is fondly remembered, and rightfully so. But it didn't usher in a new "Golden Age of Pirate Video Games." While games commonly have pirate segments, an entire game based on pirates remains a rarity. The standard-bearers remain much the same as they always have: Sid Meier's Pirates! and Monkey Island, which date back to the 80s and 90s, respectively. Sea of Thieves has become a viable contender for the title, but that game is a recent phenomenon, as it was released in 2018. Its staying power remains to be seen.
Furthermore, adventure games appear dead in the water… again. People first stopped playing them in the early '00s, shortly after Curse dropped. This was a transition army period for video games, as players abandoned creative, witty, and expertly-crafted adventure games like Grim Fandango in favor of gritty, first-person shooter (FPS) power fantasies.
Telltale Games briefly led a renaissance of adventure/story-driven games in the late '00s and early '10s. But when the studio suddenly and ignominiously shuttered in 2018, it took the newly re-ascendant adventure genre down with it.
And to add insult to injury, Disney now owns Monkey Island's rights and hasn't given the slightest indication of intending to do anything with the franchise. The adventure genre's general prospects are grim enough, but Monkey Island's future, in particular, looks even bleaker. [UPDATE: This is no longer the case! Since publication, a newly-resurrected Lucasfilm Games announced a sixth entry, Return to Monkey Island, which brings back Gilbert and most of the original dream team!]
And yet, to say the franchise had no influence at all would be a mistake. The legacy of Monkey Island remains with us in subtler ways.
For one, the postmodernist wave that smashed into movies, comics, and TV in the 90s and 00s has finally hit video games. Self-aware and "meta" humor is very much in vogue these days. The adventure genre—of which Monkey Island is still a high-water mark—pioneered this approach to games' writing, stories, and humor decades before it became trendy.
Today's narrative-focused games also owe an incalculable debt to Monkey Island. At long last, video games are starting to be taken seriously as an artistic and storytelling medium. LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island demonstrated this potential back when people considered games little more than bleepy, blocky, shooty toys.15
And the adventure genre did more than just highlight games' narrative potential; it imbued the medium with said potential! Adventure games—starting with the genre's aptly-named progenitor, Adventure—have always provided the blueprint for telling stories with games, in ways that only games can do, without needing to borrow from film or literature.
Finally, while this isn't as evident in gaming, the pirate genre writ large has been enjoying its own mini-renaissance. Starting with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, in 2003, pirates have crawled out of the "hokey" bucket and become "cool" again, thanks in large part to Johnny Depp's iconic performances as Captain Jack Sparrow.
But I think Monkey Island played a larger role in this revival than it's given credit for. Obviously, there's no way to prove this, but think about it.
Monkey Island reached its zenith in the 90s before going on hiatus between Escape (2000) and Tales (2009). PC games like Monkey Island had a much larger install base than console games, and adventure games were considered among "the thinking man's video games," seen as a cut above the blocky pew-pews that kids played with.
And remember who published Monkey Island: LucasArts. As in, George Lucas. At least some degree of cross-pollination with Hollywood must have happened within the series' lifespan.
And I haven't even touched on Jack Sparrow and Guybrush Threepwood's common ancestor: remember On Stranger Tides, the novel I briefly mentioned? It's been confirmed as a key influence for the Monkey Island games and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They're cut from the same cloth. And considering the relative niche-ness of the original novel, as well as the date it was first published (in the late 80s, long before geeky stuff became "cool"), I have a hard time believing this is coincidental.
Of course, this is all speculation. I am curious if I would see a few shared names in the credits of both Curse and Pearl, but I don't have nearly enough time for that analysis. If you’re bored or crazy enough to conduct this analysis, do let me know what you find.
But even if I'm way off the mark, one thing is indisputable. The games had a remarkable, lasting, and wonderful effect on at least one player: myself.
Monkey Island ignited my latent and dormant passions for pirates and adventure games. To this day, pirates remain amongst my favorite narrative and thematic genres. Likewise, adventure games have since been one of my favorite video game genres, and I sincerely hope the now-resurrected Telltale can lead the genre towards yet another revival.
But more than that, Monkey Island gave me plenty of laughs, an underdog protagonist that proved oh-so-relatable to the insecure teenager I was, and an admonition to not take everything too seriously. Life is absurd. There is humor in even the most mundane situations. It's ok to laugh with and at yourself and the things you love.
And even though life can feel like you're a disembodied, immobile skull with impossible aspirations of world domination, there is nothing wrong with—and there are few things more admirable than—going for those dreams anyway.
And that does it for our three-part series on Monkey Island. Thanks for sticking around! Join me again next week, where we’ll talk about the hidden economics of piracy, as seen in series like Port Royale and Tropico.
Food for Talk: Discussion Prompts
While you wait for the next issue, I invite you to mull over the following discussion prompts. Please reply to this email with your answers, or post them in the comments—I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Can you identify the different stages of the Hero’s Journey in your favorite novel, movie, TV show, or video game? Which story, and which stages?
The Hero’s Journey is most often used in a literal sense. But a “journey” could be more emotional, symbolic, or abstract. Can you think of any works that employed such an alternative interpretation of the Monomyth?
Can you think of any works where the characters toy with the fourth wall? Did that device enhance or reduce your enjoyment of that work?
Summarize your own, autobiographical Hero’s Journey.
What’s the best insult you can think of on the fly? Now, try and think of a comeback that rhymes with the original insult. Post your results.
Are we, in reality, just actors playing roles, as both Shakespeare and Elon Musk have asserted?
What’s your favorite work of pirate fiction? What do you like about it? Which pirate tropes does it make the most use of?
Armed with your newfound knowledge of deconstructive methods, which genre would you deconstruct next? How come?
If you want to immerse yourself in the world of pirate fiction and genre theory, there’s a veritable ocean of material to dive into.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell — Introduces and explains the Hero’s Journey, aka the Monomyth, that has provided the structure to countless myths, fables, and stories for as long as storytelling’s been a thing. Foundational reading for fiction writers and anyone who wants to learn about story structure.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson — The grandaddy of pirate fiction. Close your eyes and think of a pirate. 99 times out of 100, your mental image traces directly back to this novel. Essential reading, not just for pirate fans, but for everyone on the planet.
Peter Pan by James M. Barrie — You’ve seen the movies, now read the book that gave us Captain Hook and cemented many of the pirate tropes that Stevenson introduced almost a century earlier.
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers — The primary inspiration for both Monkey Islandand the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In providing said inspiration, this book added a whole new dimension (the supernatural) to a centuries-old genre.
General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson — Part history, part legend. The most thorough chronicle of the lives and deaths of the most infamous pirates, written fresh off the heels of the Golden Age itself. [NOTE: Despite what the link says, Daniel Defoe did NOT write this book. This notion has been thoroughly debunked]
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe — Defoe, on the other hand, did write this one. Created and popularized the “castaway” genre. One of the best-selling books of all time, second only to the Bible. Based on a true story.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge — Pretty much the ur-piece of modern nautical adventure tales. Popularized the “cursed seaman” and “albatross hanging around your neck” tropes. One of the most beautiful and accessible poems ever written. If you’ve ever wanted to get into poetry, this is a great entry point.
Deconstruction, Genre Deconstruction, and Reconstruction on TVtropes.org— WARNING: this site is a bottomless rabbit hole. The gravity created by its content will suck you in and never let you go, like a black hole. If you want to be even remotely productive this week, proceed with utmost caution.
Monkey Island — Funny adventure series about pirates.
Thimbleweed Park — Modern, retro-styled point-and-click adventure, brought to you by none other than Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. Published by Terrible Toybox — Steam | GOG | Nintendo Switch | PS4 | Xbox One | iOS | Android
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Screenwriters also call this the “inciting incident.”
“Chicken Harbor” in Spanish.
Perhaps it’s in a… fowl mood? Bahaha.
You could call it a… poultry-geist! …Ok, I’ll stop now.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen…
No, really! It’s delicious.
In this case, a line ending with "orange."
Since turned vegetarian.
This is actually a pretty clever idea. Think about it.
Technically, it isn’t, but let’s not get bogged down with semantics here.
It also conveniently doubles as a "don't try this at home" warning to shield LucasArts from litigation, just in case some players are actually dumb enough to follow Guybrush's example.
But not before Elaine lands the punch she was readying for Guybrush before she got statue-fied.
Gilbert would expand on this concept, and take it to its logical conclusion, almost 20 years later in Thimbleweed Park.
Though if you sit through the end credits, you’re treated to one last gag, using LeChuck’s burial in ice deep under his theme park to poke fun at a similar myth involving another famous theme park pioneer.
Well, more so than today, in any case.