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Return To Monkey Island – All the world’s a stage

Year: 2022 | Publisher: Devolver Digital| Developer: Terrible Toybox| Original format: Nintendo Switch, PC | Version played: Nintendo Switch

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers regarding the ending of Return To Monkey Island. If you’re a fan of the series, please do not read unless you’ve already played and finished the game. Ye have been warned!

I’ve always loved the beginning of The Secret Of Monkey Island and the ending of its sequel, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Though the two scenes appear very different on the surface, to me they’re intrinsically linked. The very first time we meet Guybrush Threepwood, he steps onto the screen and announces, “My name’s Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate!” There’s something about the way he enters the screen, like an actor stepping on to a stage from behind a curtain, almost as if the world of Monkey Island exists only for Guybrush and the player. Like it comes to life the moment he appears, and stands motionless when he leaves.

At this point I don’t think I can accurately say if I’ve always felt this way about the start of The Secret Of Monkey Island or if it’s a reading I’ve adopted in hindsight after the iconic ending of Monkey Island 2. At the end of that sequel, the game’s world is revealed to be a complete artifice as Guybrush and his nemesis, LeChuck, exit the world to seemingly find themselves transformed into children, lost in a pirate theme park not unlike the Pirates Of The Caribbean attraction that originally inspired the first game.

This twist ending confounded adventure gamers for decades, leaving them without any real answers as the series progressed without the involvement of original writers Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer. The third game, The Curse Of Monkey Island, largely ignored the ending of Monkey Island 2, save for the enigmatic intro, in which we find Guybrush floating alone on the sea in an anachronistic dodgem.

As good as Curse was, I couldn’t help but wonder about the big unanswered questions left by the first two games. Were Guybrush and LeChuck really just kids lost in a theme park, letting their imagination run wild? And what was the actual secret of Monkey Island? With 2022’s Return To Monkey Island, Gilbert and Grossman, promised to answer both of those questions, while also delivering a fresh adventure that blended classic values with modern design. I’ll let others chime in on how well they pulled it off, and focus instead on those long awaited revelations.

As you might expect, the answers aren’t exactly straight forward, especially since Gilbert wanted Return to resolve the themes of the first two games without contradicting the other three sequels. In order to do this, the story takes a big swing right from the start by revealing that the young boy you see in Monkey Island 2’s twist ending wasn’t Guybrush at all, but his son!

I never could have predicted this twist, and I’m seriously impressed by it. Not only does it give Gilbert a way out from Monkey Island 2’s ending, it also allows for all the sequels to have happened. By telling its story in flashback, passed down by Guybrush to his son, it affords the player the comfortable assumption that the events of the first two games and the theme park ending both hold true. Perhaps the theme park is just one that exists within the world of Monkey Island, rather than outside it in “reality”. Perhaps Guybrush’s previous adventures did all happen after all. If only it were that simple!

I’m sure I’d still like it if the dangling narrative threads had been wrapped up in neat little bow. If I left Return To Monkey Island with no more questions, it would still be a beautifully told, funny and engaging adventure game. But I’m not sure it would have had quite the same emotional impact.

The overriding emotion in Return To Monkey Island is nostalgia. As implied in the title, this game is all about revisiting the past and, as such, sees Guybrush return both to the titular Monkey Island and to Melee Island, the iconic first location of the original game. Much of the joy of this new entry is in going back to these familiar places, and catching up with old friends, to see what’s different and what is still the same.

For someone who first played The Secret Of Monkey Island in my formative years, this was a powerful experience; exactly what the words warm and fuzzy were invented for. Which makes the rug pull of the ending all the more heartbreaking.  In the final moments of the game, just as Guybrush is about to defeat LeChuck and finally discover the true secret of Monkey Island, the game pulls the same stunt again as he steps through a conspicuous doorway right onto the backstreet of a theme park.

This time there are no tricks. Guybrush isn’t a kid; he’s a full-grown adult, standing in a complete cardboard recreation of Melee Island’s Low Street. LeChuck and his pirate cohorts are animatronic puppets and the only real humans around are Guybrush’s wife Elaine, and Stan who now seems to own the park.

One last puzzle awaits in this area, though it’s an optional one. If you take a key from one of the robotic pirates, you can use it to open a treasure chest containing the literal secret of Monkey Island… It’s a t-shirt, commemorating Guybrush’s day in the park and, presumably, a prize for completing a sort of escape room style set of challenges that make up the many puzzles you’ve solved during the course of the game. As Guybrush observes the attraction, one dialogue option even says, “Each time I come here, Stan really ups the challenge’, implying that perhaps every single Monkey Island game was a fantasy.

The t-shirt is just about the most disappointing answer you could possibly imagine to the decades old question posed by The Secret Of Monkey Island. You can’t even USE it to make Guybrush wear it! Rather, it takes on a symbolic quality that calls Guybrush’s very reality into question. Perhaps these adventures we’ve all loved so much are nothing more than the product of an overactive imagination. Dreamed up by a man who wants nothing more than to be a pirate when, as this ending reveals, he’s actually just a flooring inspector.

But there’s a greater significance to the t-shirt; one not lost on Guybrush as his son reacts to the secret with the same disappointment I’ve noticed some fans feel too. The truth is, there could have been anything locked in that treasure chest, but would it really have made a difference? Could any revelation at all have answered the question in a satisfying and meaningful way after thirty years of wonder? I really don’t think so. Which makes Gilbert’s decision to answer it at all so interesting.

Like the Lucasarts and Telltale designers before him, Gilbert could have played it safe and delivered a very good adventure without challenging the player’s perception of the reality they’ve invested so many hours in. Yet he decided to double down on the ending of Monkey Island 2 instead. In many ways, it feels fitting. If you’re going to truly “return” to Monkey Island and revisit its most iconic characters and locations along the way, why not duplicate its most famous and potentially upsetting ending too. Allow the player to feel safe and then hit them with the one twist they thought they were safest from.

After the opening of the game so skillfully sidestepped the twist of Monkey Island 2, it’s even more of a gut punch to go right back to it at the end. Yet as that initial shock wore off, I did find the game take on a more melancholy, almost haunting, tone.

Shortly after emerging into the theme park version of Melee Island, Guybrush speaks to Stan, who’s decided to let you close down the park for the night. He hands you a set of keys and asks that you use them to switch off four lights illuminating the dark streets of the cardboard Melee.

As I was walked around the streets using the familiar inventory system to unlock each switch and then manually shut it off, I was all too conscious of the active role I was taking to draw Guybrush’s adventure to an end, like switching off the house lights before going to bed for the last time. Each switch further plunges the street into darkness, section by section, as if the lights of the world itself were being switched off. With a pit in my stomach, I knew I had to do it anyway.

After speaking to Elaine and making an active choice to leave the park for good, the story moves on to one last scene, a final dialogue between Guybrush and son on the park bench. Through a small number of dialogue options, you help the unnamed son come to terms with the story he’s just heard, and it’s particularly sweet that there are a number of different interpretations you can offer him. Each presents an opportunity to contextualize the point of the story while also, perhaps, coming to terms with it yourself. No matter what I picked, I must say I struggled to digest the conclusion. My mind desperately wanted to reconcile all of the truths into one cohesive plot, to somehow find a way for the theme park ending to make sense while not disregarding all of my fondest memories from 30 years of adventuring.

The best explanation I could settle on at this point is that the events of all the games did happen, but from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator whose wild imagination allowed a series of theme park visits to appear more real than they actually were. But if that really is the point of the story, I pondered, doesn’t that spoil some of the magic? Could there be another explanation? Is it possible that everything did happen as presented, but happened so many years ago from the perspective of this adult Guybrush that in recounting the tales to his son, they become exaggerated and embellished, even conflated with his family’s favourite theme park?

Of course, there will never be a definitive answer to these questions but it’s the way they continue to nag at me, days after finishing the game, which makes them so powerful. If Gilbert intended for this ending to stay with me for decades, just like before, then I think he may have pulled it off. Especially since the final shot got so far under my skin it now lives in my soul…

It’s important to remember that at this point in the story, even though the plot revelations are fresh and raw for the player, they are years in the past for Guybrush. Long enough ago for his child to age about 8-10 years. He’s clearly had time to come to terms with the past in a way the player hasn’t yet, and I think it shows.

After Elaine mentions some treasure maps she’s found, teasing Guybrush with the prospect of another adventure, or at least another indulgence of his imagination, Guyrbush tells his wife and child to go on ahead and that he’ll catch up soon. Then comes a moment that, even now, puts a lump in my throat.

He just sits there. Quietly and peacefully, he sits and does nothing. For perhaps the first and only time in my long history with this character, he doesn’t have a trial to overcome, no puzzle to solve, no threat to overcome, not even a witty remark to select. He seems so content.

The moment lasts for just a few seconds but it’s long enough and quiet enough to create a vacuum. With nothing else to engage with in this moment, I found all kinds of emotions rushing to fill that void. I can’t put a label on any of specific feeling, they’re too indistinct for that, but when the scene eventually fades to black they hit me like a ton of bricks. Not because I thought this might be the last time I might see one of my favourite fictional characters. Not even because of the journey I’d just been on. But because I truly got the sense that this incarnation of Guybrush was finally free from it all and at peace.

When I first met Guybrush in the early Nineties, he was a solitary soul, adrift in a strange world with a singular goal to become a pirate. Yet now, in what might be his final appearance, he’s surrounded by loved ones and seems to want nothing more. If Melee Island never was real, it sure doesn’t seem to matter now. He clearly still holds those memories dear, whether they happened or not, and if they were all in his imagination, well, that imagination is one hell of a gift.

The answers, if you can call them that, are far from definitive. In fact, the game actually has a number of secret post-credits scenes that change depending on the actions you do or don’t take at the end. Some of these reinforce the theme park reality while others leave the door open to the possibility that this magical world does exist in some way. I like that there’s ambiguity to the ending, but I like even more how comfortable with uncertainty this mature incarnation of Guybrush seems to be.

Whether it’s the secret of Monkey Island, the treasure of Big Whoop, or a grand answer that neatly ties up the story, he doesn’t seem to need them any more. Life has handed him a different, more infinitely satisfying adventure and the past, real or not, still makes for an entertaining yarn. His name is Guybrush Threepwood and, finally, he wants for nothing.


One thought on “Return To Monkey Island – All the world’s a stage

  1. I also felt a pit in my stomach with the whole ending thing… Although I still think they handled it poorly.
    I have no problem with lifting the curtains and seeing the puppet strings… But what really irked me is the anticlimatic nature of it all.
    In the original MI2, you still had a final showdown with lechuck that tested your wits.
    Here it was just some pretty lame puzzles.
    I agree with Yahtzee Croshaw when he’s just pissed at the devs. We play games because we want to engage with fantasy, and it feels like the creators are just saying “lol this is all shit we made up” WE KNOW. Have a proper effing ending please.


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