The Creators of ‘Return to Monkey Island’ Talk Pirates at PAX West

Kelly Knox

One of this year’s most anticipated games was only shown behind closed doors at PAX West 2022, and I managed to get inside—no Monkey Head Key required. You guessed it (and it’s in the headline), I’m talking about Return to Monkey Island! Co-writers Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, along with executive producer Craig Derrick, shared an enticing peek at what erstwhile pirate Guybrush Threepwood is up to now.

Derrick, Gilbert, and Grossman sat down with Fandom during PAX West to talk about going back to Monkey Island, how the game appeals to players both old and new, and what the actual secret of Monkey Island even is. Just kidding about that last one; there’s no way they’d reveal that! …Or is there?

First, let’s get the question we all have out of the way. Why go back to Monkey Island?

“Why not?” Gilbert said with a laugh. “A bunch of things just fell into place that hadn’t before, and it just made a lot of sense to do this thing. I called up Dave and I said, ‘Hey, Dave, want to make another Monkey Island?’”

“I gave him the thumbs up,” Grossman said. “I was immediately sure. Ron was a little trepidatious at first. There’s kind of a weighty responsibility now to making a Monkey Island game that there wasn’t the last time we did this together.”

“The game has 35 years to build up this fandom,” said Gilbert. “This almost cult following. I wanted to make sure if we were going to make another Monkey Island, that we didn’t just tell a ‘Monkey Island story.’ We really wanted to tell a story that was very personal to Dave and I, and make sure that we had the right story to tell, that had some meaning to it.”

The Story (Sort of)

Gilbert and Grossman were understandably tight-lipped about the plot but gave a few hints. Years have passed since the second installment of the Monkey Island games, both in the real world and for Guybrush Threepwood.

“It’s a story about unfinished business,” Grossman said. “For us, just making the game at all is a way to address unfinished business and tie up a few loose ends. For Guybrush it’s kind of the same thing. He goes out trying to close out an old chapter in his life, and it sort of evolves from there.”

“Guybrush is on the search for the secret of Monkey Island,” Gilbert said. “He wants to know what the secret of Monkey Island really is. In some ways, it’s our unfinished business, too. What is the secret of Monkey Island? It’s not just a title. There is actually a secret, but we’ve never revealed it before.”

Back Into the Meleé

Guybrush makes his way back to Meleé Island, and in the quick preview of the game I saw, the town is worse for wear. Boarded-up windows and crumbling buildings greet Guybrush on his return. But there were also some familiar faces waiting to welcome our hero back to town. The Lookout, the wise Voodoo Lady, and everyone’s old pal Stan S. Stanman are all back.

Naturally, they all have some advice and suggestions to get Guybrush going on his quest. In fact, Gilbert said, the Voodoo Lady has more than just riddles to offer.

“If you get stuck,” Gilbert said, “we built [a hint book] into the game, which you get from the Voodoo Lady. It’s not just a pop-up. It’s an actual book that you get from her that you can leaf through.”

That game mechanic is indicative of a general design philosophy of Return to Monkey Island to keep changing with the times. The result is a pitch-perfect combination of the elements of a classic adventure game with a gorgeous off-kilter art style and an intuitive UI. Pixel art, an item list longer than your arm, and point-and-click commands taking up most of the screen are long gone.

“I wanted Return to Monkey Island to not just be a ‘throwback game,’” Gilbert said. “We really wanted to do a new Monkey Island… With that, I think, comes pushing a lot of stuff forward, and art is one of them.”

All Are Welcome on Monkey Island

Returning players will love to see those beloved faces and places return, but new players won’t feel left out if this is their first foray to Meleé. The team made it a point to make a Monkey Island game that would appeal to both veterans and newcomers to the classic franchise.

“We had playtesters from both of those groups,” said Grossman. “Of course, it was difficult to find anyone who had not heard of Monkey Island, but we ferreted them out and tried it out on them. It was a success.”

“We wanted to make sure we would still have in-jokes and poke fun of stuff,” Gilbert added, “but we never want to make the player feel that, if they aren’t a big Monkey Island fan, to never have them feel like they’re missing out on something.”

“It was super important for us, too, on the Lucasfilm side,” Derrick agreed. “It’s important for us to be able to have a self-contained story that’s fresh to those players who are coming into it new, as well as people who have loved the franchise the whole time. [Return to Monkey Island] welcomes the new player but rewards the returning player.”

A Pirate’s Life

There’s only one question left to ask as the story of Guybrush Threepwood comes to a close. Why does that guy want to be a pirate so badly, anyway?

“It’s one of those things you just accept, isn’t it?” Grossman said.

“Now I just [think about] things like, where did he come from? How did he get to this island?” Gilbert laughed. “I’ve always been bothered by the fact that he shows up at the lookout, but the dock is way down below. It’s just weird things like that that we didn’t really think about back then.”

“In the original one it was just, well, Guybrush wants to be a pirate,” Grossman said. “He shows up and he says that in the first line, and we never really questioned it or put any backstory in there.

“We’re better now. We’d never do that today,” he added innocently.

Explore that rich backstory (maybe) and so much more when Return to Monkey Island sets sail on September 19, 2022.

Kelly Knox
Kelly Knox is a writer and author in the Seattle area. She's a frequent contributor to the websites for pop culture powerhouses like Star Wars, DC Comics, Crunchyroll, and more.