Laughter is the Best Medicine

A Look at the Humor of The Secret of Monkey Island

It’s difficult to explain what makes good
comedy, as everybody has a different sense of humor. The definition becomes even more difficult
in relation to video games, as it is often underused or completely neglected by creators. A truly comedic game is a rare gem to come
by, but The Secret of Monkey Island is one of those games. This point-and-click adventure thrives on
charm and great wit to keep players engaged during their entire adventure. Put that on top of the fact that the game
came out way back in 1990, and you’ve got a cult classic that has withstood the test
of time and is still as charming to play today as it was almost 30 years ago. The Secret of Monkey Island was created by
three men in particular: Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, and Dave Grossman. They and a few others were all part of LucasArts,
George Lucas’ video game division, and they were tasked with creating point-and-click
adventures. Ron Gilbert in particular had some frustrations
with the genre that ended up shaping some key aspects of Monkey Island. Many point-and-clicks were filled with constant
character deaths, had puzzles with seemingly random solutions, were more serious in tone,
and generally took place in medieval fantasy settings with little variation. Therefore, The Secret of Monkey Island became
quite a different tale. Instead of serious, it was quirky and witty. Instead of medieval fantasy, it was inspired
by pirates, particularly Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. And their main character, Guybrush Threepwood,
could barely ever die, which allowed players to feel free with exploration and didn’t
punish them for trying something new. The creators said that the reason they thought
the first two Monkey Island games worked so well was because they were written and created
by such a small team, and the simplicity of the adventure allowed them to have a lot of
spontaneity in development. While modern games need to be more thought
out in advance due to the intricacy of elements such as coding and voice acting, the developers
of Monkey Island could put in a placeholder for dialogue or a puzzle until they came up
with the best idea. After that, it was only a few edits before
the game continued to flow again. This spontaneity and collaboration was the
spark this game needed. While it is certainly odd at times, it doesn’t
take the easy way out and just hope that the most random thing the developers could think
of would be automatically taken as hilarious. Instead, it turns tropes on its head. Guybrush is far from your typical hero. He has determination and heart, but he’s
not pirate material. He has no special talents except being able
to hold his breath for 10 minutes, a seemingly random fact that does come into play. He’s not the chosen one. He’s not ruthless. He’s actually a bit clueless at times and
gets taken advantage of frequently. When he sets out on a quest, all the typical
moments of his hero’s journey get thwarted. Yet he is completely endearing. And Governor Elaine Marley is not your typical
female love interest. She is fully capable of leading her people
and taking care of herself. This dynamic plays out in an interesting manner
as the game progresses, as it proves time and time again that things are not always
what they seem. The game also relies on wit. One of the most popular aspects of this game
is insult sword fighting, where a pirate will insult Guybrush, and Guybrush must return
the appropriate insult. The more he fights pirates, the more insults
he learns, and the more likely he is to win the duel. Examples include:
I got this scar on my face during a mighty struggle! “I hope now you’ve learned to stop picking
your nose.” And
My handkerchief will wipe up your blood! “So you got that job as janitor after all.” It becomes fun to bump into the next pirate
and see what new insult you’ll learn next. I’d take this over your typical rpg level
grinding anyday. General character banter is always fun to
listen to as well. It’s not crude nor too childish. It’s just fun. Maybe it’s not laugh out loud funny, but
you’ll have a smile on your face as you play, Aaaand then you quote it a ton afterwards
like it was your hundredth time watching The Princess Bride or something. (bye kids! Have fun storming the castle!) Also, since it is nearly impossible to die
in this game, it allows you to have fun and choose the more ridiculous lines of dialogue
without fear of bad repercussions. In this world, almost everything goes! Finally, the game plays with situational irony. My favorite case is when you discover a man
named Otis in his cell, and you ask him if he has a (nail file) so you can break in and
steal something. Otis responds that he wouldn’t be in his
cell if he did own one. Good point. In fact, all Otis has to his name is a piece
of carrot cake his Aunt Tillie made him, but he can’t stand carrot cake. He trades the cake for some gopher repellant
from Guybrush. Later, Guybrush discovers that inside the
cake was the (nail file) he was looking for. That means that Otis was rotting away in his
cell with the means to his escape THIS ENTIRE TIME. His aunt didn’t drop by to bring cake. She brought a way of escape. And his aversion to carrot cake prevented
him from getting out all this time. The first time I discovered this it killed
me. I could list so many more examples, but I
don’t want to spoil all the puzzles and characters for you! But it’s this kind cleverness and humor
and that makes this game so engaging. It’s a delicate balance, but this game always
manages to feel fresh and offer something new. It challenges your mind while putting a smile
on your face. And this magic is what made it so unique for
its time, and what has made this game endure to today when so many other point-and-click
games of its time have been forgotten. If you’ve never had the opportunity to play
the Secret of Monkey Island (and you happen to own a PC – sorry Mac users), you can
buy this game on Steam, as it regularly goes on sale for just a few bucks! And as Guybrush says, “Never pay more than
20 dollars for a computer game.” But seriously, I cannot recommend this game
enough. I had a smile on my face from beginning to
end, and am excited to return someday to Monkey Island. And hopefully you will too. But now, I want to hear from you. What’s the funniest game you’ve ever played? Also, Thank you to all my patrons on patreon. If you would like to partner with me on this
channel, the link to do so is in the description. This has been the Girl With the Controller,
and I hope you have a lovely day!

10 thoughts on “A Look at the Humor of The Secret of Monkey Island

  1. Humor as a counter to discouragement is a really interesting point that I didn't really consider. I always kinda felt the various deaths of games like King's Quest were part of the morbid humor of discovery, but Monkey Island being so much more flexible with Guybrush's inability to die in less than ten minutes is actually a really solid point. I was always somewhat frustrated with Monkey Island 2 for turning the joke logic up to 11 – "use crank in mountain and use monkey on crank to turn off waterfall" is just too far and esoteric a puzzle solution for me – but Monkey Island 1 really is a nice, well-balanced package.

    Of the point-and-click comedy genre, Sam & Max's run with Telltale is really damn good once they get their footing toward the end of Season 1, and whilst other parts of the game are hit-and-miss, parts show the absolute potential of having such a witty script. Of the old-school style, I feel that the Discworld point-and-clicks reign supreme with jokes, with Discworld Noir being a personal favorite – though being penned by Terry Pratchett probably makes those cheating.

    But it is interesting, the further away you get from point-and-clicks, the more cutscenes and character banter take the spotlight for humor compared to physical comedy and player interaction. Conker's comedy comes mainly from its cutscenes and then Conker's straight man character being abused by the cruel world he lives in, with some laughs being him fighting back against it. Mad World's comedy is probably the best translation, with commentary on the over-the-top bloodsport being controlled by what the player does, thus making it more enticing to do more things so you hear Greg Proops and Joe DiMaggio say more funny things. And then you have stuff like the Jackbox games or Game and Wario trying to get you to get others to laugh, letting comedy be a subjective medium rather than having the game objectively rate humor, which is probably the most versatile way of doing it but kinda feels like cheating.

    So uh… to answer the question… I'm gonna saaaay… the Phoenix Wright series make me laugh the most because of my investment in the characters, thus making their comedic bits even funnier.

  2. Was checking in on my YouTubers today, wondering if you'd uploaded anything and voila, there it is!

    Do you think Monkey Island would be a worth-while game to play? I feel like perhaps it's better to have experienced it at a younger age for it to hold true merit now, as I might feel that it hasn't aged well. That's all just speculation of course as I've barely engaged with it at all.

  3. I really like how you look at different aspects quite analytically, but at the same time you bring a lot of personality into your videos :') I really enjoyed this one! <3

    Edit: a game I had a lot of fun with is definitely Uncharted 4! I love the humour and wit and back-and-forth between the characters!

  4. I personally haven't played that many funny games, but there are some games that have made me laugh or chuckle. The last one was actually Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. I was so surprised that this one, which is way shorter and less packed than the other Uncharted games, became maybe my favourite one in the series! I absolutely loved Chloe and Nadine as a team, and the entire script and lines where genuinely funny to me.
    I also think that Bulletstorm is funny. Yes, it's silly and so over the top it might become a bit childish at some points, but I really like it. It's one of those games where I don't have to think and just enjoy myself while listening to some silly, but actually also funny and almost charming at times, macho jokes.

  5. A great look at one of my favourite games. I always really appreciate humour in games. Saints Row IV is one that I get a lot of laughs from.

  6. There's only one video game better than Monkey Island 1, and it is Monkey Island 2. When you finish the adventure, the game itself tells you: "Now turn off the computer and go to sleep" Brilliant.

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