If you’re going to understand why Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge was a seminal part of so many self-involved millennials’ youths — including yours truly’s — you have to start with the user interface.
Released 20 years ago this month, Monkey Island 2 was one of LucasArts’s wildly successful graphic adventure titles and, as such, had no point system, few weapons, and an endless supply of dialogue. You moved the protagonist — a hapless and snarky would-be pirate named Guybrush Threepwood — through 2D backdrops by pointing and clicking to spots where you wanted him to go, objects you wanted him to grab, or people you wanted him to talk to. And Jesus Christ, could they talk.
For example, Guybrush faces a dilemma within the first few seconds of gameplay. On the entirely made-up Caribbean locale of Scabb Island, an impish thug named Largo is holding him/you over a bridge, demanding your cash, and informing you that “there are no police on Scabb Island!”
You’re presented with four options as to how Guybrush should respond, ranging from wordy sarcasm (“Then who eats the donuts and roughs up transients?”) to false confidence (“OK, put me down now and I won’t have to hurt you”).
What’s magnificent is that it doesn’t really matter how you respond. Largo will still mug you and leave you destitute. Sure, most of the time, the dialogue choices help you persuade people, gain information, and so on. But really, it’s all about entertaining yourself and creating your own little interactive movie in which you’re both the star and the sole audience member.
Technically, your little movie is a sequel. The Secret of Monkey Island had landed the previous year and was a runaway hit. Guybrush started out as a dandyish fancypants twentysomething and, over the course of the game, won minor glory for destroying a ghost pirate named LeChuck. Monkey Island 2 picks up a few years later, with Guybrush attempting to get people to care about his stupid stories of LeChuck’s defeat.
However, our hero has a new plan at work: finding the legendary and never-seen-by-human-eyes treasure known as “Big Whoop.”
What follows is a bizarre brew, one that’s incredibly potent for a solipsistic kid. The Caribbean that Guybrush traverses is a Caribbean of the mind, only loosely rooted in 18th-century pirate lore. Sure, folks wear frilly shirts and travel by boat. But suddenly, you’ll find yourself navigating a giant metal sewage system or using a vending machine — and no one makes a big deal out of it. At one point, Guybrush even finds a phone and calls the Lucasarts game-hints 1-900 number. I suppose you could call the whole thing “steampunk,” but the game has none of the self-important high-mindedness that often comes with that label.
And all the while, you face subtly dreamlike backdrops of lamp-lit boathouses, verdant jungles, and other seafaring delights. In short, it has the sumptuousness of a kid’s conception of a pirate world, unrestrained by realism. What else could a preteen who spends more time in his head than he does on the playground ask for?
Well, there’s one thing, and it comes as the tale draws to a close. (Sorry, here be spoilers.) Guybrush somewhat-accidentally finds the site of Big Whoop, dynamites the X that marks the spot, and finds an underground metal bunker… filled with his life.
In one room, the bones of his dead parents sit side by side. In another, an elevator somehow takes him to an alleyway seen in the first Monkey Island. LeChuck shows up and, after a battle involving root beer, soiled underwear, and voodoo dolls, the undead menace informs Guybrush that he’s his older brother, Chucky (using dialogue borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back, of course). A uniformed man walks onscreen. “Hey, you kids!” he cries. “You’re not supposed to be in here!”
Lo and behold, a child-sized Guybrush and a goth kid who vaguely resembles LeChuck exit some kind of funhouse and encounter their parents, who have been looking all over for them at an amusement park. They promise not to disappear again, and as the family leaves the screen and the credits roll, we see a backdrop filled with buildings somewhat similar to sights from throughout the game.
At the end of the great quest, what you find is your own life and a treasure completely dedicated to you. And no matter how grown-up you think you’ll get, you’ll eventually wake up and find out that no time passed. Isn’t that an introverted kid’s eternal dream? Two decades after the first round of those kids popped the game’s floppy disks in their PCs, isn’t that what many of those players still hope to find, someday? There’s comfort in self-obsession, when taken in moderation, and LeChuck’s Revenge had the perfect dosage.