Return to Monkey Island Hides a Dark, Disturbing Secret
Return to Monkey Island is a charming, ridiculous adventure game. Not that you wouldn’t expect that, given the nature of Guybrush and LeChuck’s run-ins over the years. There’s a constant goofy sense of humor that runs through the game, and I found myself grinning pretty much the entire time I played it. That playful sense of humor and quick wit can make even the undead feel pretty funny. But this game does hide a single horrifying secret that hits like a gut punch. And it only hits so hard due to the lightness of the game and the series.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
Guybrush is famous for being able to hold his breath for a really long time in these games. He used to boast that he could hold it for ten minutes. In a [revious game, The Secret of Monkey Island, you could put that to the test when you get trapped underwater. Sure enough, you have ten minutes to finish an underwater puzzle before you drown. Today’s Guybrush is a bit older, though, so he can only hold his breath for about eight minutes in the 2022 release in the series. Which is often more than enough time to do whatever you need to do.
However, if you’re having trouble figuring out directions or what to do, you might waste a lot of your time. Maybe you get tied up talking to an underwater character (let’s not worry about how that works too much). Maybe you’re goofing off. Either way, you CAN wear out your time beneath the waves in Return to Monkey Island. So, what happens if you let yourself “drown”?
It’s important to note that this game is all a flashback – it’s a story being relayed to Boybrush, Guybrush’s son. It’s hard to tell your story to someone when you’re dead, right? So, if you “drown”, Boybrush just tells you to stop messing around. Then, you get a little bit more time to go back to what you were doing. This SHOULD be enough of a warning to get out of the water, but if it’s not, and you let the time expire again, Boybrush chastises you another time. At this point, I felt the game was just going to keep doing that. So, of course, I tried it one last time.
If you drown a third time in Return to Monkey Island, something awful happens. The game fades in to the bench Guybrush and Boybrush sit on as Guybrush relates the story. It’s empty, now. Some text tells you that Guybrush died in an accidental drowning. This happened years ago on this exact day. Boybrush was never born, as it happened before Guybrush and Elaine had kids. It ends with “While he had many mighty adventures, the most important one of all went unfulfilled.”
This game is filled with absurd puzzles and silly times. Getting a ghost chicken to poop so you can retrieve a special item. Developing a good fishing story so you can impress the right people. Creating compelling advertisements for limes. Forging your own special mop. It’s just a relentless torrent of goofy situations and clever, hilarious characters. Even when you feel you’re trapped forever and bound to die, there’s always some funny way out, too. Guybrush feels like he can’t die, and even if there’s danger everywhere, he’ll come out of it in some humorous way.
Return to Monkey Island is such a wonderful game BECAUSE that silliness permeates it. There’s no time when I didn’t find myself enjoying some goofy description of something in the backgrounds. Where I couldn’t talk to someone and pry out some funny or cutting reply. The developers and writers worked hard to ensure every moment and place hid endless funny delights. Not everything had me busting a gut, but just about everything left me with a little smile. It’s a game that wants to crack you up at every turn. And even when you know that it wants you to laugh, its ability to catch you off-guard with a joke is incredible. It’s a constant delight.
This is what makes this sequence as jarring as it is. The drowning ending isn’t too awful as far as a Game Over goes. It’s just kind of sad to know that you screwed up and your adventure has ended here. You know you can reset and go back to try again. It’s just a bit depressing to hear. But in a game where things are so endlessly lighthearted and goofy, this ending hits like a truck. I was not mentally prepared for something this bad to happen to our seemingly-invulnerable hero.
There’s a child-like playfulness that runs throughout Return to Monkey Island. There’s also the kind of cutting wordplay and humor I love as an adult. It feels like good times and fond memories of past adventures with friends. Death doesn’t feel like it belongs here. Real tragedy doesn’t fit in this world. Everyone should be okay in the end. There may be a brush with death, but it’s still all jokes and silly times. So, the somber nature of this ending brings a terrible reality into the game. A dark look at the fragility of those we love. And maybe a hint that sometimes you can get really hurt while joking around.
I was stunned by this ending because it flies against the nature of the game. I’m not saying I don’t feel it fits in with the work itself, but rather because it is such an emotional shift from the rest of the game, it slams the player hard. It’s a sad look at how easily we can lose someone. A bleak look at how these losses can reshape your future and cut off the lives of people we’ve never met. Who’ve never been born.
While I know Return to Monkey Island is referring to the search for the secret of Monkey Island when it talks about “the most important adventure” being unfulfilled, I can’t help but think that’s also referring to Guybrush’s adventures as a father. To Boybrush’s future adventures now that he’s never been born. Which hits pretty hard. Especially as a father myself.
Return to Monkey Island is a charming experience that provides many, many laughs in unexpected places. That fun, light nature is what made the drowning ending feel so horrifying, and what makes it stick out in my mind. There’s something awful about watching someone so bright and funny die from my foolish screwing around. But it’s also a reminder that good times can go bad, and that even when we’re just goofing off, we still need to take care. Because we don’t know which of our own adventures, or those of our loved ones, will be left unfulfilled.