On the top floor of a hotel in the heart of L.A.’s Little Tokyo, I just finished witnessing something many adventure game fans had long given up on ever seeing in their lifetimes: a brand spanking new Monkey Island game. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, LucasArts and Telltale Games are collaborating on a new five-part series entitled Tales of Monkey Island. The folks at Telltale, including one of the fathers of the original Secret of Monkey Island, Dave Grossman, were nice enough to invite me over the night before E3 officially begins to have an early peek at the first episode, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, due out July 7th, 2009 for PC (and “soon” afterwards through WiiWare). If there are any fans out there worried that Monkey Island’s ship has sailed, it certainly looks like Telltale may be just the captain to pull it back around to where it belongs.
Our story begins right about where Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™, was hoping it would finally end. Some years have passed since we last saw Guybrush at the end of Escape from Monkey Island, but he hasn’t been resting on his laurels, and neither has—unfortunately for him—the evil Ghost Pirate LeChuck. LeChuck has once again kidnapped Guybrush’s wife, the lovely Elaine Marley, and is keeping her prisoner on his ship, while in his spare time he experiments on captive monkeys to learn their “secrets.” Guybrush has finally gathered all the ingredients necessary to create the Cursed Cutlass of Kaflu, which, according to his old friend the Voodoo Lady, can put an end to LeChuck once and for all. That is, until Guybrush accidentally breaks it. The first major puzzle players will attempt is to find some “reasonable substitutions” for the ingredients. Once the stand-in Cutlass is ready to go, Guybrush thrusts it into LeChuck’s sternum, though the results are not quite what he’d hoped.
Instead of being banished forever, LeChuck changes from Ghost Pirate to Human Pirate, with a not-insignificant amount of evil mojo (aka “The Pox of LeChuck”) transferred to Guybrush’s hand, which was touching LeChuck during the transformation. Guybrush’s newly evil appendage refuses to stab the suddenly vulnerable LeChuck, instead inadvertently setting off a chain reaction that blows a massive hole in the ship and sends Guybrush flying into the ocean, helpless to stop Elaine from sinking to the watery deep. Guybrush washes up on the shore of Flotsam Island, where he’s discovered by a pirate passerby whom he promptly punches in the face with his Pox-fueled hand (“My nose!” the pirate cries, “My beautiful pirate nose!”). All this sounds like a whole adventure in its own right, but this is really just the beginning, and first thing’s first: Guybrush is gonna need a new ship.
If you’ve played some of Telltale’s other episodic adventures, whether Sam & Max Seasons 1 and 2, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, or Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, you may think you know what to expect from Tales of Monkey Island, but there are a few major differences that make this a very exciting project. One is that the episodes are not standalone “tales”, as the title might seem to imply, but actually “chapters” in a greater story. “Epic” was definitely the word of the day throughout our conversation. The team’s goal is to create an adventure so compelling, you won’t be able to wait until the whole thing is released before you play. Each chapter will have some sort of resolution of whatever sub-quest Guybrush is attempting to complete, but will also have a cliffhanger they’re hoping will keep fans excitedly speculating about until the next month’s release.
Another big change is how few assets will be reused from episode to episode. There was some disagreement between Kevin Bruner (Chief Technology Officer of Telltale) and Dave Grossman about whether Tales features “zero” reused locations, or simply “very few.” In either case, as the series progresses, players will travel to several different islands, without a Sam & Max or Wallace & Gromit-style hub for a comfort zone. New characters will also continue to be introduced. In the scenes I saw, almost every character was completely original to the franchise (wait until you see the mad scientist who thinks Guybrush’s hand is the key to everlasting life!).
The third big difference is the way players will use their inventory. In previous Telltale games, inventory was handled very simply, with only a limited amount of interaction possible once you picked something up. In Tales, you’re finally able to combine inventory items to create new ones, and if the first few puzzles are any indication, this is something you’ll be doing often. You’re also now able to examine inventory items, and while it’s not clear if that will be integral to puzzle-solving, it provides another potential avenue for hints as well as humor.
Some things will be familiar, of course, particularly in terms of the voice acting. Returning from Curse of Monkey Island are Dominic Armato (voice of Guybrush Threepwood) and Alexandra Boyd (voice of Elaine Marley). While I didn’t get the chance to hear Boyd—her voice work wasn’t yet in the build I saw—hearing Armato as Guybrush brought back a lot of pleasant memories, and he still has a great way with words. I laughed many times during the demo, and while the jokes are very well-written, at least half the credit belongs to Armato’s acting. To help the actors along, Telltale created a new lip sync system for Tales, which allows a greater range of expressions on characters’ faces while they’re talking, and it seems to work well from what I saw.
It’s not just the principle voice cast who’ve returned to the franchise. The credits for this series reads like a veritable Monkey Island All-Star Team. For the full list you can go to the official website, but I’ll remind you that Dave Grossman, one of the original designers of Monkey Island, is overseeing the whole project as Design Director. Mike Stemmle, designer of Escape from Monkey Island and Sam & Max Hit the Road, is on board as well, and is lead designer of the first episode. Several artists with Monkey Island experience are also working on Tales, as is Michael Land, the composer of all four previous MI games (though his new compositions weren’t in the build I saw). Telltale even brought Ron Gilbert himself into the office for a few days to help brainstorm, and the team claims “his thumbprints are all over” the series. Alas, with Gilbert working full-time at Hothead Games (particularly on his new game DeathSpank), Telltale has confirmed that Tales will not be the game that finally reveals the legendary “Secret” of Monkey Island.
What else can you expect? Dialogue trees are here, and they’re hilarious (when asked why you need a ship, your choices are something like “to search for my wife Elaine,” “to hunt down LeChuck,” or “to rescue those poor monkeys.”) Likely to be a point of concern among some fans, Telltale was unable to confirm what the controls will be in the final version, as they’re still being refined for best results at this point, but they will be some form of “direct control” on both platforms. More characters from Monkey Island’s past may make an appearance, but probably not “your favorite character” (sorry friend!). And while there will be swordfighting, and there will be insults, there will be no insult swordfighting—not this season, anyway.
Though I only saw a fraction of the first episode, I can confirm without hesitation that this is a Monkey Island game. The jokes are Monkey Island jokes. The situations are Monkey Island situations. I laughed more during this demo than I have in any single adventure game (or episode) I’ve played in the last few years. Only time will tell if the full Tales of Monkey Island will live up to its potential and join its older siblings in the hallowed halls of eternal gamer nostalgia, but from what I’ve seen so far, I only have one thing left to add: My name is Dante Kleinberg, and I want to be a pirate.