Thursday, July 02, 2009

Evolution of Monkey Island

In preparation for the new Tales of Monkey Island episodic games, I recently played through the entire Monkey Island series, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I found it really interesting to see the progession of this series from one game to the next. These games were released over the course of an entire decade, and have gone through enormous shifts in graphical style, writing, sound design, and overall tone. This article’s purpose is to provide an examination of these changes. A warning: SPOILERS.

The Secret of Monkey Island

256 colors, 320x240 pixels, midi music. This was your standard 1990 DOS release. What struck me the most on my playthrough was how easy the puzzles are in comparison to other adventure games of the era. Granted, I’ve probably played through this game four or five times so my viewpoint might not be the most objective, but there really aren’t many true brain-busters in here. Monkey Island began development as a much more serious pirate adventure as opposed to the yuk-fest it became, so game seems to be designed as a swashbuckling adventure first, and a comedy second. There’s plenty of humorous dialog and comedy-oriented puzzles, but the humor doesn’t seem forced at all, and unlike later games in the series, there are stretches of dialog where it’s entirely absent. As the game’s designer Ron Gilbert mentioned, the humor and tone of the game actually seems a bit at odds with the graphical style—especially the close-ups, which feature realistic depictions of the characters. Perhaps this style was nailed down before the game’s humorous tone was fully developed?

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge

This sequel’s most obvious improvement lies in its hand-painted backgrounds. These look quite nice, but also lead to a good deal more pixel-hunting—noteworthy objects aren’t always as clearly defined as you’d like them to be. There were numerous points in the game where I became stuck simply because I hadn’t noticed something in the background that I needed to interact with. Another notable aesthetic difference is the music. It’s much more prevalent this time around, while the first game was, for the most part, silent. The game also benefited from LucasArts’ then-new iMuse system, which allowed musical tracks to flow naturally into one another. The puzzles in general are a lot tougher this time around—so much so that there are actually two difficulty settings available. The tone of the dialog remains largely unchanged, which is no surprise considering Gilbert was once again the designer. However, the plot takes some rather dark turns toward the end of the game, and ends on an enormous cliffhanger. I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for players back in 1992, especially given that it took LucasArts another five years to release the sequel…

The Curse of Monkey Island

I consider this game to be the pinnacle of the series. While purists may prefer the first or second, I really believe that every aspect of this game was top-notch. Released in 1997, Curse was a much larger effort than the first two games. It has the aesthetics of a particularly well-made cartoon. Terrific animation, gorgeous backgrounds, a really amazing musical score, and (a series first), grade-A voice acting, as was common in all CD-based LucasArts adventure games. The whole package holds up better than just about anything else released in that era. Right from the sweeping introduction sequence, this is truly a beautifully crafted production. The stylistic change also meant a complete redesign of the cast. While some of these changes may be a bit jarring at first, particularly the tall and lanky rendition of Guybrush, I personally got used to them pretty quickly.

On my recent playthrough, I was surprised at the sheer amount of dialog in this game compared with the first two. It typically takes two to three times as long as before to exhaust all of a character’s dialog options. The writing is pretty consistently joke-laden this time around—considerably more so than before—and fortunately, a lot of it is funny. The tone of the game seems a bit lighter than it did previously, though this may be in large part due to the change in aesthetics.

One other notable addition to the series is action elements, which come in the form of ship-to-ship combat. This reminded me a lot of the combat in the game Pirates! There’s really nothing spectacular about this combat, but it does offer variety to the game—it’s a nice break from the adventuring.

The game ties up nearly all of the series’ loose ends in what has to be one of the longest exposition sequences in history, a dialog between Guybrush and LeChuck toward the end of the game. The ending itself is a little abrupt, but it did give a real sense of closure to fans. If there hadn’t been any other games in the series following Curse, this would have been a great way to end things.

Escape from Monkey Island

Admittedly, a big part of the reason behind my wanting to write this article was so that I could have the chance to rag on this game. And rag on it I will. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it completely fails to live up to series’ quality standards.

Because Escape was released in the year 2000 and every other series was going 3D, LucasArts decided that this was the right move for Monkey Island. Unfortunately, their implementation left a lot to be desired. Graphically, Escape is practically the definition of half-baked. The character models look like soulless bundles of polygons, and exude very little personality. This can be blamed on the limitations of the Grim Fandango engine, but that game adopted a very unique aesthetic to work around these limitations. No chance for that in a Monkey Island game. While some of the cartoony pre-rendered backgrounds look nice, others suffer from noticeably blocky texture-mapping. This absolutely baffles me. For example, check out the grass at the bottom of this screenshot.

Now check out where the arrow is pointing here (click to see it bigger). That's not even smoothed out!

It would make sense if the game world was rendered in real-time, but that’s not the case here. Grim Fandango didn’t have this problem. It's not that huge of a deal, but it does seem to signify a lack of care. I’m frankly amazed that more critics didn’t mention these issues at the time of the game’s release, because I remember being bugged by them even way back then.

The shift to 3D is also responsible for the game’s second big issue: the control scheme. Piloting your character through environments like a truck using the arrow keys is infinitely more cumbersome than the point-and-click interface of previous games. The overall feel is actually worse than in games with comparable control schemes like Resident Evil, due to a lot of confusing camera angles and unclear paths.

The game’s dialog can best be described as ‘snappy’. The voice actors seem to be rushing through their lines, and the time between one line ending and the next beginning has been noticeably shortened from Curse. It actually somewhat resembles the interplay between Sam and Max in their own adventure game—not surprising, considering the lead designers are responsible for that game. Unfortunately, the humor here feels very forced. It’s as if the designers felt the need to ring comedy out of anything and everything, and stretched themselves way too thin. There’s also far too much fan service, with constant references to the previous games that don’t really bring any new funny to the table. A lot of the dialog and jokes are going to be entirely lost on non-veterans of the series.

Story-wise, Escape feels more like a tacked-on addition to the series than a piece of an epic saga. It’s more like “Hey, here’s a crazy yet unnecessary new adventure in the Monkey Island universe! You wanted more Monkey Island, you got it!!!” The game really strays from its roots as a swashbuckling pirate adventure that just happens to be pretty funny, and instead turns into a full-on Saturday morning cartoon. The word “Heck” is actually used in place of “Hell”, which I assume was a rather transparent attempt to avoid a T rating (they failed, by the way). Characters are far less interesting than before. Elaine, in what is by far her largest role to date, is a stereotypically bitchy society woman who doesn’t seem to give a crap about Guybrush as anything more than a boytoy/lapdog. LeChuck isn’t quite the evil force he was before, spending most of the game acting as sidekick to a new villain: a greedy land developer. And while a host of other series favorites are brought back, they simply lack the charm that they had in previous outings. They’ve been shoehorned into Escape as fan service, and it’s painfully obvious.

On a more positive note, while the puzzles generally aren’t quite as creative as those in Curse, they’re still pretty decent, with a few really cool ones here and there (the “future Guybrush” encounter in the Mists of Time comes to mind). It’s also worth noting that Escape is a much longer game than any of the others. In terms of gaming value per dollar, Escape certainly delivered. But overall, I feel like the love and attention to detail that obviously went into the first three games is almost totally missing from this project.

So, to sum up, the Monkey Island series consists of three great games and one really mediocre game. That is, up until the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island is released next week. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m expecting good things. The 3D characters have actual character, the cinematic camera angles allowed by the new engine really enliven the proceedings, and the voice actors are once again in top form. While I’d prefer a proper sequel rather than a series of episodes, one of the developers stated that the episodes are meant to take place after the next big epic, which leaves me with a bit of hope. A remake of the first game will be released soon as well. I’m not a fan of the art style at all, but I may play it to check out the new voice acting.

Will the success of these new titles in adventure gaming’s most heralded series spark a resurgence in adventure game development at LucasArts, which will in turn spark a resurgence of the entire genre? Who knows, vote with your dollars and it just might.