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The Campbellian Myth of Monkey Island

LucasArts video games had two rich trilogies of films to draw on while developing their Star Wars and Indiana Jones games. These, in turn, were inspired by the works of Joseph Campbell and his analysis of the heroic myth throughout civilization. Luke meets with the wise old man before going on a perilous journey that ultimately leads to his rescuing the female symbol of purity. Indiana Jones descends into the Temple filled with deadly snakes to find the treasure and returns with the Ark of the Covenant. Campbell explains the basic structure in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces like this: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In the early ’90s, one of the most unique and critically acclaimed adventure games that also came out of LucasArts relied on this same myth structure but placed it in a wholly unique setting. The Secret of Monkey Island takes the same principles of the heroic myth and delivers a story full of wit and humor that has become a classic because of its traditional roots.

The game is one of the best examples of interactive fiction that was released during that era in gaming, and it accomplishes this by using a variety of narrative and game design techniques to deliver a Joseph Campbell experience. In the opening moments of the game, we are introduced to the classic old wise man, except now he is the blind look out of Melee Island. True to form, the player is given directions in their quest to become a mighty pirate. Given that our protagonist, Guybrush, is on an island full of pirates, this opening chapter creates the theme of becoming a member of the community. We seek to prove our worth to the tribe before we embark on our quest. The fact that this is done by a series of trials connects with Campbell’s outlining of the heroic myth because the hero is often expected to perform the same act. Before the hero can face the challenges of the quest, they must prove their worth by passing rites of fortitude or spiritual purity.

Campbell notes that the ease with which a hero defeats the challenges demonstrates how great of a king or person they are. The same argument could be applied to an adventure game’s puzzles, but it coheres with the narrative that Guybrush must struggle from the very beginning to prove himself. Far from the mighty pirate he wants to be, Guybrush (and the player) must rely on their wits, and the game design reflects this. To beat the swordsman, you have to participate in an RPG-like grind as you collect insults and their corresponding retorts. This trial then pans out because the player must apply the retorts to brand new insults by thinking creatively and logically.

To find buried treasure, the player has to find a way through a dark forest, relying on either a guide or just stumbling around in darkness. The decision between puzzling out the dance steps or just wandering aimlessly is often one faced by various heroes in their journeys through similar darkness (for example, Gilgamesh chooses to descend under the mountain in his quest for the Fruit of Immortality, stumbling around until he finds his way out before the Sun reaches him).

The final trial is a test of wits by stealing an idol from the Governor’s Mansion. The man eating poodles that Guybrush has to sneak by is a whimsical nod to the great beast often guarding such treasures in myth, whether it’s the dragon protecting the princess (as the Governor eventually turns out to be) or the three-headed Cerberus defending Hades. The dynamic game design challenges the player in a way that mimics the pattern of the heroic myth by testing different skills that must be overcome before the principle quest of the game can be embarked upon.

One of the things that makes this quest so compelling is that the game uses cutscenes to create an in-game mythos for the player. In the opening moments, a cutscene flashes that explains, “Meanwhile, deep beneath Monkey Island…” We then see an image of a glowing ghost ship anchored in the depths of Hell. Two pirates discuss your arrival in an equally alien cabin and we see our villain, LeChuck, for the first time. The glowing blues and reds are a stark contrast to the colors of Melee Island, which are dark blue and purple. Equally off-putting is how clearly undead the people in this Hell are, and how ominous their discussion of your arrival is. This alien place is equally the subject of myth for all of the characters you interact with. Non-player characters tell legends of doomed journeys to the island and of empty ships returning. Part of what makes the eventual quest to sail to Monkey Island exciting is that these cutscenes and conversations have made us excited. Like the mystical realms that the hero is setting out to pursue, Monkey Island creates that sense of wonder for locations that exist totally in-game by enticing our curiosity and making us want to explore the island more fully.

What sets off this quest is Governor Marley’s kidnapping. Depending on the order in which you complete the trials, Guybrush will either have a romantic exchange with her that is denied at the final moment because he is not yet a pirate, or she is otherwise taken away just as the relationship has begun. In either case, she continues to be the female figure that everyone desires. Numerous pirates will talk about their adoration for her while Elaine complains about having to turn away their advances. LeChuck himself is driven by his lust for her, launching his quest to find Monkey Island as a way to prove his love. The female figure is an important element of any myth and Campbell explains that part of her value is to serve as both a goal for the hero but also one that can only be attained through spiritual purity. In countless myths, attaining her is even a vain goal that can never be accomplished. Campbell explains the female goddess figure like this:

She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest…she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again.

True to Campbell’s description, a female figure that can never be attained drives the plot of both this game and the sequel. Subsequent games in the series were criticized by the game’s creator, Ron Gilbert, for having Guybrush and Elaine get married. Part of her funciton in the story here and in the sequel is that Guybrush is always vainly pursuing her while she laughs at his advances. When she is kidnapped by LeChuck, neither Guybrush nor the player hesitates in their desire to rescue her.

The transition from the pirate island of Melee to the high seas in pursuit of Monkey Island is not just a shift in chapter but also setting. Specifically, it becomes daytime. Whereas Melee Island is the world of normality and pirates, shrouded in darkness like Plato’s allegorical cave, the player has moved into the daylight of a new world. This theme continues with Monkey Island, which also is framed and explored during the day time. The game design seizes on this thematically by having the chief puzzle of the voyage figuring out how to actually sail to the island. The player is assaulted with almost a dozen new inventory items, an impressive number for an adventure game, and tasked with mixing them into a magical potion. That reflects the newness of the ship, the daylight, and forewarns of the experiences of Monkey Island itself. When we successfully make the potion Guybrush is knocked out into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep. The hero passing out and entering into a dreamlike state during his journey into the mythical realms is a key element of many myths that Campbell outlines. When Guybrush awakens, the ship has reached its destination.

Exploring the larger island is ultimately an exercise in the skills the player mastered in the previous trials applied in new ways. Just as Campbell observed that the initial trials would dictate how difficult the hero’s journey would be, the player’s ability to puzzle out this portion of the game has already been tested. It need only be refined and adapted now. The RPG grind has now become collecting bananas to please a monkey enough to hold a gate open for you. Wandering through the dark forest has become wandering around an enormous island while trying to find a way to the other side and eventually, down inside the Monkey Head that leads underneath the island. Our wits are tested as we try to get around the Vegetarian Cannibals to solve these problems through a clever trick with an idol. When we do finally find our way down into Hell, it is quickly obvious that Guybrush will need a guide for his journey. There is only one path through the twisting depths of Hell, and our strict adherence to it must be facilitated by the decapitated navigator.

At last, we reach the Ghost Pirate Ship that we have seen in cutscenes and feel the satisfaction that Campbell describes of the hero when he reaches the mythological place himself. Yet even there, we still need magical boons to accomplish our goals; the magical talisman around the Navigator’s head must be gained (by threatening to dropkick him into the lava) so that we are invisible to the ghost pirates.

While on board the ship, Guybrush recovers a magical root that enables him to make a potion to defeat the Ghost Pirates. This root echoes the fruit that Gilgamesh pursues, that is seen in the Old Testament and in countless other myths. Campbell describes it as the symbol of knowledge and life. In the game, it is cheekily a way to make root beer. Our return with this new boon is just in time with LeChuck’s return and the terror he launches over the denizens of Melee Island. Like the description above, Guybrush is the returning hero bringing boons to his fellow man. And like the journey back down into Plato’s cave, Melee Island is still dark in nighttime. Our eventual discovery that the Governor is still more competent than all the ghosts and humans involved in this affair echoes her divine status while Guybrush overcoming LeChuck reflects his own role. He is the hero of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Campbell explains, “It is obvious that the infantile fantasies which we all cherish still in the unconcious play continually inot myth, fairy tale, and the teachings of the church, as symbols of indestructible beings…but the circumstance is obstructive too, for the feeling come to rest in the symbols and resist passionately every effort to go beyond.”

This explains why Monkey Island is ultimately such a praised and loved game. It takes the subconscious elements of mythology and faithfully applies them to a witty comedy about being a pirate. All of the elements highlighted in the game exist in various myths in a variety of ways. But by converting them into an adventure game, Monkey Island proves that it is not the medium itself that makes them so powerful. By letting the player participate in the myth, it pushes the symbols that can become rigid and breathes new life into them.