Return to Monkey Island: That Ending
I wrote this analysis of Return to Monkey Island's ending on October 4th, a couple of weeks after finishing it, in a kind of manic fugue state, writing well past the time I should have been in bed. After I'd written it, I decided it probably needed an editing pass before I posted it, but life immediately got in the way and I never looked at it again. Today I picked it up and read through it and decided not a word needed to be changed. So, without further ado, here it is.
HERE BE SPOILERS. You've been warned.
So, the ending. What does it mean?
I am not interested in the question of “what 'really' happened” – that's a boring question, and the game takes great pains to make clear that the answer is not important. What I am interested in is, “what is the game trying to say?”
Return to Monkey Island touches on a lot of themes and asks a lot of questions, but I'm going to focus on two:
- What is The Secret of Monkey Island?
- What makes Guybrush any better than LeChuck?
The game's answer to the first question is clear: it is not important. It could be anything. Feel free to imagine whatever makes you happiest. This is what every character in the game who speculates about The Secret does, and this is what the game invites the player to do at the end.
The second question – the game doesn't call explicit attention to it very often, but it runs from the beginning of the game to the very end. The first real dialog tree of the game is Guybrush going through all the ways that he believes LeChuck has wronged him, while the lookout doesn't seem particularly convinced. You're both pirates, after all. He's after exactly the same thing as you. What makes you the hero and him the villain?
He's an evil zombie ghost pirate, terror of the seas and sometimes the land! A nefarious, conniving, murdering scallywag! A depraved, ruthless villain! And a loud talker! And I'm... not those things!
But. You take a spot on LeChuck's crew anyway. You have casual, low-stakes conversations with him. You fill out LeChuck's paperwork. He's... just a pirate, who wants exactly the same thing as you, for similarly vague reasons.
On Monkey Island, you are forced to get even closer to LeChuck in order to break the magical voodoo lock on the map to The Secret – learning his favourite food, reading his diary, humming his theme song. In the end you're both double-crossed by Captain Madison and the new pirate leaders.
As you search for the golden keys in Part IV the game starts to make it really obvious that Guybrush's single-minded pursuit of The Secret is starting to have negative consequences on the people around him. Scenes that were played for laughs get re-contextualized as Elaine learns more about Guybrush has been up to. It's revealed that Guybrush even directly fucked up the project Elaine has been working tirelessly at for... however long it takes to turn an entire island into a grove of lime trees. A hell of a lot longer than Guybrush has been seeking out The Secret.
There is also apparently a subtle thing where the pamphlet boasting of LeChuck's accomplishment fills in as Guybrush does the same nasty stuff. The bingo card doesn't quite fill up – Guybrush can't murder anyone who gets in his way – but the game wants the player to pause and realize that Guybrush really can be quite the scoundrel. After all... he's a pirate.
Which leads us, finally, to the ending. After chasing LeChuck through an underground puzzle gauntlet back on Monkey Island once more, Guybrush walks through a door and ends up... on Amusement Park Melee Island. Stan appears and tells Guybrush it's closing time; Elaine asks if he's ready to go. An animatronic LeChuck and an animatronic Captain Lila are torturing an animatronic Locke Smith, in an endless loop, demanding the key that opens the chest that contains The Secret. There's also animatronic Otis, an animatronic Old Pirate Leader, an animatronic Widey Bones – everyone you'd expect to meet on High Street is back, but as a cardboard cutout version of themselves.
From here you can pretty much pick your ending; they all end up essentially the same, with unique little 5-second videos that play after the (unskippable!) credits roll. There are 11 of these in total. YouTube is there and it doesn't take long, but you aren't really meant to watch them all – you're meant to pick the option that's most meaningful to you and that becomes the conclusion to your Monkey Island story.
In some ways this is a nice way to acknowledge that Monkey Island is many things to many people. But... if that's all it was, there are many more narratively satisfying ways to write it. You could have had Boybrush interrupt Guybrush right before he opens the chest and let the player pick what's inside as it's revealed, for example. Instead it's a t-shirt, and it's only after Boybrush complains that the player can make something else up. Something else is happening here.
Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman had free reign to do whatever they wanted. If they thought Guybrush should have a final confrontation with LeChuck before the rug was pulled, there would have been one. Stopping the story before it happens, making the player see a crummy secret, ending up in a cheap fun-house mirror version of the world... it all must add up to something. I couldn't see what it could be, at first.
My current reading is this: The deliberate anticlimax you, as a player, feel, as you see behind the curtain, as you easily pop open that chest – Guybrush felt it too. How could he not? Elaine warns him, after rattling off the complaints of everyone he's screwed over along the way:
It's just that I'm worried that The Secret can't possibly measure up to the effort and anticipation.
Was it worth it? No. No treasure in the world could possibly have been worth it. Nothing in that chest could have made him happy.
Confronted with that? Suddenly his quest must feel... fake. Hollow. Pointless and cheap. A trip to the amusement park that's over. Nothing left to do but to turn out the lights and go home.
Guybrush has a distinctly different character arc in different Monkey Island games. In Secret of Monkey Island, he's – how shall I put this – a little shit. Sure, he's a sweet little doe-eyed boy who thinks pirates are swell and just wants to go on an adventure, but he's also the kind of kid who will walk into someone's house and just insult the owner until he's physically thrown out. Still, he doesn't really leave anyone worse off than he found them, except for maybe accidentally sinking the Sea Monkey with a giant boulder. But that's an honest mistake; it's possible to make Guybrush avoid doing it.
In Monkey Island 2, Guybrush is, quite frankly, abusive and selfish. Everyone he meets, he throws directly under the bus. You have to steal poor Wally's monocle, without which he's blind. Get the cook fired to steal his job, which you immediately bail on. Saw off the Man of Low Moral Fiber's pegleg. Nail Stan into a coffin and leave him for dead. Get Kate Capsize arrested.
Even Elaine isn't spared. First he crashes her party and steals her grandfather's map piece. Then when he's caught, Elaine reveals that she'd dumped him. Here Guybrush can, at the players option, can endlessly neg her with quips like “I came all this way to see you – at least get me a beer” or “Gosh you're cute when you're pretending to be mad.” Eventually the player will catch on that the right strategy is to express how madly in love Guybrush still is with her; how miserable he is without her... and as soon as the walls start to come down and Elaine shows the slightest warmth towards him, he says, “Does that mean you're going to let me have the map?”
In a way, Guybrush's arc in Return to Monkey Island seems similar – his obsession with finding The Secret at all costs mirroring his obsession with finding Big Whoop at all costs. Two differences stand out.
The first is his reason for pursuing it. With Big Whoop, he wanted a new story that would command respect from his peers. He's driven by the fear that his biggest triumph is already behind him; that he has to top his last adventure in order to convince everyone that he truly is a mighty pirate, and that defeating LeChuck wasn't just a fluke. With The Secret, Guybrush is driven largely by his rivalry with LeChuck – he wants it because under no circumstances can LeChuck be allowed to find it first.
The second is his relationships with the people around him. In MI2, Guybrush cares about nobody and nobody cares about him. He screws them over without giving them a second thought, confident that soon he'll find Big Whoop and be a big shot among pirates. In RtMI, on the other hand, he greets everyone on Melee like an old friend. He's cheerful and friendly with everyone new that he encounters. He's married to Elaine and clearly still deeply in love. The destruction he leaves behind is... different. A thoughtlessness without callousness. Guybrush takes Elaine's flyer because he needs it, and it hasn't occurred to him that this might cause a huge headache for his wife – not because he doesn't care if it does or not.
But of course, intent isn't magic. Well-intentioned or not, his list of misdeeds rivals LeChuck's. “I just hope it turns out to be worth all the effort,” says Elaine (being, quite frankly, unreasonably supportive of her dipshit husband).
So. Was a stupid t-shirt worth it? The environmental devastation caused by whittling a mop handle, of all things? The earthquake that burned down the Scumm Bar? The closing of the pirate museum, where so much of his history was being reverently kept? The implosion of an island's government? The torpedoing of his own wife's tireless efforts to cure a pirate plague?
Of course not. It couldn't be.
Guybrush gets to the very end of his quest and discovers that the contents of the chest is not what was important.
What, in this story, might Guybrush decide was more important? The adventure? The story? Or... his friends? His wife, who is there waiting for him, as he turns out the lights in Amusement Park Melee Island, ready to take him home and face whatever comes next after the disappointment?
Why is there no showdown with LeChuck? Because LeChuck was never the problem. The showdown is between Guybrush and The Secret, and I think Guybrush loses, in that he doesn't get what he thought he wanted, and also, he wins, in that, maybe he's finally able to see a childish fantasy for what it is, and start to focus on what is important in his life instead.
The last line of the game is Elaine saying to Guybrush, “I found the lost map to the treasure of Mire Island. It's going to be a fun adventure.” Clearly, they will embark on it together.