In the first article in my LucasArts retrospective I’ve covered the early SCUMM engine-powered adventure games of LucasArts, prior to The Secret of Monkey Island; in the second, I covered the incredible run of adventures they put out from the first Monkey Island to Sam and Max Hit the Road. Over the time period covered from those articles, from 1987 to 1993, LucasArts put out at least one adventure game per year, occasionally two. It was a fine time to be an adventure fan.
For the last decade during which adventure game development took place at LucasArts, from 1994 to the cancellation of Sam and Max: Freelance Police in 2004, the release schedule would be much more sporadic – in fact, they’d cancel at least as many adventure game projects as actually came to fruition. In 1994 no adventures made it out.
Part of this was down to the canning of not one but two attempts to make sequels to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis which had been under development in 1994-1995; it had become apparent that the European market, including Germany, was a major driver of sales for LucasArts adventures, to the point where that market was essentially the reason adventures were being greenlit in the first place. This makes it awkward to base adventures around a franchise where the bad guys prominently wear swastikas because they are actual Nazis.
However, the gap was not just down to this. Two projects which released in 1995 were the product of unusually long development cycles. One of these was a technologically ambitious affair whose long development cycle was inevitable in light of what they were trying to achieve; the other was a game that had spent over half a decade in various stages of development hell…
Ben Throttle is the leader of the Polecats – an outlaw motorcycle gang cruising around a dilapidated American West in the not-too-distant future. The world’s moved on from folk like the Polecats; the regions of America they haunt seem to be rather tumbledown places, a post-apocalyptic world arising not from a flashy apocalypse of warfare or disaster but a slow slide into total neglect. The interests of megacorporations lie elsewhere, and even their motorcycles are relics of a bygone age – most vehicles now are based on antigravity hover technology.
One company, however, keeps the traditional American two-wheeled motorcycle alive – Corley Motors. Its founder, Malcolm Corley, is an old biker himself and is more than able to rub shoulders with his customer base, despite the business suit. His vice president, Adrian Ripburger, is a very different prospect – and has a vision for the company’s future that doesn’t include Corley or traditional bikes.
The Polecats are drawn into this plan when they are cajoled – through a bit of subterfuge that includes getting Ben out of the way – into acting as Corley’s outriders as he heads to the shareholders meeting. Ripburger exploits the opportunity to kill Corley and blame the Polecats for it – but Ben witnesses the crime, and is tasked with finding Corley’s true heir with the old man’s dying breath. It’ll take all of Ben’s brains and brawn – and all the horsepower his bike can give him – to get out of this scrape.
LucasArts’ graphic adventures, whilst they sold pretty well for adventure games, at the same time were starting to lag behind the sales of Star Wars tie-in games; management decided that they wanted the next adventure to push the genre to the next level and be a big breakout hit in order to justify persisting with the subgenre. Having wrapped up Day of the Tentacle, Tim Schafer made various pitches, and Full Throttle is the one which got greenlit.
As befitting an attempt to make a true triple-A adventure game, the game had a then-unprecedented year-and-a-half development time, and finally hit the road in April 1995. This is most evident in the graphics, music, and voice acting; the music by the Gone Jackals came on a bonus CD (continuing the precedent set with Loom for LucasArts to really push the boat out on the soundtracks of its adventures), the voice acting includes a fine turn by Mark Hamill as Rimburger (perhaps atoning for his turncoat deed in providing voice acting for arch-rivals Sierra for the first Gabriel Knight game), and the graphics represent perhaps the finest hand-drawn animation and artfully integrated prerendered 3D ever seen in an adventure game at the time, putting Sierra’s efforts along these lines to shame.
Indeed, the graphics are on a level which sometimes cause mild issues – with some details, including critical ones, being a little obscured by the artwork. There’s an infamous puzzle where you have to kick just the right spot on a wall to press a hidden switch to cause a hatch to open. One problem with the puzzle is that it is far from clear that the wall is implemented as several different zones you could kick, just being presented as one big “wall” feature, so this puzzle feature breaks from the way the game and previous LucasArts adventures usually operated where one object is one object and, all else being equal, the same command will give the same result when interacting with that object wherever you click on the object. The other problem is that in the original graphical presentation, there’s very little distinguishing the “correct” bit of wall than any other area.
Here the “Remastered” version of the game from Double Fine improves things somewhat. Graphics which in the original version were clearly a little too ambitious for display resolutions of the time to pull off are given an absolutely gorgeous high definition update which is true to the original style, whilst clarifying some features which were a bit more obscure in the original presentation. (The crucial brick in the puzzle above, for instance, stands out a little more in the updated graphics than it did in the original.)
The game also incorporated another tweak to the SCUMM control system. Sam and Max Hit the Road had found a clever way to eliminate the bottom bar in order to make full use of the screen real estate. but it was sometimes a pain having to either right click a bunch to get the right icon or go into the inventory to select the correct icon. Full Throttle innovates further by coming up with what would be known in Curse of Monkey Island, which used a similar system, as a “verb coin” – which has now become the general term of art in adventure games.
The way it works is that you point at the item you want to interact with using the cursor and click; a little graphical menu appears surrounding the cursor, displaying the different verbs involved (in icon form based on biker tats – so “Look at” and “Talk to/eat/taste/suck on/do mouth stuff” are incorporated in different parts of the skull tattoo, the hand is for grabbing stuff or punching things, and the foot is for giving something a kick). Clicking the right mouse button anywhere on the screen opens up the inventory. All this allows the graphics to have all the real estate to themselves and is a much smoother system than the Sam and Max implementation.
If the entire game were played with these controls, I would have loved it when it first came out and would love the remastered version even more for its cleaned-up sound and greatly improved graphics. Unfortunately, Schafer made the decision here to include some action sequences – and whilst action-based games are fine, action sequences in adventure games are infamous for being clunky, shoddy imitations of games which are actually oriented around action, often because they’re implemented using an engine – whether LucasArts’ SCUMM or Sierra’s AGI/SCI engines – which really can’t handle them. The ones here are no exception.
The major action sequences here are fighting on the motorways and a demolition derby. The original controls for these were an utter pain, and the remaster doesn’t really help all that much. Even then, tuned-up controls wouldn’t necessarily help. See, both the infamous Mine Road sequence and the demolition derby look like action sequences, but they are actually disguised puzzles. You can never develop your twitch reflexes well enough to beat them without solving the puzzles implicit in them – but to solve the puzzles, you need to use the (awful) action controls. It is the worst of both worlds; if you really wanted a truly definitive version of the game, you’d have to rip those bits out so that the player wouldn’t be subjected to them.
The Mine Road sequence is even more annoying in the original game because solving it requires obtaining various objects from the bikers you encounter there – but there is no predictable way to reliably encounter the biker you need to meet next, it’s all randomised, with the upshot being that it can be very tedious to go around and around until the biker you need shows up. The Remastered version of the game includes a “Remastered gameplay” option, and so far as I can tell the only thing that has been confirmed to do is tweak the randomisation of the bikers on the Mine Road, so that you are more likely to encounter bikers who are carrying items you do not already have and less likely to meet bikers you don’t need to fight any more, so that’s something.
The thing is, I can see why Schafer felt the need to include these sequences – it’s a game about being a badass road warrior, some driving and fighting would make sense right? Maybe – but that could also be an argument for adventure games being entirely the wrong format for telling stories about badass road warriors. Still, between the Fist and Boot icons in the verb coin, I felt I was kicking plenty of ass as Ben during the puzzle segments without the clumsy arcade sequences. Sierra had learned years prior to this point to make such sequences skippable – a lesson which unfortunately seems to have been lost on Schafer and his team back in 1995 (there’s auto-win keys for them, but they are secret, not an overt invitation to skip); as a result, the action sequences in Full Throttle represent a rare instance of LucasArts making a mistake that Sierra had learned to avoid long ago, where usually it’s the reverse.
Full Throttle is very much constructed around the needs of the narrative, so there’s little free roaming here; you’re basically solving puzzles through a sequence of acts with no backtracking between them. This avoids the pitfall that Sam and Max Hit the Road fell into, where most of the puzzle-solving items were accessible from comparatively early in the game and long before the actual puzzles involving them show up.
At the same time, many of the individual sections end up feeling very sparse, with only one or two puzzles to interact with, some of them a little obscure or fiddly. This may well be a consequence of the lavish graphics and long development time putting a strain on the budget, but has led to criticism that the game’s a bit too short or too easy (and I certainly felt it was a bit short when I originally played it on release). The sparseness of some sections becomes particularly acute during the final sequence, where in general there is exactly one thing you should do at any particular time and if you do anything else you will quite likely get killed. (The game is at least civilised enough to rewind to a bit before you got killed rather than forcing you to reload, but yes, the no-deaths policy didn’t apply here.)
I have other minor gripes with Full Throttle. In particular, despite Ben in theory being the leader of the Polecats, the other Polecats barely appear in the game in any form you can actually interact with; the one exception is Father Torque, the former Polecat leader who handed over control of the gang to Ben on retiring from the gang. In the absence of any input from the other Polecats, they don’t really seem like real characters – the Vultures, a rival gang you seek support from, end up with more character. (Incidentally, there’s more women in the Vultures than men, and both gangs have a racially diverse cast with a range of body types, which is a nice touch.) Moreover, you never feel like you actually are the leader of a biker gang – compare with Sierra’s Conquests of the Longbow, in which Robin Hood is also acting solo most of the time but there’s some crucial interactions with the Merry Men which make you feel like you’ve played a proper bandit leader, not a solo adventurer in tights.
Full Throttle was the last LucasArts adventure I played around the time of its launch – I eventually gave The Curse of Monkey Island a go a long while after its initial release, but aside from that from here on in this article we’re getting into what is mostly new territory for me. At the time, I enjoyed Full Throttle for the most part, but also felt it was a bit of a flawed gem. The Remastered version from Double Fine does a lot to tease out the hidden virtues of the game, but it also exposes just how bad the controls in the action sequences really are – they’re the sort of thing which would be only considered acceptable if you didn’t play many contemporary action games of the era – and so doesn’t elevate the game as much as it might have had.
As it stood, Full Throttle was a major success commercially – it was eventually the first LucasArts adventure to hit a million sales. I have to wonder, however, how many of its purchasers ended up being repeat customers, and how many found frustrating control schemes and its brief span caused it to compare poorly with more action-oriented games of the era with superior controls, deeper action gameplay, and longer playing times.
Whilst I like it, I would certainly put it a notch below any of LucasArts’ 1990-1993 run of classic adventure games, but I am still glad it got made – I think it was an experiment worth doing, its commercial success probably meant we got a few more LucasArts adventures we might not otherwise have had, and most particularly it represents a tonal shift away from the comedy-first tone of the great bulk of LucasArts adventures up to this point – an attempt to broaden the studio’s adventure game horizons which would be followed by their other 1995 adventure…
Earth is in trouble! A huge asteroid is on a collision course, but fortunately astronomers have spotted it in time for NASA to mount a daring expedition to plant nuclear charges on it in order to divert it into a stable orbit. (It’s basically the whole Deep Impact/Armageddon scenario, only this came out 3 years before either of those movies.) The mission actually goes smoothly without any appreciable complications… at least, as far as diverting the asteroid goes. The nuclear explosions exposed strange structures on the interior of the asteroid, revealing it to be a hollow object, and the mission shifts gear from planet-saving to exploration and archaeology.
After some tinkering, the trio of crew members who are exploring the strange ship -team leader and military veteran Commander Boston Low, linguist and journalist Maggie Robbins, and German archaeologist and geologist Dr. Ludger Brink – activate its systems, prompting it to transport the three of them at light speed to a far-off planet. It is evident that aliens of great technological sophistication built the ship which has summoned them here, and the vast complex they discover at their destination… but where are they? What was the point of sending that strange invitation out into space? And can Boston and his team figure out the answers and find their way home?
The Dig was the product of a long, tortuous production process which, from early conceptualisation to final release, took over six years. That’s not so absurd at the triple-A end of today’s videogame market, but at the time this was an absolutely absurd amount of time to produce a game – especially one which ended up being as technologically unimpressive as The Dig would end up being next to Full Throttle. (Remember, at the time Tim Schafer, who’d been on enough projects to know how things usually went, thought Full Throttle‘s 18 month development time was amazingly long.)
In the game’s prehistory, before it was even a game, Steven Spielberg came up with the kernel of the story idea when making his Amazing Stories TV series in the mid-1980s, and then considered developing it further as a feature film. He eventually came to the conclusion that the special effects of the era couldn’t do justice to his original idea – summed up as “Forbidden Planet meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre“.
Spielberg was aware that his ol’ buddy George Lucas had some cunning game designers down at Skywalker Ranch; in fact, LucasArts old hands have mentioned that Spielberg visited more regularly than George Lucas himself, and reportedly he was favourably impressed with the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade adventure game. So in 1989 an initial planning meeting was held, with George Lucas, Spielberg, Ron Gilbert, and Noah Falstein discussing the idea of implementing The Dig as an adventure game.
What followed was six years of development hell. The Dig was originally announced for release in Q2 1992; this did not happen. Winter of 1993 was predicted next, then late 1994; eventually, the game crawled out in December 1995. Behind the scenes, the game had seen a conga line of project leads come and go. First, Noah Falstein had stepped up and came up with some initial ideas that included significant RPG elements, with the characters needing to collect food and water for survival purposes.
Some 18 months later, Falstein was out – first he was promoted into management and saw the game handed off, though provided some consulting in a Producer role, but then cutbacks saw him exiting LucasArts altogether. The new project lead was Brian Moriarty – an apt choice, since his Loom was the most serious-minded LucasArts adventure prior to this – who decided to go for a complete do-over, beginning again from scratch. The oldest material we have from the development process which are actually implemented as software assets rather than just existing as design documents and concept art hail from Moriarty’s version; Andrew McCarthy has preserved many of these here, and the LucasArts Museum site also has shots here.
Moriarty’s version was not intended to use the SCUMM engine; instead, a brand new engine was being crafted for it, entitled StoryDroid, which included some features (like vertical parallax scrolling) which would only be patched back into SCUMM later. It was also more darker, scarier, and outright gorier than the final game – which at first was approved of, since this was the tone Spielberg was going for.
However, this confidence would not last. Spielberg was spooked by controversy over Jurassic Park, in which parents took their kids to see a movie which was clearly labelled as PG-13 and were then upset that the movie was PG-13. Realising that sloppy parents would tend to assume that any project with his name attached would be as kid-friendly as ET, rather than actually doing their research and making a considered purchasing decision when it came to content to plop their children down in front of, Spielberg asked that the game be appropriately toned down.
Spielberg was not the only one with worries over the Moriarty version; this version of The Dig was apparently a very “hard” science fiction affair with a lot of detailed science underpinning it, and management was concerned that it might end up being too much of a niche product as a result. The game had also sailed well past its projected release schedule, in part because of a decision to use fully hand-painted background graphics, rather than sketches touched up on computer as had previously been the standard. These backgrounds look gorgeous (as we’ll see, many of them ended up in the released game), but took an absolute age to produce.
By 1993, Brian Moriarty was out; according to some accounts of the history of the project, the last straw was when he realised he couldn’t possibly hit a writing deadline on the dialogue. In a later interview, Moriarty has given a broader explanation of what happened: in the early-to-mid 1990s, LucasArts was in the process of professionalising itself. In a process which had also taken place in Sierra starting in the late 1980s, the game development process shifted from this very informal arrangement where quite small teams of people would basically put the whole thing together by themselves to a more elaborate situation, with larger teams and larger budgets and an increasing need for competent management of both.
It was doubtless a necessary transition at the time, when technical advances meant that big-budget games needed to have that infrastructure in place and couldn’t just be bodged together by what was essentially a better-supported bedroom development team like in the 1980s. The shift at LucasArts seems to have produced less horror stories than at Sierra – or at least, less horror stories than have come out – and it doesn’t seem to have impacted many of the adventure games up to this point.
The Dig was the exception precisely because The Dig had taken so long – as a result of its long gestation time it had started out under the older, more casual approach, didn’t get finished in the window of time when that set of expectations applied, and then was expected to shift gear into a more professional method of working. This is the sort of shift which is far more difficult to apply to an ongoing project than it is to incorporate into a project from the start, and Moriarty regards his departure as being part of the consequences of those difficulties.
For a brief window, Dave Grossman took over the project, but seems to have had little time to make much of an impression. There’s a lingering story that Hal Barwood ended up as project leader at some point around this time as well, but Noah Falstein is convinced this is not correct and Andrew McCarthy seems to have tracked this rumour down to an interview in The Adventurer, a LucasArts promotional magazine, and makes the good point that The Adventurer was legendarily sloppy with the facts. (It referred to Tim Schafer as “Tim Delacruz” for an entire feature article, for crying out loud.) One can see how the confusion may have arisen – Falstein, The Dig‘s original project lead, was a co-designer of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Barwood did Fate of Atlantis, whoever was doing the article may have confused the two games. Still sloppy not to check the actual names, but that’s PR puff pieces for you.
So far as I can tell, Grossman made little in the way of significant changes to The Dig, and he’d be out of LucasArts by 1994 anyway. (The issue of The Adventurer with the sloppy interview was for Winter 1993/1994.) The final project leader was Sean Clark, whose credits on the two Indiana Jones adventures, the first Monkey Island, Loom, and Sam and Max gave him as impressive an adventure game CV as anyone at the company at the time. (In particular, his Loom experience might have been expected to give him a leg up when it came to interpreting Brian Moriarty’s plans and making something out of them.)
Clark didn’t wipe the slate clean the way Moriarty had – far from it, as we’re going to see he recycled a bunch of assets from Moriarty’s planned version – and under the circumstances, I don’t think he can reasonably have been expected to do otherwise. With the project already having ground on for some five years since that first planning meeting way back in 1989 (when Guybrush Threepwood was just a twinkle in Ron Gilbert’s eye), with multiple release dates having been announced and missed, and with the financial and emotional wreckage it had already left behind as it put an end to one LucasArts career after another, now was not the time to get fancy – now, in fact, was the time to just knuckle down, salvage as much as much of the existing assets as could be salvaged without incurring an awkward amount of conversion time, make the best game possible with what the team already had, paste over the cracks and just get the damn thing shipped.
I’ve griped before about how Sierra were too quick to just impose a hard deadline and force their teams to ship a game too early when it could have really done with extra polish (or, you know, sufficient debugging that the version that shipped wasn’t a broken mess, like the unpatched version of Quest For Glory IV was), but it’s evident that it’s possible to go too far in the other direction, and The Dig is an example of that; the long nightmare of its development time, and the fact that its sales, whilst healthy by adventure game standards, could never have hoped to recoup the lost investment, may have fed into LucasArts’ decision to cancel as many adventure game projects as it did; had the plug been pulled earlier, as soon as it became apparent that the project was going astray, it may have been better for the company’s bottom line (though the fact that it was a Spielberg project may have meant that wasn’t an option).
Either way, the version of The Dig we finally got is basically a Frankenstein creature cobbled together by Sean Clark and his team, produced by asset-stripping the Brian Moriarty version, converting it to SCUMM (because working with a tried and tested engine was a much more cost-effective and less risky prospect than tinkering around trying to get a new one to work), adding in some connecting tissue, and punting it out of the door by the end of 1995 so LucasArts could finally get the albatross off from around its neck.
This becomes quite evident when you consider the graphical presentation. Compared to Full Throttle – an animated movie in adventure game format, with gorgeous graphics – the graphics here are more disjointed. There’s some prerendered 3D, there’s some gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds, and then you have character animations for the main characters which – in the game engine, at least – resemble characters from Monkey Island 2 or Fate of Atlantis in terms of their pixellated style more than they resemble the gorgeous animation of Full Throttle or the rather generic but functional animation of some of this game’s cut scenes. It’s very much a jumble of art asserts that have been produced over a time span ranging from 1992 to 1995 and then all crammed into one project, rather than art that was all developed side by side with an eye to consistency of style.
The cut scenes in the game make this very evident. Prior to Day of the Tentacle, cut scenes in LucasArts adventures were, with an extremely limited number of exceptions, implemented in the game engine – they were scripted sequences using the same character assets you saw moving about in actual gameplay. Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, and Full Throttle had what you might call “fully animated” cut scenes – cut scenes rendered not in the game engine itself, but effectively included as little videos triggered at crucial moments in the plot, and which by virtue of being pre-animated rather than being implemented in the game engine could be a bit flashier.
Still, in those three games an excellent job was done to ensure that the character designs in the fully animated cut scenes were consistent with those presented in actual gameplay; regardless of what’s going on screen, Bernard, Laverne, Hoagie, Sam, Max, and Ben all look like “themselves”. This helps immersion and avoids the jarring effect seen in other games where the character designs in cut scenes suddenly become much more detailed than in actual gameplay.
The Dig is notable for having a really quite significant level of dissonance in character design between gameplay and game engine-implemented cut scenes on the one hand and the fully-animated cut scenes on the other. To an extent this is understandable – the character designs are quite pixel-y, converting them to hand-drawn animation would look weird. On the other hand, having them differ to quite this extent feels like it only highlights the graphical dissonance in question.
It also prompts you to scrutinise the animation in the fully-animated cut scenes a bit more closely, which perhaps should have been avoided since they have not dated well. I can see why they wanted to include those animations for the sake of closing the technical gap with Full Throttle, but equally I feel like that ship had sailed – with or without the fully-animated cut scenes, the game is very obviously a poor cousin to Full Throttle in the graphics department (with the more gorgeously-realised hand-drawn backgrounds perhaps holding up the best), and the quality of those animations in particular holds up poorly next to Full Throttle.
Some of the fully-animated cut scenes expose the extent to which the game was subject to extensive revisions and rewriting, even at that late stage. There’s one where Maggie has to open a grate to unleash a flood to spray away a monster, and in the scenario in question she’s clearly tied up in webbing, but in the last shot of the cut scene she’s clearly free and standing on a ledge; how did she free herself? There’s another where Brink goes to attack Boston, and in the game engine-rendered cut scene leading up to this they are facing each other and having a tense conversation, then at the start of the fully-animated sequence Boston is facing away from Brink working on something and it’s evident in context that this was meant to be some form of ambush, only for the script to then be revised later on when it was too late to change the animation.
Another aspect in which the game feels out of step is the reversion to what is in essence a simplified version of the Sam and Max control system. Right-clicking to cycle between verbs is gone, as are all verbs aside from “examine” – you just click about the screen, click on an icon in the corner to call up your inventory, and use the “examine” verb to examine items or click on items to use them with bits of the surroundings, or just click on stuff to see if Boston will do anything with it. That said, since almost all the verbs are cut out, not going with a verb coin makes sense, so this doesn’t feel like quite as much of a retrograde step as the graphics issues.
The puzzles in the game are, frankly, not what they could be. Many are perfectly fine, but it feels like there’s a few too many which are a bit weird and arbitrary or require too much trial and error to get right. Many are of the form “try to get these alien devices working”, which might prompt comparisons with Myst; though obviously The Dig was in development well before Myst‘s original 1993 release, at the same time a significant Myst influence can’t be ruled out, especially given how extensively The Dig was reworked during the time period in question.
Another sign that Sean Clark was scrambling to get the thing done and didn’t quite have the chance to polish things is the awkwardness of the tweaked plot. Originally, the idea was that the astronauts would be on a deep space mission to an unfamiliar planet in the far future, and it would have been planned as an archaeological dig from the start; the “divert the asteroid” plot and the present-day-to-near-future setting was a later patch job, perhaps intended to simplify things and address managements’ concerns about accessibility.
However, there’s some plot points which don’t quite seem to work smoothly in the new version of the story, and are fairly clearly artifacts of the older version which have not quite been properly integrated into the new vision. The tension over team leadership between Boston and Brink would make far more sense in the context of a planned archaeological expedition to an alien world, rather than a desperate bid for survival after a world-saving mission gone seriously awry, for instance – “I as the archaeologist should lead!” is a much more reasonable position if you are on a planned archaeological expedition, not an impromptu one which has turned into a desperate survival scenario.
Another thing which makes less sense in the revised story than the original concept is the inclusion of Maggie on the mission in the first place. Why would NASA send a linguist up at all on such a mission? OK, sure, it’s evident that NASA may have suspected that the asteroid was an alien ship, since they had a secret protocol in place for what to do if alien artifacts were discovered, but you would think that given the immediate situation they would want all hands to have much more directly applicable skills to adjusting the trajectory of the asteroid; a linguist could be sent up later if necessary once the asteroid is in a nice, convenient orbit, after all.
Hell, the very title of the game makes more sense in the earlier concept than the latter. The Dig is only remotely appropriate to the version of the game which released if you take it as a joke about the number of puzzles you solve using the shovel – otherwise, it’s a bizarre non-sequitur.
The game is also rather clumsy and heavy-handed about how it handles some of its themes. The game spends its entire running time saying “Death is in some respects necessary, we are not remotely ready for the consequences immortality would bring and we have a lot of personal growth to do before we could even contemplate it”, and underscoring this with the negative effects of the life crystals that the party discover which have the capability to restore life to the dead. It decides that the appropriate way to do this is to have the party member resurrected by these be Brink, who starts ranting about how they have made him superior to everyone else. Gosh, the blonde-haired German on the team has decided he’s an Overman and is undertaking dodgy research to try and bring a race of Overmen to Earth… how subtle.
What’s particularly galling about the plot is how it completely contradicts itself at the end. It spends all this time on this “death is a necessary part of life and it is hubris to think you can overcome it!” deal, only for the aliens to magically bring your companions back to life at the end of the game without any negative consequences whatsoever – even curing the nasty side-effects of the life crystals (sure, Brink looks haggard and aged there, but in the next cut scene he’s clearly made a full recovery).
Even more gallingly, the aliens do this by interfacing with Spacetime Six, an alternate dimension which the aliens had previously been trapped in and couldn’t return because they lacked the strength of will to break away from it but which Boston ultimately helps them escape from; literally, a minute after he does this one of them steps back into Spacetime Six, a dimension they have been trapped in for aeons powerless to return under their own steam, in order to retrieve a dead human or two. The sequence absolutely pisses in the face of more or less everything the game has told you so far.
The Dig isn’t flat-out terrible. Much of it looks gorgeous, it’s got a really atmospheric soundtrack, and the designers do a fantastic job of making the game area feel big while working in a few convenience features (like being able to double click on an exit to jump right to the next screen rather than watching the full walk animation) which make navigating around it less of a chore. Nonetheless, there’s just enough backtracking involved that by the end I became thoroughly sick of schlepping around the place so laboriously.
I never played it when it first game out, and playing it now I rank it lower than pretty much any LucasArts adventure from Loom to Full Throttle; it’s better than their 1980s adventures, but their 1980s adventures were learning experiences, making mistakes which even The Dig benefits from to some extent. Even so, given the run of games up to this point, it feels to me like a significant misstep on LucasArts’ part.
Oh, and if you would prefer not to touch stuff that has any Orson Scott Card involvement, he did a writing pass on the dialogue for this, so there’s that.
The Curse of Monkey Island
Ron Gilbert was long gone from LucasArts by the time the third Monkey Island game was being made by a design team captained by Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley. This landed them with a problem because the ending of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge was, as I described in the last article in the series, rather oblique and shakily presented, and related to some big setting secrets that Ron Gilbert had been holding back for his own version of the third game.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Ahern and Ackley drop a bit of a time skip on the player; we open with Guybrush floating in the middle of the sea in a broken bumper car (or a “dodgem” as you Americans call them), writing in his diary about how he’s just gotten out of LeChuck’s latest trap for him. As play progresses the pieces come together: Guybrush didn’t actually find Big Whoop after all, he got sidetracked by LeChuck and tricked into entering LeChuck’s hideous Carnival of the Damned.
Dinky Island, it turns out, is just off the coast of Monkey Island, and Big Whoop is in fact the Monkey Island portal to the underworld; the Carnival of the Damned is a funfair that LeChuck has constructed on Monkey Island to trick unsuspecting pirate crews into dying on his fatal rides and getting press-ganged into his army of the undead. As it so happens, Guybrush’s busted fairground ride carries him bobbing on the waves into the middle of a naval assault by LeChuck on a fort on Plunder Island, defended by – who else? – Governor Elaine Marley.
Yes, believing he’s dealt with Guybrush for good, LeChuck is back to his Incel ways and is hassling Elaine again. Fortunately, Guybrush is able to semi-accidentally sabotage LeChuck’s plans and causes a massive explosion, destroying the Zombie Pirate LeChuck for good. Stealing a diamond ring from the hold of LeChuck’s flagship, he offers it to Elaine as an engagement ring, which she accepts. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a cursed ring, turning Elaine into a gold statue Midas-style. At least the Voodoo Lady’s on hand to offer advice once more – Guybrush must assemble a crew, acquire a ship, and set a course for Blood Island, where he must find the means to remove the curse.
But the curse is not the only difficulty – for LeChuck’s evil was not destroyed forever, and he has returned as the Demon Pirate LeChuck, intent on getting Guybrush and Elaine back to his Carnival of the Damned…
So, on the positive side this is a plot concept which does at least acknowledge the ending of Monkey Island 2 and tries to “yes, and” it – we aren’t talking a Space Quest 6 situation where the previous game is outright retconned away in the most mean-spirited manner possible. That said, the game can’t resist throwing in some cracks about the ending, with dialogue about how “disappointing” finding Big Whoop turned out to be and whatnot.
This is rather cheeky, when perhaps the biggest problem with the plot of Curse is that it really doesn’t get out of the shadow of the end of Monkey Island 2; it starts out with Guybrush having just escaped the Carnival of the Damned, it ends with Guybrush going back into the Carnival of the Damned. The titular curse is ultimately just some busywork to pad things out in between the opening part of the game and the closing Carnival of the Damned sections, and then by the end of the game Guybrush and Elaine are married, in effect rewinding things to the state they were between the first two games (only this time they’ve put a ring on it).
The most annoying thing about the way Curse fails to really progress beyond its own explanation of the Monkey Island 2 ending is that it’s so needless. It didn’t have to pan out this way at all: just have Guybrush show up at the start in the bumper car, throw in the mention that he’s just escaped from the Carnival of the Damned, and then drop the matter and tell a brand new story. They could have walked away from the mess, instead they went straight back to it.
More broadly, perhaps the biggest issue with Curse‘s plot is that it fails to really expand the scope of the series or appreciably deepen the main characters. Elaine is still largely defined by being pursued by LeChuck and having this on-again off-again relationship with Guybrush, which at this point is really starting to wear thin (give her something proactive to do already!), LeChuck is still motivated by vengeance against Guybrush and creeping on Elaine, and Guybrush is still trying to juggle all this.
Though it does fall flat when considered in the big picture, as far as being a fun experience in the moment The Curse of Monkey Island mostly succeeds, with the dialogue aptly capturing and carrying forward the style of the original and a well-chosen selection of old and new characters showing up. Admittedly, on the side of the older characters, I thought Elaine was poorly served because she ends up in the “damsel in distress” role much more firmly than she does in the previous two games; in the second game she is never in that position, in the first one she appears to be only to reveal towards the end that she’d actually evaded LeChuck’s clutches by herself and had matters well in hand.
On the other hand, Curse does introduce what is perhaps the most consistently funny recurring support character in the series – Murray the skull. Forget Morte from Planescape: Torment: Murray is the most engaging chatty skull inventory item videogames have to offer. See, Murray was originally one of the many skeletons in LeChuck’s undead warband until Guybrush blew his body to bits – leaving him decapitated and grumpy about it. Far from letting this get him down, this only seems to have fed Murray’s ego; he seems to be absolutely convinced that he is an unstoppable force of demonic fury, when in fact he’s nothing more than a talking skull.
That’s it. All he can do by himself is sit there and flap his jaw. The bit at the end where Guybrush wins a prize in the Carnival of the Damned and chooses a vastly more useful anchor (to seed in a custard pie to solve a different puzzle) over Murray, and Murray gets astonishingly offended about it, is a treat, if only because it means for the entire rest of the scene Murray keeps griping and moaning about it, and the angrier he gets the funnier it is.
The longest sections of the game – Plunder Island and acquiring what you need to go to Blood Island, and the Blood Island section itself – along with the introductory section are the best. For all that the game jokes about the ending of the previous game, the very last section is quite annoying, as is the single-screen puzzle that precedes it (though at least the latter has the aforementioned Murray joke). The penultimate one-screen puzzle requires the player to realise that a hangover cure will cure the curse LeChuck has put on Guybrush, but this point is only really conveyed in one dialogue line earlier on which doesn’t really establish it very clearly and isn’t repeated, so you can end up very lost as to what to do.
The last section is another puzzle, like the one in Monkey Island 2, where you’re zipping about a limited set of screens and occasionally LeChuck shows up and harasses you and there’s a puzzle you have to solve using items on multiple different screens in the midst of all this. To be fair, it’s a simpler puzzle; to be harsh, the actual process of going from screen to screen in this section is kind of a tiresome chore.
To be fair, the first game also has a “LeChuck keeps hassling you” ending. But the puzzle involved to resolve that involves only one item to be found on one screen, which is the first screen screen you end up on in that sequence (and indeed the only one where you get to interact with stuff). It seems like Ahern and Ackley felt that such an ending is the only way to end a Monkey Island game, but didn’t quite find a way to eliminate the things which made the Monkey Island 2 ending annoying and found a whole new way to make this sort of sequence annoying.
The other annoying section of the game is the sea voyage, which sees a return of the insult swordfighting game mechanic from the first game. Whilst welcome in theory, it’s essentially a repeat of the exact same puzzle with a new constraint (your riposte must rhyme with the opponent’s opening insult) which has the effect of making it slightly easier (since it means you can eliminate a chunk of the incorrect responses), and is combined with… sigh… an action minigame where you have to play through a little sea battle before starting the swordfight.
To be fair, the game does give you a bit of dialogue which allows you to select how difficult the sea battles are, but even so this is unwelcome; the minigame, whilst not terrible to the extent that the Full Throttle action sequences were terrible, is still not really good or entertaining – it’s not something I’d want to idle away time on if it wasn’t gatekeeping more content in the game.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about this section is that it brings the flow of the game to a complete halt, because there is pretty much nothing to do in this bit aside from upgrading your guns, having sea battles, and doing insult swordfights. In the first Monkey Island, the insult swordfighting was one puzzle of several to work through during the first act, which meant if you got tired of it you could go do something else and come back to it; here, it’s a big fat chore you can’t get away from.
It also, to my eyes, seems like the bench of insults has become somewhat deeper, which means you have to do more swordfights to actually learn the responses which will allow you to beat the final pirate, Captain Rottingham, to recover your map to Blood Island. Whether or not this is actually the case, between the trips back to Plunder Island for upgrades and the sea battles and the sword fights this section felt highly repetitive.
If Curse of Monkey Island has anything going for it over its predecessors, it’s the presentation; it is a gorgeous looking game, with lovely cartoon graphics which are dripping with character (something the “enhanced” graphics on the special edition releases of the first two games are sorely lacking). The inclusion of the verb coin mechanic from Full Throttle is also welcome, and the voice acting is of a generally high standard.
Whilst I would not put Curse of Monkey Island above the first two games in the series, I don’t actively hate it – I’d put it, say, somewhere above Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and below Sam and Max Hit the Road. When it’s on form, it’s very, very good, delivering all the monkey magic we’ve come to expect on the series – but it makes just enough major mistakes to keep it from attaining a truly classic status, and it feels like it’s worrying too much about tying up loose ends from the previous games to really chart a course for the future of the series.
Manny Calavera is dead – but he’s not resting peacefully. Residing in the Eighth Underworld, he – along with most of the other formerly-living residents of this cosmological region – should really be moving on to the Ninth Underworld, where the deceased receive what is ultimately coming to them. But in death as it is in life, various cares and attentions have gotten in the way of what’s really important.
You see, the journey across the Eight Underworld isn’t easy. The journey on foot is long and difficult; many simply stop along the way in an area of comparative safety and try to set up a facsimile of mortal life wherever they ended up. The Department of Death is not unaware of this problem, and ensures that the truly deserving who die with sufficient good deeds credited to their cosmic account can cash them in and obtain some form of transportation. Your basic crappy kind of jackass gets shipped freight in a coffin filled with packing foam; a range of other options exist, including the truly deluxe variant: the Number Nine, a luxury train which ferries saints and heroes to their well-earned reward.
Manny didn’t get a ticket on the Number Nine when he died; he’s been dead long enough that he’s basically forgotten who he was and what he did in life, but he’s settled down into a nice routine in death. In the bustling metropolis of El Marrow, he works as a travel agent – combining the traditional psychopompic duties of a grim reaper when it comes to separating the deceased from their mortal shells with the task of matching clients with the transport option that’s appropriate to them.
In theory, if Manny does well enough at the job, he’ll earn enough credit to ship out to the fresh horizons of the Ninth Underworld. In practice, he’s given all the crappy sales leads while Domino, his colleague, is favoured with all the really swank ones. One day, on the Day of the Dead, Manny decides to take action to ensure that he and not Domino can get to a plush case first – this being a certain Meche Colomar. On the face of it, she’s a shoe-in for a ticket to the Number Nine – but things don’t pan out that way. This puts Manny on the trail of a web of corruption which will take him on a journey across the Eighth Underworld as he tries to unravel it and to do right by Meche. However, the ruthless conspirators will stop at nothing to protect their business interests, up to and including “sprouting” their enemies – shooting them with a serum which causes flowers to grow from their bones, inflicting on them an uncanny death-within-death…
Grim Fandango was Tim Schafer’s last adventure game for LucasArts, and it makes sense that he would be trusted with a project like this. With Full Throttle being the success it was, bringing the traditional 2D graphics of the SCUMM-era adventure games to a level which only Curse of Monkey Island really matched and managing to get pretty decent sales out of it, it makes sense that LucasArts would task Schafer with taking this next technical leap forward into the era of fully real-time rendered 3D.
It’s fair to say that the underlying idea of Grim Fandango is a bit high-concept, but it’s one of those genius high-concept ideas where, despite being very offbeat, you can instantly get a handle on what the deal is. It’s a film noir story set in the Land of the Dead – and yes, the latter part does put it into a strange fantasy world, but the “film noir” aspect instantly gives the audience a handle on what’s going on – we’re talking a classic 1930s-1950s atmosphere, jazz music, a twisty detective story, mobsters, beatniks, and all that good shit.
The idea of taking inspiration from Mexican folklore, and Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in particular, is also inspired. The way the characters are designed to resemble calaca figures is simultaneously very visually distinctive and also, quite helpfully, is something which the more rudimentary 3D graphics of the era could cope with very well indeed. If the wireframe skeletons of the characters are a bit rigid that’s fine because the bone skieltons are too, and making facial expressions happen is as simple as just animating the texture on the skulls – presto, done! The use of Mayan and Aztec imagery and aesthetics for some parts – particularly those harking back to what Manny refers to as the older generations of management at the Department of Death, or ancient institutions like the actual gate to the Ninth Underworld – helps give the Land of the Dead the sense of having a history as rich as Mexico’s own.
As well as having a fascinating setting, the story is also one of the most ambitious which LucasArts ever attempted, unfolding over four acts, each separated by a year. Each act of the story takes place on the Day of the Dead, and though Manny’s always too busy to celebrate, this is also thematically appropriate. As well as providing the game with its aesthetic, the very idea of the Day of the Dead is that it’s a time when the borders between life and death and blurred, and the living think of the dead and the dead think of the living; that being the case, it makes sense that we get to check in on Manny on the Day of the Dead, and we lose sight of him as the day ends.
The game also benefits from an utterly charming collection of characters brought to life with scintillating dialogue and excellent voice acting performances – with many members of the voice cast being of South and Central American ancestry, Schafer eager to give them the freedom to make the roles their own and enrich them with their own take on the material. Tony Plana’s performance as Manny is particularly good, making him as memorable a protagonist as LucasArts ever offered – in particular, he gives Manny this wry, knowing attitude, like he’s a bit more philosophical about the problems he’s faced with and a bit less prone to panic than more highly-strung characters.
Another interesting thing about the characters is that to a large extent who they were in life and what they did back then does not matter. The game visits the land of the living once, briefly, as you play through one of Manny’s jobs; the nightmarish turn the art takes there suggests that the world of the living makes as little sense from the perspective of the dead as the realms of death do from the perspective of the living. Manny’s past is forgotten and does not matter; Meche’s past is addressed only to substantiate that she was a very lovely person in life who totally deserves her ticket to paradise, which deepens the mystery as to why the computer system thinks otherwise. In the end, it doesn’t matter; you form your impression of the various characters based on what they’ve do during the story, not before it, and given that the criminals at the heart of the corruption behave completely abominably in the afterlife, it seems likely they were total shits prior to death.
So after lavishing all this praise on the game, I have to address the elephant in the room: namely, the controls. The original version of the game controls are, unfortunately, horribly clunky; following the lead of the early Alone In the Dark and Resident Evil games, Grim Fandango (along with, admittedly, a good chunk of other games of its era, such as Silent Hill) uses “tank controls”.
If you have never experienced this joy, this means you push left or right to have the character turn left or right, and then push forward or backwards to have Manny walk in the direction he’s facing. It’s a control scheme which involves a lot of slow fiddling about with facing, it feels more like steering around a tank than a person, and whilst in some games it works well, here it’s tricky because – what with it being an adventure game – you have to position Manny fairly precisely to interact with a range of items in the environment, some of which are potentially confusingly close to each other – enough so that even the way Manny turns his head to look at interactable things when he’s in range of them doesn’t necessarily help.
To be fair, the more standard “camera-relative” controls we’re used to today – push left to walk left from the point of view of the game camera, push right to go right and so on – tend to work much better with setups where you also have camera control. (Right thumbstick to control the camera, left thumbstick to move has become an industry standard for a reason.) You don’t have camera control here – in keeping with the film noir atmosphere, the game uses a fixed camera. (This likely also helps free up a lot of computing power and rendering capacity, since your system doesn’t have to render stuff you can’t see from the fixed camera angles in question.)
With fixed cameras, tank controls work somewhat better, because it means when the camera angle changes, the direction your character is walking in doesn’t. Still, in this context it doesn’t work great. As the fan community developed ResidualVM – an interpreter program for running games using the GrimE game engine developed for this game on modern computers, much like ScummVM has allowed people to play their SCUMM-engine games (and AGI, and SCI, and a whole bunch of other 2D adventure game engines which have been incorporated into ScummVM), one well-celebrated mod by Tobias Pfaff patches in mouse support into the game (which originally used either keyboard or gamepad).
Mouse support can now be enjoyed as an official part of the game now that Double Fine has put out Grim Fandango Remastered. In keeping with their remasters of Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, Double Fine have kept this as a remaster, not a remake, but have added in the ability to switch between original and enhanced graphics, and the original and enhanced control schemes when it comes to tank control vs. camera-relative control for keyboard/gamepad gaming. Schafer and pals also reached out to the ResidualVM community to implement the best of their improvements, and the point-and-click interface made it in.
Putting point-and-click controls into Grim Fandango is a revelation, not least because of how smoothly it works for the most part. The controls are essentially an evolution of the verb coin system utilised in Full Throttle and Curse of Monkey Island, complete with the mouse cursor changing to highlight exits from screens and interactable areas, and the presence of it makes good chunks of the game much, much more pleasant to play through.
It isn’t perfect; there are some puzzles, particularly those which really engage with the 3D engine in terms of being based on movement and positioning, rather than just boiling down to inventory or dialogue puzzles, where using the keyboard or a gamepad is more convenient, and I found myself pressing the shift key a bit to prompt Manny to run more. (If you double click places, he’ll run to them, but if you tell him to pick up, use, or examine an item using the mouse interface, he defaults to his usual walk to get over there, which can be annoying on larger screens.)
Still, having the mouse there as a tool, so you can use whichever combination of mouse, keyboard, and gamepad (if available – though if you have an XInput-type controller like an XBox 360 controller, you need to get a patch to make it work properly) suits you the best. At the very least, having the mouse controls to help highlight interactable areas you may have missed is extremely handy, and I found that I played through most of the game using the mouse. It still doesn’t help the really badly-conceived inventory system – where Manny pulls out items one at a time from his jacket pocket, in a really tedious and awkward way, rather than just showing you the entire inventory at once – but it’s a massive, massive help.
The extent to which this works smoothly – more smoothly than using the traditional controls – kind of indicates how when it came to gameplay design the transition from 2D to 3D was a difficult one, and many of the puzzles in the game could have been implemented in a SCUMM game with no difficulties. If there is an aspect of Grim Fandango which I can say is a genuine failure, it’s the way it doesn’t find a puzzle paradigm for 3D environments which really exploits the possibilities of that technology whilst also being just as enjoyable as the sort of puzzle which we’re used to from the SCUMM-era games.
A number of puzzles which entail somewhat fiddly mucking around with objects in the environment, which rarely feel quite as clever as the more dialogue-and-inventory-based puzzles. Any puzzle based on exploiting the 3D movement system is especially annoying; there’s a completely oblique tile puzzle at one point which requires you to drop a heavy axe on a weak tile, and even if you know which tile it is, it isn’t obvious where you are meant to stand to drop the axe – I tried at least once in what I morally swear is the correct place and it didn’t work the first time around, forcing me to resort to YouTube walkthroughs to get a better idea of positioning.
Quite simply, the game is at its strongest when it’s implementing gameplay which you could deliver in a SCUMM adventure no problem, it is at its weakest when it is delivering more GrimE-specific puzzles. It’s fortunate that the latter are few and far between, and are generally used in more transitional sections between the major “tentpole” sections of the game. As a rule of thumb, any sequence involving travelling between settlements is a pain, whereas any segment which largely takes place within a town, mining facility, casino, or other such location is substantially more fun.
It is only to be expected that there would be growing pains and learning experiences when it comes to coming up with puzzles for the GrimE environment, but some aspects of puzzle design are more flat-out bad. Don’t get me wrong – the majority of puzzles here are fine. But there’s a few which are quite irritating, and the big problem with adventure game design is that they typically require you to solve 100% of the puzzles to progress, which means that if one of those puzzles is not so good that can mar the entire experience because you cannot work around it.
For instance, I noted multiple instances of puzzles where, so far as I can tell, the only hint given is based on a single line of dialogue which is issued once and never repeated – meaning that if you didn’t pick up on it the first time around, you can’t get further hints. Other puzzles which cause issues are anything to do with timing – creating situations where interacting in the same way with an item may have different results depending on your timing when you do it. This feels annoying – Manny’s a smart guy, why can’t he wait until the right moment?
Another annoying puzzle is the packing material fuel problem. This requires you to, firstly, remember that way back at the start of the game learning that the magnesium used in the fire extinguishers reacts explosively with the packing material used to seal people in coffins for the cheap rate journey to the Ninth Underworld, and convincing some mechanically-minded spirits to utilise it. However, you have to show them, they won’t just realise that for themselves – and at no point is there any conversation which establishes this. You are left wondering why Manny resorted to a dangerous prank, rather than just verbally proposing to the entities that they use the combination. Just one conversation which established that these entities can only learn by seeing, not by talking, would have been a big help here.
The safe puzzle in Year 3 just does not make sense – in particular, the method you use to open the safe involves destroying some bits of it in order to access some parts of it so you can meddle with them, but the whole shebang means that it seems like it would be impossible to open the safe without partially breaking the mechanism in this manner – so how does the villainous Domino open the safe ordinarily? It seems like there’s no way he would possibly be able to. Maybe this involves some knowledge of safe construction I don’t have – but if that’s the case, the game doesn’t convey that at all well. There’s at least one puzzle towards the end where using the “pick up” option on the verb coin had Manny say “Not picking that up!”, while “use” caused him to… pick it up.
I could go on and on, but that would give a false idea of what the game is like – for the most part, it’s as solid a set of puzzles as LucasArts has ever delivered. But there’s just these few times where it trips up, and when it does so it really takes you out of the flow of things – a problem for a game which is trying to deliver a tightly-paced narrative.
On the whole, I greatly recommend Grim Fandango Remastered for at least building in some important improvements to the control system. The extra polish applied to the graphics is nice too, though it seems to have actually worked better on the fully-rendered gameplay than on the prerendered cut scenes, so I guess they didn’t necessarily have the original source files for those from which those could be rerendered at a higher resolution. The spruced-up music is outright excellent, and a real joy to listen to.
But it’s the control update which is really transformative here – it’s what converts Grim Fandango from a game which is good but hamstrung by bad controls into a slightly flawed classic whose flaws are easier to work past than ever. It is forever kept just outside of the heavenly tier of the very best LucasArts adventures as a result of some frustrations, but at the same time standing a clear level above every other game reviewed in this article and every pre-Loom LucasArts adventure. I’d even say I like it better than Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and if the inventory system and other control aspects were just a touch less fiddly and the puzzle clues just a shade fairer in some places it’d have been their best adventure ever.
Escape From Monkey Island
After getting married at the end of Curse of Monkey Island, Guybrush and Elaine Marley-Threepwood set off on a three month honeymoon cruise. Much swashing of buckles later, they return to Mêlée Island only to find that Elaine has been declared dead in absentia. Whilst Elaine does the serious work of getting her death certificate cancelled and fighting an election for Governor of the Tri-Island Area, she sends Guybrush off to do some related errands.
At first this just entails a simple trip to Lucre Island to visit the Marley family lawyers, in order to get a restraining order preventing the destruction of the Governor’s Mansion – but soon enough Guybrush has stumbled across something bigger. It turns out that nefarious Australian land developer Ozzie Mandrill is using his antipodean mastery of really nasty insults to defeat pirates in duels, buy up their businesses, and turn them into horrible tourist traps – and the resurrected Demon Zombie Ghost Pirate LeChuck (now uncontrollably shifting between three different natures) is on Ozzie’s payroll. Guybrush and Ozzie end up in a race to unlock the power of the most powerful voodoo weapon ever known: the Ultimate Insult, a cut-down so withering that it can break the will of pirates subjecting to it, reducing them to meek and compliant model citizens.
Co-designed by Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle, two of the minds behind Sam and Max Hit the Road, Escape From Monkey Island carries the burden of being the least well-liked of the Monkey Island games. On pretty much every front, the game is in this frustrating place where if it had just a bit more polish it could almost be really good, but as it stands it’s in this horrible spot where it keeps tripping over itself just when it’s about to overcome its previous screwups.
Escape is the second GrimE engine game, and so inevitably the graphics and control system are a major point of contention. The graphical presentation of the game is perhaps its biggest success, though it takes a little getting used to. Whilst Grim Fandango had the advantage of an art style which made 3D rendering a little easier, the human characters here are a bit shaky (and there’s an unfortunate tendency to throw in women with waists thinner than their wrists flaring out into hips thicker than their entire torsos), but the backgrounds and environments look absolutely gorgeous.
There are also some very welcome tweaks to the GrimE system. There’s an option to use camera-relative movement or character-relative movement (AKA “tank controls”), which is a big help, and most welcome of all is the revamped inventory, where you can see all of the items at once and scroll through them nice and quickly, rather than the laborious inventory system of Grim Fandango; the setup also includes support for using items in your inventory with each other, a simple addition which usefully and interestingly expands the scope of puzzle it’s possible to implement in GrimE.
In addition, whereas in the original Grim Fandango controls you had to watch Manny’s head to see if he swivelled it to look at something in order to figure out where interactable things are, when you get close to something interactable here a navigable menu appears at the bottom of the screen with the most obvious action you can take with the item; if you are in range of several items at once, each has its own entry in that menu. You can scroll down that menu to the item you want to interact with, hit the “default action” button to take the action listed, or hit the “examine”, “pick up”, or “talk to/use” buttons to use those particular actions.
In principle, it should be possible to play the game without ever pressing the “default action” button, since the default action is always going to be a variant of looking at something, interacting with something, or picking something up. In practice, there’s some unfortunate pitfalls. When I was playing, there was a bit where I needed to talk to Elaine, which helpfully came up as the “default action” when in her proximity. The problem was that whenever I pressed the “talk/use” button – which is the same button, regardless of whether I was using a controller or the keyboard – the command flipped to “Use Elaine”, and Guybrush refused because there was “something in our marriage vows about that”.
The only way to talk to Elaine was to remember that the “default action” button existed and to use that instead – which was tricky because for some reason the game didn’t like it when I assigned the “default action” button to the button I had wanted to use for it on my controller. It would recognise when I mapped a different command to that button just fine, so there was nothing wrong with the hardware – it just refused to use that one specific button for “default action”. And even if I had just been playing with the keyboard, if I had been playing so far just with the “pick up”, “examine”, and “talk/use” buttons without using “default action” at all, which you should be able to do, I would have been similarly stuck.
This is not the only instance where Clark and Stemmle’s team have managed to improve the underlying infrastructure of GrimE, only to then implement it poorly. Whereas Grim Fandango‘s environments were by and large designed fairly sensibly – if Manny couldn’t go somewhere, it was because he logically couldn’t go there because there was clearly a barrier in the way – the environment design gets sloppy here. There’s some some truly atrocious cases of invisible walls corralling you in with no in-world justification, and a failure to hide these with the camera angles. Apparently there’s just invisible force fields strewn around Governor Marley’s mansion – a particularly appalling first impression, considering that this is one of the first areas in the game (and it’s the first area where you can actually move freely, rather than being tied to a ship’s mast). Sometimes, when you push Guybrush against a barrier – visible or otherwise – he’ll vibrate entertainingly.
In addition, while the context menus are a big help in figuring out where interesting things are, you still have to do a bit too much in the way of fiddling about with positioning in a few too many places, making it one of those annoying tantalising features where you can see how it could work way better with a somewhat more careful execution – but compared to Grim Fandango, this was a project which was knocked out and released in a brisk fashion, and I expect this meant corners were cut on the QA side.
On the writing and storytelling side of things, this is a bit of a mixed bag. As I mentioned, I thought a weakness of Curse of Monkey Island is that it spent a bit too much energy trying to sort out the ending to Monkey Island 2, rather than just telling its own story and expanding the scope of the setting. Bringing in a new villain in the form of Ozzie Mandrill – along with some jockeying for pecking order position between Mandrill and LeChuck – was on the face of it a good way to do this. The joke that Ozzie’s insults are so steeped in obscure Australia-specific slang that the Caribbean pirates can’t understand them well enough to formulated snappy responses, but are delivered viciously enough that the recipients still feel insulted, meaning that this feeble little guy is utterly unbeatable at insult swordfighting, is actually quite a good one.
However, these aspects – Ozzie and the insult swordfighting – also cut to some of the greatest weaknesses of the game. Escape From Monkey Island is in a weird, weird place – on the one hand, it is extremely dependent on previous games in the series to an extent even greater than Curse of Monkey Island, despite its attempts to expand the plot and do something different, which Stemmle has in subsequent interviews admitted was down to “Pure unadulterated fanboyishness”, but at the same time it makes a bunch of blunders which make it difficult for anyone who has been keeping up with the lore of the previous instalments to suspend disbelief.
To handle the latter first, there are some outright contradictions in the script, many of which can’t be interpreted as simply being a glib joke. There’s references to “the island of Puerto Pollo”, despite the fact that this is the name of a town on the island in Curse (the name of the island is Plunder Island). There’s also a lot of fan controversy over a late-game revelation about the secret origins of Herman Toothrot, recurring character and daft old hermit. Jason from the International House of Mojo has written a great article on the subject, which communicates the specifics better than I could.
More to the point, Jason is correct that on the one hand, this isn’t necessarily the canon continuity error that it’s often made out to be, but on the other hand just because it isn’t a 100% definite contradiction doesn’t mean that it isn’t rather sloppy writing which ends up looking very much like a contradiction, since to make it work you have to assume a bunch of details which Escape more or less entirely fails to communicate (and which, indeed, the delivery of the story in Escape tends to point away from), and to give more benefit of the doubt to the writing that many fans are going to be willing to give, since you’re obviously going to be more willing to suspend disbelief for something you enjoy than for something you dislike.
I also agree with Jason’s point that this can be seen as a continuation of Curse of Monkey Island‘s willingness to gleefully retcon in new wrinkles to the series canon. It’s notable that Jason cites Tales of Monkey Island as deliberately playing fast and loose with the canon and making this sort of inconsistency part of the joke; that’s good, but arguably it is a position which Tales was forced into, because any sequel to Monkey Island that isn’t a full-blown reboot and which didn’t want to outright declare any of the previous games to be uncanonical would need to just embrace the inconsistencies at this point.
(There’s some extra irony here in that Escape gives voice to a certain amount of criticism to Curse‘s plot. Again, this may arguably be a case of Escape picking up on a strand already established in Curse, what with it calling out the ending of Monkey Island 2 a lot, but Escape is on much thinner ice here than Curse is.)
Still, the “Puerto Pollo” thing can’t be excused as any sort of genuinely interesting story point which actually makes perfect sense once you infer a bunch of stuff which hasn’t been adequately communicated to the player: it is clearly just the sort of mistake you make out of being sloppy and not paying attention in the first place. Other aspects of the writing on the one hand don’t amount to full-on plot holes, but do suggest a lack of attention paid to earlier episodes.
For instance, though I like the fact that Elaine spends the game doing her own stuff – first getting the death certificate result pulled, then fighting the election – at the same time I don’t like the way her personality and motivations seem to shift at random over the course of the game. In the opening scenes Elaine seems vastly more egocentric than previously, particularly when it comes to talking about the people she rules over. Then, in the last scenes of the game, she gives up the Governorship of the Tri-Islands area for a life of swashbuckling adventure with Guybrush, despite the fact that she has at no point prior to this in the series or in this very game has she expressed any dissatisfaction with the office of Governor.
Another issue here is Ozzie’s overall scheme. See, Ozzie’s plan is to buy up the entire Caribbean and make it bland and touristy – except all three previous games in the series tended to lean into their version of the Caribbean being kind of touristy anyway, as far back as the initial Three Trials section right at the start of The Secret of Monkey Island. Far from Mandrill’s activities being any sort of big change disrupting and ruining the setting we have come to love, which is it evident from Stemmle’s interview was the intention, it’s essentially a continuation of business as usual, and the only way to overlook this is if you simply haven’t played the previous games in the series.
On top of that, Sam and Max Hit the Road kind of already did the “series of hellish tourist traps” concept, so it feels like Clark and Stemmle retreading well-worn ground on that level as well. Stemmle largely takes the blame for this – in the interview I previously linked he noted that he was on a very anti-commercialisation kick at the time, and that perhaps “making a ham-handed commentary about how commercialization ruins everything in the midst of an opportunistic third sequel of a video game series is probably a little TOO unintentionally ironic”.
All this might be somewhat more excusable if the game were easier to take by itself – if the story it were telling was sufficiently self-contained that it didn’t invite you to think back to past canon in the first place. This is not the case. As noted, one of the major points of contention with the fandom is the retconning of the character of Herman Toothrot, who played a prominent role in the first game and had a good cameo in the second game, and a lot of your interactions and conversations with him won’t make a whole heap of sense if you haven’t played those games.
It doesn’t stop there. A bunch of puzzles and plot points are identifiably riffs on puzzle concepts which have been done better in earlier episodes of the game. Good chucks of Escape take place on Mêlée Island and Monkey Island, the locales of the first game; the recreations of the maps there are actually quite nice, and while some players have quibbled about some of the geographic changes, I’m much happier to overlook those since a certain amount of adaptation would have been necessary anyway and the broad arrangement of things is more or less correct. That’s fair enough, but these sections also involve a lot of revisiting of old locations and references to older events which, again, would have the most impact (or, in extreme cases, would only make sense) to players who had played the first game.
There’s a number of NPCs from the first game like Otis and Carla the Sword Master who come back but then have literally no impact on the plot, making their return rather pointless. Murray from Curse also comes back, but he only gets a small cameo and it’s wholly possible to beat the game without ever talking to him – or without talking to Stan, the beloved hyperactive saleman who’s been a running joke in the series since the first game.
The use of Stan here is really odd – he’s useful only as an alternate solution to what may be the only puzzle in the game which actually has multiple routes to solve, but otherwise he is totally irrelevant. This seems like his inclusion was just unthinking fannish checklist-ticking – you throw in Stan because you always have a Stan puzzle in a Monkey Island game – but you would think that given his status as the crassest, most shameless, most hucksterish face of unfettered capitalism in the previous games, he’d have some sort of significant role to play in Ozzie’s plans on one level or another.
He actually makes more sense as an employee of Ozzie than LeChuck would – have Stan be the pitch man, the guy who’s the face of Ozzie’s operations, and have Ozzie be the power behind the throne. In fact, if you take this direction, reveal that a lot of the touristy aspects of the previous games were in fact the early signs of Ozzie’s schemes as established through Stan’s activities, and have Stan be the guy who set a lot of this stuff up before Ozzie started getting nastier with it, then a lot of my issues with the Ozzie plot would be resolved. You wouldn’t have to make Stan an outright villain to do it – just leave him the same sort of somewhat vapid dope who just loves sales but didn’t think too much about who he was working for.
As for LeChuck, his handling in the game is a mess. First he is working for Ozzie, then he’s doing his own thing, then Ozzie has him on the leash again. His “Charles L. Charles” persona, while funny, is basically a repeat of the “LeChuck uses his spooky powers to pretend to be someone of authority on Mêlée Island” plot point from the first game. The way he cycles between his demon, zombie, and ghost forms is not really explained at all – not overtly, not implicitly – and feels like Clark and Stemmle just plain failed to come up with any sort of clever new thing to do with LeChuck, but didn’t feel able to abandon him. It’s also literally a cycling series of callbacks in a game which is already heavily-laden with callbacks, to an extent that the writing feels more like fanfiction than a continuation of the canon.
In short, Escape From Monkey Island‘s relationship with the preceding games is an utter mess. The game ends up in this tremendously awkward place where on the wrong hand it is so utterly dependent on the preceding continuity that you simply won’t understand half the game if you haven’t played the previous ones, but the other half of the game is impossible to enjoy unless you haven’t played the previous games, since if you have you’ll spot all of these absurd contradictions which will totally throw you out of your enjoyment.
In other words, Escape is simultaneously wholly subsumed in the shadow of the earlier games and unable to reach beyond them, and completely dependent on you being willing to forget the stuff from the earlier games it wants you to forget whilst also remembering all the details it wants you to remember. This is a catch-22 which, if it were deliberate, if it were acknowledged, and if something interesting were done with it, could be possible to brush off as deliberate irreverence, but as it stands is just a mess.
The writing is not just a problem when you set it against the rest of the series, however: it also trips over on its own terms. The entire Ultimate Insult plot is supposed to unlock the power of a primal insult – in keeping with the fanfic-ish tone of the game, the “Insult Swordfighting” concept is implemented in all sorts of other activities. In some respects, this works pretty well: the first insult duel you get, Guybrush kicks ass because he starts off knowing all the insults and ripostes, in keeping with him being more experienced now. Then he meets Ozzie and can’t beat him because he can’t understand his brutally turbocharged Australian barbs. Then, at last, the Ultimate Insult is found and Guybrush can finally defeat Ozzie. Fine.
Except… when the Ultimate Insult is actually put together, it doesn’t actually involve any sort of insult. In Ozzie’s hands, it’s a flashy magical staff which allows him to get all Emperor Palpatine on people; Guybrush’s equivalent allows him to power up the Giant Monkey Head on Monkey Island, which in complete defiance of previously-established canon about what is inside there turns out to be the head of a giant monkey robot. None of these things are insults and insults are in no way integral to their use for the most part.
You know how the Ultimate Insult could have worked, if you wanted to make an actually funny joke out of it and if you wanted it to function as an actual insult?
You include actual swearing.
Bleeped-out, of course. But – and given the Anglo-Saxon origin of many English swear words, this would also tie into the idea that the insult is in a primal language – you give enough context so it’s clear to the actual adults watching that actual swears are being bleeped out.
But imagine this version of the end of the game: Guybrush has finally found the true Ultimate Insult, a version of it more powerful even than the one LeChuck and Ozzie has. He’s about to enter combat with them. LeChuck issues forth an erudite and cutting insult, a devastating assessment of and condemnation of Guybrush’s personality and values which by rights should have completely eviscerated him. As the dust settles, Guybrush is somehow still standing; he flicks back his hair, levels his sword at LeChuck, the music swells…
Then he just says “Go fuck yourself, you undead arsehole”.
This shocking display of (bleeped-out) profanity breaks all the accepted rules of honourable combat among pirates and blasts LeChuck and Ozzie into oblivion. At the behest of Elaine and the Voodoo Lady, Guybrush agrees that such power is too much to be allowed to remain, and destroys the Ultimate Insult. (Perhaps there’s a post-credit scene where a parrot pokes about in the ashes and then squawks “Bollocks!” or something.)
This could all be just as flashy and silly and over the top as the actual ending, but it also allows the Ultimate Insult to function as an insult – rather than a name applied to a completely generic superweapon or superweapon power source.
As it stands, this is a game which refuses to say “hell” – it just says “heck”. Which is weird, because we know for a fact that LucasArts didn’t expect great sales in America for its adventure games anyway but relied on European sales, and over here on the side of the Atlantic where “hell” in various forms has been part of our linguistic palette for millennia, we really aren’t fussy about it. Why tone down the game in light of the prissy pearl-clutching of the American Bible Belt when that isn’t even the market you are making it for in the first place?
The insult stuff gets worse because it ends up folded into a true insult to the player – namely, bad gameplay. It’s time to address the
elephant monkey in the room and delve into the utter drivel which is Monkey Kombat.
You see, as one of the puzzles in the game Guybrush must master a new form of combat – a variety of monkey martial arts, utilising insults that are not in English but are in the primal monkey language. It works through a system of five different stances. Each stance beats two other stances and is beaten by the other two stances. To switch between one specific stance and another specific stance, you need to know the three-part monkey insult (composed of the primal monkey noises Oop, Eek, Ack, Chee) which allows you to switch.
OK, fine: just as in the first and third games you can’t get good at insult swordfighting until you’ve done a bunch of fights against random people and learned a repertoire of insults and ripostes, you won’t do great at Monkey Kombat until you have done the work of going around challenging random monkeys and learning the various insults which allow for switching between the stances, and figure out which stance beats what other stance.
The problem is that working through that process is an utter pain. In fact, it’s enough of a headache that when the game was ported to the PlayStation 2 – a format where the controller actually worked quite nicely with the control system here – they actually toned down the Monkey Kombat section to make it more approachable. I own and played the PC version of the game, though – which is also the one which is more easily obtained – and even later versions don’t patch in any of these improvements, so I’m basing this review on the original design.
The major problem here is that whilst in the previous games the dialogue system in swordfights remembers the insults and ripostes you have heard for you, so you can go in and select the ones you want to use, here the game doesn’t store the monkey insults for you – you have to jot them down yourself and construct a little table to keep track of which stances beat which other stances and how to switch between the stances. It helps a little that each monkey insult works for reversing stance shifts – so the code for switching from Anxious Ape to Drunken Monkey will also switch Drunken Monkey back to Anxious Ape, halving the number of codes you might otherwise need to get – but it is still a bit onerous.
What takes it beyond being “a bit onerous” into “utterly dull” is how slow the actual fights are. They take a heap of time, you often get into situations where you and your opponent are just cycling between the same stances and you’re not learning anything new (thus not getting any closer to finishing your table), and most unforgivably, they are repetitive and not very funny. Sure, early on watching Guybrush and these monkeys adopt these stances is amusing, but it gets old quickly, and because these are unintelligible monkey insults, not witty insults in a human language the player understands, it’s just not funny the way that insult swordfighting is funny.
It gets worse. Let’s talk about the final puzzle in the game, in which you must fight LeChuck and Ozzie in a massive, epic, kaiju-scale Monkey Kombat battle utilising the power of the Ultimate Insult.
(OK, sure, we have Guybrush here piloting a giant monkey robot powered by the Ultimate Insult fighting a giant LeChuck statue animated by LeChuck’s spirit and commanded by Ozzie through the power of the Ultimate Insult, using monkey language insults in the “primal language” that the Ultimate Insult is supposed to be in. However, my point above about how the Ultimate Insult isn’t used as an insult still stands. Here, the Ultimate Insult is not needed to deliver the actual monkey language insults, so it can’t really be said that the Ultimate Insult is being used as an insult here, since the insults slung in this fight are based on the characters’ acquired knowledge of monkey-speak, not the Ultimate Insult – as evidenced by the fact that Guybrush masters Monkey Kombat before he actually obtains the Ultimate Insult.)
The problem you are faced with is that both you and LeChuck regenerate your health quickly, so you can’t beat him and he can’t beat you. The way you beat the game is that you deliberately match LeChuck’s stances, forcing a draw, at which point LeChuck slaps himself on the head in frustration – squishing Ozzie, who’s stood on top of LeChuck’s stony hat. Unfortunately – and this is something which Clark and Stemmle have acknowledged previously – there’s nothing in the game which properly sets this up why this works. Why would a series of draws frustrate LeChuck more than you coming up with the proper counter to each of his stances each time? It is not remotely explained.
This is not the only puzzle in the game which is rather oblique; some of the puzzle solutions here are outright absurd, and in a way which is too often annoying rather than funny (often as a result of the limitations of the interface). That’s when you don’t include puzzles which have been known to flat-out glitch out, like the “restoring Herman’s memory” puzzle which is an infamous point where you can inadvertently put your game into an unwinnable loop if you do the wrong thing.
Yes, you read that right: if you are not careful to only use the exact items on Herman to restore his memory that you need to, you can put your Escape From Monkey Island game into an unwinnable state. It’s a bug which, so far as I can tell, has never been patched (at least not in the PC version – it might have been fixed for the PS2 release), and it has the highly dubious honour of making Escape From Monkey Island the first LucasArts adventure since Zak McKracken it is possible to put into an objectively unwinnable state, a direct violation of the design philosophy enunciated by Ron Gilbert back in his Why Adventure Games Suck essay which was in effect the manifesto underpinning the design of the original game.
If you are inclined to be harsh to the game – and as I’ve outlined, there are plenty of reasons why this should be the case – you could consider this bit, right here, to be the central flaw which convicts Escape as not merely being a below-par Monkey Island game, but a full blown betrayal of the underlying spirit of LucasArts adventure games in general and Monkey Island specifically. I don’t think I would convict it on this point, since the issue is clearly a bug, not an intrinsic part of the game design like some of the nonsense in Zak McKracken, in which potential unwinnable situations can arise as a result of the game working 100% as intended.
Still, the fact that it slipped through is another thing which suggests to me that the QA process on this game was sloppy. Stemmle has said that the design of the third act was late and done in a rush, and so it’s possible that this may be a consequence of that.
Even so, whilst I don’t think you can convict Clark and Stemmle of first degree Crimes Against LucasArts Adventures on the grounds of this one point alone, their record over the course of this game as a whole is poor, and there’s other issues besides. There are more incidents of horrible fat-shaming jokes this time around even than in Monkey Island 2, and in addition there’s a lot of more sexual humour which seems incongruous with the tone of previous games (and especially incongruous with an unwillingness to say “Hell”); the running joke where Guybrush puts on a Barry White voice to try out sleazy pickup lines on every woman he has a conversation with aside from Elaine seems awkward in a game predicated on them being happily married and feels like Guybrush has temporarily been possessed by Leisure Suit Larry.
Clark and Stemmle clearly are not incapable of producing a good adventure game – Sam and Max Hit the Road is great. However, Escape From Monkey Island demonstrates that they are also capable of producing horribly botched adventure games. At its best, Escape feels like a good-but-not-great Monkey Island fan game; at its worst, Escape feels like it’s steering the LucasArts adventure game bandwagon straight into a ditch.
If Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned was a flawed but fascinating swansong for Sierra’s adventure games, an essentially good game let down by a few weak moments here and there and a fitting final chapter for one of Sierra’s best series, Escape From Monkey Island is the mirror image of that: a botched job best forgotten and a humiliating end to a noble lineage, an essentially bad game with a few good sections here and there and an entry undeserving of the series which it is a part of.
A Failed Dimensional Jump, and Some Happier Endings
I’ve already discussed the end of the era of big budget adventure games from Sierra and LucasArts, their major homes, in the final article in my Sierra overview series, and I’m not going to extensively rehash the same ground here – but I think I can make a few further comments based on finally playing some of these final games to come out of LucasArts.
Suffice to say that for a four year span after Escape From Monkey Island came out, LucasArts announced adventure game projects only to cancel them later on. Two Full Throttle sequels were attempted before being canned; an outcry happened after Mike Stemmle’s Sam and Max: Freelance Police project was cancelled surprisingly late in the development process, right as they were getting the final polishing in and gearing up for release, though if it was closer in quality to Escape From Monkey Island than Sam and Max Hit the Road that may have been a mercy.
As I outlined in the other article, LucasArts management seemed convinced that the European audience for adventure games they had previously depended on no longer existed, at least not in numbers large enough to make such a project worth it, and even setting aside any potential worries about the quality of Sam and Max: Freelance Police which may or may not have existed, LucasArts might have decided they preferred the bad press from cancelling it over the bad press of putting out a game which bombed.
Having now played LucasArts’ last run of adventures – and, in particular, their attempt to make the jump into realtime 3D – I now have an alternate theory. Before, I had tended to assume that an audience for adventure games unquestionably still existed in Europe in the early 2000s, as evinced by several well-received European adventures becoming significant commercial hits for their publishers at the time, but LucasArts had unilaterally decided to walk away from them – either because they botched their market research and failed to detect them or, more likely, they realised the audience was small enough that it would never be worth their while putting their development and marketing time and money behind an adventure game when they could just do more Star Wars stuff and get a much better return on investment.
Now, however, I begin to think that perhaps LucasArts walked away from adventure games because adventure game players walked away from LucasArts. In retrospect, playing Full Throttle reminds me that that’s exactly what I did – I got deeply annoyed by the action sequences and went off to new pastures. Other games were coming out which gave similarly deep writing and worldbuilding and characters to LucasArts’ stuff, both in the CRPG field and when it came to adventure games produced by smaller studios. Bad word of mouth steered me away from Escape From Monkey Island.
Much the same thing may well have happened to Sierra – with the third Gabriel Knight ultimately becoming a figure of mockery on the basis of its worst puzzle (and not one which was part of the original game design) as Old Man Murray enunciated, in its bluntly insensitive way, what many gamers were thinking about some of the worst excesses of puzzles in adventure games. As much as adventure gamers today mourn the end of adventure production at LucasArts and Sierra, I suspect many of those same gamers, living through the same time period, may have ended up arguing that Sierra and LucasArts had lost it and bemoaned the end of earlier phases of adventure game design.
Just like Sierra, LucasArts were going through this point in time trying to contend with new graphical possibilities. If we set aside The Dig, whose appearance was dictated less by a specific, coherent plan and more by the need to just use what assets they already had and just finish the damn thing, we’re looking at a set of games here that first try to incorporate cutting-edge 2D graphics, and then try to make the jump to 3D.
And what is now dawning on me, just as Herman Toothrot gradually regains his memory in Escape From Monkey Island, is that the received wisdom at the time was that 3D adventure games were kind of bad, especially the third-person perspective ones (as opposed to first-person perspective ones like Myst and its imitators) and obviously in the face of that sort of word of mouth you are going to stay away. (Escape From Monkey Island apparently sold OK numbers, but slowly, with a big dip as initial word of mouth got out – a pattern later seen by a certain obscure LucasArts movie series whose seventh to ninth episodes and some side stories were taken over by fans who did a very fannish take on the franchise which didn’t emerge from the shadow of the original material.)
Let’s consider the timeline.
- 1996-1997: Sierra and LucasArts put out their final 2D animated adventure games. Leisure Suit Larry: Love For Sail! is reasonably well-received, even though it’s showing the series’ age a little and contains some unusually nasty humour for the series. Curse of Monkey Island is, aside from some shaky sections, pretty damn good and does particularly well in Europe, keeping the light on for adventure games at LucasArts a bit longer.
- October 1998: Grim Fandango releases, a day before Halloween and three days before the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s great, and its reputation has grown over time since its initial release, but early impressions are affected by the rather unfortunate control scheme.
- November 1998: King’s Quest VIII: Mask of Eternity releases, incorporating a ton of RPG mechanics and generally steering away from the series’ adventure game roots. Adventure game fans are horrified.
- December 1998: Quest For Glory V: Dragon Fire releases and ends up having the most mixed reception of any of the games among its fanbase, as a result of pivoting towards being an RPG with adventure game aspects rather than an adventure game with RPG aspects. Though this is more palatable in a Quest For Glory context, it still is likely to leave fans wondering whether Sierra even want to keep making adventures.
- 1999: Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned releases. Some puzzles – especially the infamous cat moustache – are botched due to the rush to the finish, and the control system is weird. Over time, its reputation is somewhat salvaged as people revisit it, but it’s not what adventure game fans were hoping for at the time.
- 2000: Escape From Monkey Island releases. Though it is a traditional adventure game in sensibilities, it also ships with bugs – including some game-breaking ones which break puzzles – and not all of them are fixed by the patch. Though it has fun moments, overall it’s kind of a huge turd.
So if you’d been following the major US adventure game houses at the time, the span from 1998 to 2000 is going to be a real rollercoaster for you. If you’d bought all the games as they came out, you might have a more balanced view, but if like many you were dipping into which games caught your eye and paying attention to word of mouth, it probably seemed even worse than it was.
As it stood, of the five adventures released by Sierra and LucasArts in that timespan, all of them have their issues (I don’t think Grim Fandango can truly be said to be an excellent game unless you incorporate the point and click patch on ResidualVM or in the Remastered version), at least one was outright bad, and several of them didn’t really seem to be so interested in their adventure game aspects.
Under such circumstances, would you have that much confidence as a consumer in new Sierra and LucasArts adventures? I wouldn’t – especially not if I had actually suffered through Escape From Monkey Island. I’d go get my adventure kicks elsewhere – and arguably, that’s exactly what fans did.
The post-LucasArts lives of the LucasArts adventure game auteurs has been somewhat better than the experiences of the Sierra crew. Tim Schafer, of course, made Kickstarter into a monster through his Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, enabling the production of Broken Age, and the Remastered versions of his LucasArts adventures by and large are the definitive editions. Ron Gilbert did his own Kickstarter and produced Thimbleweed Park, a reasonable success, and the release of the side story Delores suggests he’s keeping his hand in the game. Many other old hands from LucasArts would eventually form Telltale Games and, through their episodic model, spearheaded a new era for adventure games as big flashy endeavours through material like the Walking Dead game. They even managed to produce new sequels to beloved LucasArts series, with multiple new episodic seasons of Sam and Max games and Tales of Monkey Island to their name.
On the whole, it seems like a happier legacy than the rather patchier picture offered by the Sierra veterans, but it’s also in keeping with the legacy of the games they left behind, many of which remain worth playing today. As I’ve constantly said, LucasArts prized quality over quantity, and if there are less LucasArts adventures out there to remnisce about, there’s far less absolute failures on their hands to shudder at the recollection of. One Escape From Monkey Island was more than enough.