The Weird & Wonderful History of ‘Monkey Island’

Ian Howard
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

Perhaps no designer in the field of point-and-click adventure games (where players explore a setting and solve puzzles by interacting with onscreen elements in pre-scripted ways) is as well-regarded as Ron Gilbert, whose list of credits includes Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, The Cave, and Thimbleweed Park. Gilbert is best known for the creation of the SCUMM engine, which facilitated the development of many of Lucasfilm Games’ entries in the genre.

Having overseen the release of Maniac Mansion in 1987, Gilbert began working in 1988 on a new project. Like Maniac Mansion, this point-and-click game would feature clever cutscenes, absurd humor, and devious puzzles. Originally slated as a set of short stories, Gilbert’s idea for an epic pirate tale would eventually become a series spanning six games and four publishers over the course of more than 30 years.

Join us on our journey as we explore the mysteries and history of Monkey Island.

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Gilbert began working in earnest on what would become the Monkey Island series in 1989, alongside other Lucasfilm Games employees Tim Schafer and David Grossman (both talented in their own right). The first game, The Secret of Monkey Island, released in 1990.

To capture the style of the game, Gilbert drew heavily from his childhood memories of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. While the game’s archipelago setting is fictional, the overall aesthetic draws heavily from stylized versions of the 17th- and 18th-century Caribbean. Naturally, the influence of real history is filtered through Gilbert’s trademark off-kilter sense of humor, with characters sporting outlandish accents and extravagant costumes.

Gilbert also pulled from the 1987 novel On Stranger Tides, a historical fantasy about pirates such as Blackbeard facing off against practitioners of necromantic magic loosely based on the Vodun tradition of Western Africa and its descendants, notably Haitian Vodou. The Secret of Monkey Island and its successors would lean equally heavily on this popular interpretation of “voodoo,” which emphasizes hostile magic and the undead rather than the faith or practices of real-world voodoo believers. Interestingly, On Stranger Tides was later used as the basis for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie which bears the same name, connecting it back to the ride that inspired Gilbert’s setting.

The general plot of the series covers the adventures of the charmingly inept swashbuckler Guybrush Threepwood, the brilliant governor Elaine Marley who eventually marries Guybrush, and Threepwood’s undead ultimate nemesis: the voodoo-wielding pirate LeChuck. In typical Gilbert style, even these names have humorously absurd origins. The lead character’s first name of Guybrush came from the file-naming convention used during the art creation process (literally, “guybrush” was the name of the file used while working on his sprite) and his last name was taken from the works of humorist P.G. Wodehouse. Elaine’s name stemmed from the character in the seminal 1967 film The Graduate, while LeChuck was part of a running joke from the Lucasfilm Games’ general manager that the name Chuck should appear in more video games. (Indeed, it appeared in several from Gilbert, beginning with Chuck the Plant in Maniac Mansion.)

From the first game, it was obvious that Monkey Island was something special. The mix of innovative point-and-click puzzles with the game’s rapier wit and panache made it an instant classic. Fans fell in love with the characters, even ancillary ones like Stan, a comically unscrupulous used boat salesman.

Ron Gilbert has said that he always conceived of the series as a trilogy, so it’s no surprise that even before the release of The Secret of Monkey Island, the team had already begun work on the sequel. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991) built on the initial game’s success, carrying forward the elements that made the original great without changing much of the core structure. The only notable improvement was the option to play the game in a “lite” mode, with almost all of the puzzles either simplified or omitted entirely. This might have been a blessing considering Monkey Island 2 featured one of the most head-scratching puzzles of the genre. Without spoiling it, this particular puzzle required both a subtle, specific play on a phrase only used in American English as well as a number of strange intuitive leaps to attain the required item. One of the key features of the Monkey Island series was its lack of playthrough-ending deaths common to previous adventure games. However, since hint systems were not yet common practice, puzzles like this often prevented players from completing the game and seeing the game’s ending.

And what an ending it was! Monkey Island 2’s grand finale ends on a bizarre cliffhanger, with the rivals Guybrush and LeChuck chasing each other through an underground maze where it is revealed by LeChuck that they are actually brothers. Shortly thereafter it is revealed that they aren’t in just any underground maze: they’re behind the scenes at an amusement park, and they’re…children? While it’s suggested that all of this is a trick by LeChuck, the baffling ending left many players confused and bewildered as they waited for the next game.

But the third game would not be what anyone expected.

No Man is an Island

Ron Gilbert left Lucasfilm Games in 1992 to start his own company, Humongous Entertainment. In the wake of his departure, the fate of the Monkey Island series remained in doubt. Lucasfilm held the rights, but it was clearly Gilbert’s vision steering the series. Without his passion for the project, would Lucasfilm ever complete the trilogy?

Indeed they would. The Curse of Monkey Island was announced in 1996 and released in 1997, five years after Gilbert left. Under a new creative team headed by Tim Schafer, the third installment took advantage of technological advances facilitated by the introduction of CD-ROM drives to add greater audio and cinematic capabilities, including cel animation and voice acting for the first time in the series’ history. The interface was also revamped, offering a context-sensitive cursor and a 3-verb “coin” rather than the traditional verb list. (This was similar to the system used in Schafer’s earlier game, 1995’s Full Throttle.)

With no clear way to salvage the storyline from the previous installment, Schafer’s team avoided directly answering the burning questions and focused instead on moving forward to the next adventure. While it might not have cleared up anything for the hardcore fans, The Curse of Monkey Island successfully kept the core structure intact. It sold reasonably well and won numerous awards, showing that the series still had life in it.

It did well enough, in fact, that the trilogy became a tetralogy with the release of the fourth installment, 2000’s Escape from Monkey Island. This entry was the first in the series which didn’t include any of the team from the first game. It also broke from the series in a number of other important ways. 3D graphics replaced the previous game’s cel animation. A second villain, Ozzie Mandrill, was introduced alongside the familiar face of LeChuck. Most importantly, the familiar SCUMM engine that had been responsible for so many great games was replaced by the GrimE engine originally used for 1998’s Grim Fandango, also designed by Schafer. This major change shifted the game away from being a true point-and-click style, with the player instead using their keyboard (or controller, for those who picked up the Playstation 2 version) to navigate and interact with the world.

Sadly, Escape from Monkey Island would be Lucasfilm’s last adventure game. The company announced the cancellation of its remaining slate of games in the genre. Special editions of the first two Monkey Island games were released in 2009 and 2010 respectively, alongside a handful of other classic games given a shiny new coat of paint, but it seemed like the good ol’ days were coming to an end.

The Fun Never Ends

It’s true that Lucasfilm Games would not release any further Monkey Island games. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work with other publishers to do so. Enter Telltale Games, a company formed in 2004 by a few ex-employees of Lucasarts when the adventure game line ended. Telltale was slowly building a reputation as a solid publisher that could create fun gameplay and weave distinctive narratives into familiar intellectual properties. (Following on less mainstream hits like the Homestar Runner and Fables games, they’d garner significant acclaim for the Walking Dead series.)

Working closely with Lucasfilm Games, Telltale began development on 2009’s Tales of Monkey Island. Even better, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman were involved, with Gilbert assisting with early planning and Grossman overseeing the team. Similar to the previous entry, Tales of Monkey Island featured 3D graphics and voice acting, along with a reimagined control system that leaned away from classic point-and-click design and favored console controllers. Unlike all the previous games, it followed Telltale’s standard release method of five separate installments released over time before being compiled into a single “season” equivalent to a traditional game.

Tales of Monkey Island was well-received both critically and commercially, boosting Telltale’s profile significantly. The series could have wrapped up there. In fact, most fans thought it had.

What they didn’t (and couldn’t) know was that Ron Gilbert had one last surprise in store. He had always thought of the Monkey Island series as a trilogy, but when he left Lucasfilm Games he lost out on the chance to finish that trilogy properly. With three admirable efforts helmed by others in the interim, it’s not as though the series was floundering. However, the story threads he left dangling at the end of Monkey Island 2 still needed to be tied up.

When Ron Gilbert announced that he was making a new Monkey Island game on—what else?—April Fool’s Day of 2022, fans might have been forgiven for not taking him seriously. A few days later, he proved that he wasn’t joking by releasing a trailer. As it turns out, Gilbert and Grossman had been developing the game in absolute secrecy for two years, working remotely with a relatively small team. It was real. More than that, it was already done.

Return to Monkey Island (2022) completes the original trilogy, picking up after the events of Monkey Island 2 without retconning any of the subsequent titles. It features many of the original voice actors alongside a new art style that evokes picture books (a subject of contention among fans looking for a more direct return to the original games’ look and feel). Building on the engine Gilbert used in 2017’s Thimbleweed Park, Return to Monkey Island uses a “hotspot” system where players can hover over a screen element to gain more information about how it might be used. The presumably final entry thus continues to evolve on a series that has provided decades of enjoyment to legions of fans.

Ian Howard
Ian Howard is a freelance writer and editor working under the name Leafy Dragon Games as well as a reviewer with Meeple Mountain. He is also a tabletop game designer working on multiple upcoming projects including the solo RPG One Breath Left.