Monkey Island 2, for about the fifth time

My dining table has four legs.

Now, you, you sad, hidebound slave to convention, might not think of that as particularly unusual, and to be honest I don’t either, but for a brief moment last week it had three legs because one of them fell off. While I was sitting at it. So, after what was frankly a superhuman feat of contortionism by yr. hmbl. crspndnt. stopping it from collapsing while holding my laptop in one hand and a jar of pens to boot, I frustratedly pushed it against a wall upside-down and resolved to buy a new one. This weekend I mentioned said shopping trip to Niamh, my daughter, who was already taking me out in order that I might have the privilege of buying her her first pair of ballet pointe shoes.

Can we not just put a screw in it?”, asked Darling Daughter, who is, I have to in fairness point out, even more ham-fisted with DIY than I am.

I demurred, but after a mild amount of badgering consented to try out this feat of construction on a par with the building of the Pyramids, and, lo, we managed it. My table hath once more four legs (Jeremiah, ch. 2 v. 11). And so, feeling somewhat like Cortez on his peak in Darien if Cortez had just got his Junior Screwdriver Usage badge, we set out, and returned a few hours later, having spent less money than I expected on shoes and still enjoying the traces of a superb Chinese lunch in Cosmo’s, Wolverhampton. All was well with the world. This is a strange and unusual feeling.

To reward ourselves for this hitherto unprecedented experience of shopping and DIY success, Niamh and I have been playing Monkey Island 2.

Now, I played MI2 (and the original Monkey Island) the first time around in the early nineties when they were released, of course. My ex and I went through a stage of playing adventure games in the late nineties, too — it was jolly good fun, and also a jolly cheap way to spend a weekend, back when there was no money — and I’ve gone through all the LucasArts games at one time or another. (I was never a Myst person; third-person LucasArts-style games for me, always — Loom, MI1 and 2, Toonstruck, Gabriel Knight.)

This weekend, Niamh and I were poking around the PlayStation Store, and there was Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: Special Edition, Trial Version, and I said to Niamh: here, see what you think of this. Played the trial (which is the first couple of scenes of Act 1), she liked it, I forked over eight quid, and we had the full version, and settled in to play.

I should note that this is about the fifth time that LucasArts have made me pay money for this game. I believe I deserve some kind of award, or perhaps a money-off voucher, or maybe at a push the chance to give Ron Gilbert a Chinese burn or something, not that I’d do that because I’d be too busy trying to work out which bit of him made him good at his job so I could cut it off and brew it into a serum I could inject into my living brain.

Anyway, we played. Lasted the whole of Saturday afternoon and the whole of Sunday, and we completed the game with half an hour to spare before we had to stop. And eight pounds is, frankly, pretty good value for that much entertainment, especially given a world where a cinema ticket costs nearly that much and at no point during our game did I stick to the floor or have to pay thirteen pounds for a bag of popcorn which is mostly air with butterscotch on it. So I don’t resent having to buy the game again. Well, not much.

Residual bitterness excised, Niamh went home and I settled down to think about the experience. Because… I didn’t like the game as much as I thought I would.

There is a standard complaint about LucasArts-style third-person graphical adventures. It is this: you need a fish. So you go to the fish shop, and the guy in the fish shop says, I’ll give you a fish if you retrieve my lost silver tankard from the bottom of the well. So you go to the well, and the bucket’s broken, and you talk to Liza who owns the bucket and she’ll fix it if you’ll get her a hammer and nails, but the woodsmith won’t give you the hammer until you get him a sandwich, and the sandwich shop only trades sandwiches for plastic Christmas ornaments, and you can’t get a plastic Christmas ornament until you’ve dressed up as a fairy, and the fairy costume has a hole in it, and you can’t patch the hole until the seamstress’s cat is down from the tree, and…

This is not my complaint. I do not mind this. Sure, it’s a bit exasperating at times, but I’m fine with it. No, my sources of disappointment are two-fold, and they are these: graphics, and arbitrariness. Thus, into subheadings:

Arbitrariness

Some people might see the whole fish-tankard-bucket palaver above as arbitrary, and it is. However, it’s clear what to do. The fish shop guy tells you: I need my silver tankard, and you know that you have to get a silver tankard. That’s arbitrary but it’s clear, and it’s sometimes amusing in a wry exasperating sort of way, rather like an annoying but cute nephew, or blog comments about Ubuntu. No, the arbitrariness is where the fish shop guy tells you that he can’t give you a fish because he’s unhappy, and it turns out that to make him happy you need to give him a painting of a comet, or a green amulet, or four plates of spaghetti carbonara. Perhaps there are people in the world who discover the weird obscure clue you’d need to recognise this, or perhaps I’m just not in tune enough with the Zen of the universe to correctly identify these things, but I do believe that I solve these problems the same way everyone else in an adventure game solves them: try giving everything in your inventory to the guy, and then roll your eyes at the cooked-up post-giving rationalisation as to why it worked.

What this means is, as notably observed by Zarf in a few other game reviews, that the game is barely interactive. There’s cleverness involved in discovering in the guy’s diary that he likes pink things, and therefore resolving to bring him something pink to make him happy, and settling on blancmange because it’s the only pink thing in the game. There is no cleverness involved in trekking around the map picking up everything that isn’t nailed down and then mechanically offering every item to every badly-worded repetitive NPC in the hope that one of them turns out to like the blancmange and so give you a typewriter. It’s pointless and irritating and it gets old very, very quickly.

Interestingly, I don’t remember being this annoyed with the arbitrary nature of the thing during the last eighteen times I played it. Maybe I got old very quickly. My oldness is also somewhat exposed by how I found myself thinking that Guybrush is a really mean dick during this. Even ignoring the whole “steal everything without compunction” nature of the game, because the convention is literally that you can take anything that you want, he spends his whole time tricking and breaking stuff that would have probably been fine were he to just ask. I mean, he needs a crypt key, so to get it he doesn’t ask Stan; he doesn’t even trick Stan out of the room and pinch it while his back’s turned (although he does that to about fifteen other people). No, our hero watches Stan climb into a coffin and then nails it shut with Stan inside it. Ron. Really. We need to talk.

That was made even more interesting by how Niamh didn’t want to do it, even after we looked at a walkthrough to work out how to keep Stan in there for a few seconds longer (we’d tried putting heavy stuff on the coffin temporarily), partially because it’s just bloody horrid and partially because Stan would obviously be apocalyptically cross with us about it. I found myself having to explain that, no, this sort of thing’s OK in games, while not believing a word of it. I felt like a murderer.

The really annoying arbitrary thing, though, is not the random stuff that you’d never think to do without the walkthrough (put the banana on the metronome so that it hypnotises a monkey (really, Ron?) so that the monkey stiffens up to the point where you can use him as a spanner (REALLY, Ron?)). It’s where it’s perfectly obvious what the puzzle is, it’s perfectly obvious how to solve it, and you’ve got twelve possible inventory items that could do the thing you want and only one of them works. A spade is not just a tool for digging and nothing else. If I come across a bag hanging from a tree that I can’t quite reach then fine, I’m OK with being able to slash the bag open with the broken bottle, but if I were there in the real world then I’d just lamp the bag with the spade until it fell down, and that’s just as reasonable a solution. This exposes the unthought, unimaginative, one-key-one-lock nature of the game’s puzzles more sharply than anything I can possibly imagine, and the worst thing about it is that it’s both fixable and unfixed. The whole banana-on-the-metronome thing is creative, at the least, and you can see why it worked afterwards even if not before, but there is nothing stopping the developers offering multiple solutions to a puzzle. If after I’ve solved a thing I find myself saying, sure, but I still don’t know why I couldn’t just hit the bag with the spade, then playtesting should bring that out and you should bloody well implement both, game devs. I’m not talking about major branches in the world tree here; simple solutions to simple one-room puzzles which would have no effect on the flow of the game and would therefore not peel back the lovely frontispiece to show the ugly grinding machinery beneath. Monkey Island gets a tiny, tiny pass on this as it’s possible that they wanted to implement both of these and didn’t because they couldn’t fit the “bag and spade” animation on the floppy disk that the original game came on. But only a tiny pass.

I’ve started to overuse italics, which is always a sign of encroaching annoyance, so instead of being angry I’ll be wistful and moan about the

Graphics

I didn’t like the graphics.

A bit of explanation is in order here. The game we played on the PlayStation is a “Special Edition”, where all the graphics have been redrawn to look nicer, and indeed they are nicer. Niamh inadvertently switched the game into original-graphics mode at one point and thought she’d broken it. But I think something ineffable has been lost. I really didn’t like the sequel games (Curse of Monkey Island, Escape from Monkey Island, the recent Tales of Monkey Island series), and a lot of that is down to (in a memorable phrasing) “a terrible fetid air of jokes run into the ground“, but it’s also that the graphics aren’t right. This isn’t an Uncanny Valley problem — the later games, at least some of them, are cartoons, not an attempt to model real people — it’s just that they’re not right, for reasons I find difficult to explain.

The best example of this is Stan. Stan, the distilled essence of all incredibly-annoying car salesmen in one overly-hatted being, has a jacket with a stationary pattern on it. Now, I don’t mean here that the pattern on it isn’t animated; I mean, it is stationary. Completely. It’s like his jacket is actually a jacket-shaped hole into a universe made entirely of plaid. Every time I see it it makes me laugh. (See the picture on the above-linked Wikipedia article if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.) The game developers recognised that this made me laugh (how decent of them!) and kept it for later games. But it’s just not funny in a game with better graphics. Stan himself, with his wildly waving arms, isn’t funny when he’s Gouraud-shaded and ray-traced and accurate and has more than 114 pixels to play with.

Some of you might be thinking, huh, what is he like? Graphics has moved on, man, stop pining for the EGA displays of your youth when men were men and you could only have two colours in a character box. This is an unfair accusation, and I refute it thus: I did not like the graphics in Day of the Tentacle either, and they were just as crap. There’s something about Monkey Island specifically, about the economy of line, about the sheer expressiveness that those designers of twenty years ago managed to get out of a character a hundred pixels tall, that is just lost never to return when you get 512MB of graphics memory to do it in. DOTT was and is a fine game, for sure, but there’s no character in it that made me laugh just to look at him like Stan did. Elaine is much less attractive now she’s fully-realised graphically, I think.

So, well, y’know, so what?

I’d still recommend it. If you haven’t played Monkey Islands 1 and 2, go get them. You can play them on damned nearly any computing device imaginable, thanks to the ScummVM people, and the game’s really cheap. Niamh loved it, even if I did have to explain why “I’m selling these fine leather jackets” is funny. I recommend the first two MI games to anyone who hasn’t played them.

Just don’t get the others. And remember to put the banana on the metronome.