As I kept reflecting on the ending, some new thoughts have sprung. This will be an enormous post, soI’ll be truly grateful to those who manage to read the whole thing.
So called “metanarratives” have been told before, across various mediums, whereas by placing the audience as the unwilling target of some sort of storytelling, fourth-wall breaking pun, or resorting to the “it was all in the main character’s head and imagination all along” angle.
Regardless of how masterfully conceived these “metanarratives” can be (whether in the form of books, movies, etc.), there is inevitably a gap, a distance, between what the characters are experiencing and what is our own reaction to those experiences. A good storyteller will diminish that distance, create greater empathy between the audience and the characters, but we are still outside witnesses, external observants. We can be touched emotionally by the story, but that tends to come down to how much empathy has been conjured between us and the characters, on how much we can imagine ourselves in the characters’ shoes, on how much we can “relate”.
However, I feel RTMI takes this to a whole new level, using a storytelling method that is a particularly perfect vehicle for exploration of this kind of thematic undercurrent: the point and click adventure game.
This goes beyond the mere notion of being able to control where the main character goes, or how long we can linger in certain places or even the choices of dialogue (within the obvious limitations of the game framework). Those are just the mechanical and functional means of the storytelling experience.
We learn, in what I think is a pretty definitive and unequivocal conclusion, that the world of Monkey Island is a plateau of existence, a mental place, a dimension, if you will, where Guybrush finds solace, refuge, escapism and entertainment. I won’t go into the discussion whether this dimension is any more real than the one where his everyday existence is taking place. What seems pretty definitive to me, is that those two dimensions are separate, they are two different things, although elements from the “everyday dimension”, to a certain extent, seem to feed the fabric of the Monkey Island dimension (and probably vice-versa. as well), as the things we experience almost subconsciously in our everyday lives can also feed our dreams.
This Monkey Island dimension might have been triggered by Guybrush’s experiences, both as a child and as an adult, in a pirate themed amusement park, as a way to escape from a reality that is either too sad, too painful, too dull or too empty to face without solace. The details really don’t matter. And this is where the “metanarrative” comes to its full fruition. We are not witnessing Guybrush escaping into an imaginary pirate world, as he tries to take some reprieve from his everyday existente, while feeling empathy for his plight.
No, we are Guybrush!
As much as I ever felt in any work of art, we are indeed the character. We are not empathizing with Guybrush, we are not relating to Guybrush. We truly are Guybrush. We are the ones looking for solace, refuge, escapism and entertainment in a fictional pirate world. We are the ones (particularly in this forum of such dedicated fans), who treasure and look forward to the moments we spend in this Monkey Island dimension. We don’t do it to spend the time while waiting for the train to arrive. We don’t do it because there’s nothing else to do. We don’t do it to fill in the blanks in our daily schedule. We make it a pinnacle of our leisure time. It’s primetime worthy. In those playing hours, we rather be in the Monkey Island world than in whatever real life has to offer , regardless of how happy or fulfilled we feel.
I don’t play Monkey Island the same way I play other games. Not even in the same way I play other point and click adventure games. It’s not to reach the end, get a dopamine fix or an adrenaline rush. I play it for the experience, to live in that world for a bit. That’s why I like linger in the wonderfully evocative locations, just wander around the locals, why I look forward wish to get stuck certain puzzles, so as the music and ambiance seep through my skin and become engrained, so as to when we listen to the soundtrack, it will immediately conjure up memories and feelings of those precious moments spent in the Monkey Island dimension.
And I know Monkey Island is not real. Guybrush knows Monkey Island is not real. But it is true. And it matters. And that’s why we like to discuss the minutiae of this world, what things are “more real” than others (although nothing of it is really real), why we hang posters of it on the wall, listen to the soundtracks, replay the games knowing by heart all the solutions to every single puzzle. We want to keep visiting the same amusement park, we get excited when there’s a new ride on the horizon and we love riding the same old, well-worn, familiar rides.. And when not in the amusement park itself, we reminisce by looking at ticket stubs, park maps, promotional brochures.
And I, like Guybrush, want Monkey Island to be as real as possible. So I keep chasing the horizon, clinging on to every small thing that might make it a little bit more concrete. I want to make LEGO models of Melee Town, the Giant Monkey Head and Woodtick. I want character statutes to proudly display on my bookcases. I want to wear T-Shirts of the Legendary Treasure of Melee Island. But it is not real. It 's not concrete. It can’t be.
And just like Guybrush, I felt disheartened when I reached the back alley of Melee Island at the end of the game. It’s time to go home. My day at the amusement park is almost over. No more new rides to try. It’s with heavy hearts that I turn off all the lights in the park. I have to get back to my more mundane existence.
But this game gives us something absolutely new. Almost revolutionary. It shows us a Guybrush with a life outside of Monkey Island. And a happy and fulfilling life at that, with a beautiful family. And we realize, maybe for the first time, that Guybrush doesn’t really need Monkey Island anymore. He’s ceased to be obsessed by it.
And this is where The Secret comes in. And how it really could never have been something of true importance. It was a red herring all along, a distraction, something with an importance that grew in an unwarrantedly disproportionate manner throughout the years. It was ever only something that was part of the fabric of Monkey Island, among many other things. It was never its raison d'être, never a cipher to understand the whole thing. Monkey Island is not a mystery to solve, but a “reality” to experience. Like life itself.
Lechuck lost sight of this. Monkey Island ceased to be a “good place”, where one could have sprawling adventures, meet colorful characters and visit fascinating places. It was all about The Secret, looking for some sort of resolution, an answer, something with which to cover the gaping holes in his existence.
At the end of the game, Guybrush is finally freed from this anchor (ohh, symbolism). He can now visit Monkey Island because he wants to, not because he has to. It’s something that adds to his life, it doesn’t replace it. And it has become a pure thing again. A place where he can play pirates, simple as that, only constrained by the limits of his imagination. Stories being told around a campfire.
In light of this, the very beginning of The Secret of Monkey Island has become even more perfect. Guybrush arrives at Melee Island not by ship, but by walking through a stone archway, as it were some sort of portal, and declare bluntly and plainly:
This is all we want. We are Guybrush from the very start. We want to be pirates in a make-believe world. That’s why we are playing. Even the setting is perfect. How else would a Pirate setting be enticing unless when seen and interpreted by a child-like imagination? Throw any serious degree of historicity in it and the whole thing crumbles, with all the pillaging, violence, depravity and filth involved. It has to be a Pirate universe as imagined by a child. Again, it was never about The Secret. The whole point of experiencing Monkey Island is perfectly captured by the very first thing Guybrush says.
There can never be a Monkey Island prequel. There’s no other possible beginning. To do it would be to corrupt it. Nothing exists before that declaration of intent. That’s where the whole dimension of Monkey Island is born. “I want to be a pirate”. That’s the absolute summation of what Monkey Island is all about.
At the end, Guybrush (and myself), realize there’s peace to be found in knowing there’s no deeper meaning behind all of it. Monkey Island is a “good place” to visit every now and then. Guybrush has regained the purity of intent shown in that very first scene in The Secret of Monkey Island. The whole thing has become unburdened by overarching narratives, unsaddled by strict continuity between adventures, freed at last from the shackles of having to provide answers and meaning.
Elaine emphasizes this by suggesting yet another adventure. Of the simpler, purer kind. And how perfect and crucial that little intervention is. Brings the whole thing full circle. And Guybrush sits on that bench, looking truly at peace with himself (as I see it), having regained the true purpose of Monkey Island. That image is the perfect coda to the Ron Gilbert trilogy. The lookout scene in SOMI as an overture. This is one as an epilogue.
The world of Monkey Island is now wide open. There was never a better time to create new stories in it. Purer stories. With more cannons and less “canon”.
I became a father 6 months ago. A little Boybrush named Manuel. Like Guybrush, I now have a family to share the world of Monkey Island with. And it has become something new again.