When I asked Ron Gilbert what the secret of The Secret of Monkey Island was, I didn’t expect him to actually tell me. It’s been more than 30 years since the LucasArts adventure game was released, and in all that time, fans have spun fervent theories about what the final scenes of the game and its sequel, Le Chuck’s Revenge, mean. Well, the answer is stranger than you might expect.
While you see protagonist Guybrush Threepwood grow from wannabe swashbuckler to a mighty pirate during the Secret of Monkey Island, you don’t actually learn any big mystery. You spend more time focusing on winning the love of the governor, Elain Marley, and fighting off the ghost pirate LeChuck.
The game ends with you and Elaine sharing a romantic moment under a sky lit up by the exploding corpse of LeChuck – long story short, you sprayed him with root beer, and he went off like a firework – but any greater secret is kept, well, secret.
The end of The Secret of Monkey Island’s sequel, LeChuck’s Revenge, leaves even more questions. After defeating LeChuck for a second time deep within the tunnels of Dinky Island, he urges you to come closer and “take off his mask” - bizarrely revealing that he is, apparently, Chuckie, Guybrush’s older brother. The pair get interrupted by a workman who tells them they’re not supposed to be there, and when they exit the tunnels, the brothers, now appearing as kids rather fully-grown pirates, seem to, in fact, just be at an everyday amusement park rather than any mystical island, with their parents angrily waiting for them.
Stories within stories
If you’ve finished Return (spoilers ahead), you might start to see a pattern emerging. Once again, Guybrush is searching for the Secret and is battling LeChuck to do so. However, we’re hearing the adventure in the past tense as Guybrush tells the story to his son. And this time, when he yet again finds himself traveling through the bowels of Monkey Island, instead of a final showdown with his nemesis, Guybrush steps out through the last locked door to find he’s back in Melee Island town, in a square full of animatronic figures of characters you’ve met along the way.
So, I had to ask, what really is going on here? Why is all this alluding to a real world and a fake one?
"The thing that I'm not sure that people really understand is that this is actually the secret of Monkey Island,” Ron Gilbert tells me. “As I conceived the secret in 1988 when I first started working on the game. This was the actual secret of the game, that Guybrush was just in a giant amusement park. That's where it got its title."
If you look through Secret and Revenge, the clues are there. Not only in LeChuck’s Revenge's ending but also in strange features in the world, like the grog vending machines. They seem like a throwaway joke, so out of place in a traditional piratey world, but they were a nod to the truth all along.
Then there are the rewards for your valiant pirate efforts. You’re never given gold or jewels, instead many of the treasures Guybrush wins are slogan-covered t-shirts, like something you’d win at a fairground.
With his latest game’s ending, Gilbert clearly decided to hammer the point home, to some player’s shock and surprise.
But looking back through the game, it feels like we were being set up for this finale all along. Return, more than even the previous of Ron's games, sets up the idea of the unreliable narrator who may not be telling the whole truth or remembering it correctly, even exaggerating certain aspects for nostalgia's sake. Just take the fact that we hear everything that supposedly happens through Guybrush’s retelling of it, rather than just playing it, for example.
But, if you thought that was the only bombshell that Ron and the team decided to drop in Return, think again. As many players have already discovered, the game doesn’t have just one ending, it has ten. Depending on what dialogue you choose, skipping certain scenes, or not picking up certain items you can get quite different outcomes. Gilbert even says there are some other variant endings players haven’t found yet.
“In my mind, one of those endings is canon,” Gilbert says. ”One of those endings is exactly the way I think of the game. And there's probably a different one for [designer] Dave Grossman, and for other members of the team, too. But I'll never say what it is – because if I say which one of those endings in my mind is canon, then it will just become the definitive truth, and I don't necessarily want that.”
And just like that, a new secret of Monkey Island was born.
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