When viewed as an overall experience, I think that Return to Monkey Island is a fantastic point and click adventure game. The game’s art style, while initially unexpected in reveal trailers, works well in practice when playing through the adventure. The game feels like a suitable love letter to the series history, while carving out its own new narrative that feels fresh, and aware of the passing of time. The game’s puzzles, at least on casual difficulty, avoid veering too far into “moon logic”, and the writing is smart, sweet, and genuinely funny.
Return to Monkey Island is a game I want to recommend people check out, but with one caveat I can’t do justice without diving into spoilers.
I think that Return to Monkey Island is a fantastic game, with a really muddled, confusing, and sub par ending. It could be trying to say a lot of things, but no one reading feels truly satisfying.
To explain why I really didn’t gel with the ending to Return to Monkey Island, I first need to rewind, and discuss some of the narrative and thematic structure of the game leading up to its ending, to provide proper context for where the ending falls apart.
Set many decades after the original Monkey Island games, Return to Monkey Island uses the framing device of an older Guybrush Threepwood telling his young son the story of how he finally found The Secret of Monkey Island. It is presented up front as Guybrush providing his son with closure to a story started many years ago, and left without a satisfying conclusion.
Now, going into Return to Monkey Island, it is clear that the game wants you to treat this adventure as being more about the journey than the destination. Early plot threads are signalled that both Guybrush, and his long term nemesis LeChuck, are searching for The Secret to a point of obsession, and without much idea why they’re doing it beyond rivalry and stubbornness.
As the adventure progresses, LeChuck is shown doing evil acts in his pursuit of The Secret, but so is our hero Guybrush. This is initially subtle, but grows to an eventual crescendo where his wife, Elaine, starts encountering the people whose lives Guybrush has negatively impacted in his hunt for The Secret. It is made clear to the player, Guybrush’s quest, if looked at objectively, may not be worth the cost to others paid to pursue it.
Now, all of this I love. Return to Monkey Island is a game that, at its heart, is about things changing with the times, the world moving on, not simply doing what is expected of you, and the ways that holding onto the past can lead to bad decisions. Right up until the game’s actual conclusion, I loved what the game seemed to be trying to convey, and how it seemed to be planning to execute on that plan.
So, here’s where I feel Return to Monkey Island falls apart narratively.
As the player reaches the end of the game, a fairly clear setup has been established. LeChuck and Guybrush are rushing toward the final location of The Secret of Monkey Island, with the player expecting that, somehow or another, Guybrush will decide to give up on his quest.
He’ll see the harm his obsession has caused himself and his nemesis, and make a choice not to let himself succumb to the darkness. Maybe he’ll choose the safety of someone he loves over the treasure. Maybe he’ll simply walk away. Maybe he’ll realise that no matter what’s inside the chest could never be satisfying after all these years of mystery, and he’d rather live in a world where that mystery still exists for him.
No, what we get instead is a LOT more unexplained.
Guybrush solves the game’s final puzzle, a wheel themed after the original game’s decoder anti-piracy wheel, and emerges without explanation into a mock version of the main town high street, made of wooden building facades, wooden animatronics of characters we know, and obvious stage lighting.
Stan, the series long running salesman character, tells you to turn out all the lights, and hands you a set of keys. Guybrush is confused, as is the player.
Thre is an implication in this scene that Stan and Guybrush are workers in what seems to be an elaborate escape room. At this point the game briefly seems like it’s ending is going to be very much focused on being introspective about the nature of making adventure games, and forth wall breaking look at what it’s like to make a video game like Return to Monkey Island. This sort of works in isolation, but feels disconnected from everything that comes before and after it. If this type of reading was meant to be the main take away from the ending, it feels poorly supported by remaining context, at least to me.
The player, from this point forward, is making a series of granular choices toward a series of multiple endings, without being made aware of that fact. If the player exhausts all dialogue, and explores all explorable interactions, as they will have done for the rest of the game without penalty, they may now unwittingly craft an unsatisfying ending for their story, without knowing they are doing so.
This dreamlike unreal space is visually designed to seem like a fantasy, but your actions here will be extrapolated by the game into canon aspects of how your adventure ends.
The player can go over to what appears to be the chest containing The Secret of Monkey island, and open it. If they do, it contains a t-shirt simply stating something to the effect of “I found The Secret of Monkey Island, and All I got Was This T-Shirt”.
Beyond minimal interactions, the player here is expected to turn out all the lights on this wooden amusement attraction, before speaking to Elaine, the only other real human who appears to be present. The player can express their and Guybrush’s confusion as to how they went from a subterranean lava cave to a wooden recreation of the centre of town, but Elaine offers nothing but platitudes, and no explanation for what is actually happening.
You agree to leave with her, and leave the framing device, met with the face of your very confused son, unsure what on earth just happened.
Initially, my assumption was that this was maybe trying to imply that none of the adventures were ever real? The whole story, maybe all of Guybrush’s adventures, were actually just pretend stories for his children, designed to enthrall them, but not intended to be real adventures he really went on. At the very least, that maybe this one adventure he was making up to give his kid closure?
Would that make sense? Well, thematically I can see why the developers might want to tell a story about telling a story to give people closure they think they want, and the issues that come with that, but if that was the intention all along, I feel like the game did a very poor job of communicating that as the intended climax of the plot throughout the adventure.
Throughout your adventure, Guybrush Threepwood has been, not so subtly, repeatedly making a running joke of the fact he’s no good at giving stories endings. At this point, it becomes clear the game intends to hang its hat on this joke. Guybrush told his son a weird nonsense ending to this story, because he’s at least in part bad at giving stories satisfying endings. If the implication is that the whole game was a story he was making up to give his kid a fun time and some closure, this running gag is the excuse for his made up story not having a conclusion.
To me, this felt like playing Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and experiencing that game’s overly lengthy and annoying tutorial. Sure Blood Dragon, you acknowledge you were making a joke about bad tutorials, but you still made me play a bad tutorial.
Additionally, if the implication is that Guybrush is a stand in for the developers, the creator of the very story being told, that makes the reliance on “Oh, endings are hard” as a hand wave make even less sense to me.
Additionally, I think there is later conflicting evidence that rules out the reading that this adventure never happens. Certain endings make it clear the adveture did really happen, and we will return to that later.
Putting aside the fact that Guybrush is ostensibly telling the story of real life events, which he should not need to make up an interesting ending for, this feels like an excuse the game uses to avoid tackling, in character, many of the most interesting questions the game was posing as it built toward its conclusion.
We could have seen a confrontation between Elaine and Guybrush over his behaviour and who it hurt. We could have seen Guybrush make a decision not to engage. Hell, we could have simply skipped the baffling wooden false town and ended the story right before that.
If this game has gone from Guybrush heading through the final door, to him sat on the bench telling his kid that no ending to the story would be satisfying after all this time, and that he planned to leave things here where his son could still enjoy wondering how it ends, that would have at least felt build up to, even if the player was left without answers themselves.
But, we move past that and into the final conversation with your son. He asks what The Secret of Monkey Island actually was, and you’re given a series of options to pick from. The player is not warned that this is the game’s final choice, and that any option selected will become canon if you wait around and avoid skipping the game’s credits. Some of these are more narratively satisfying than others, but if you mistakenly think this is one of those dialogue screens where you can work your way through the list all at once, you might end up committing to a really narratively unfulfilling ending without realising.
For what it’s worth, the ending I would recommend people seek out if they play the game themselves is to take the key from Wooden LeChuck that opens the chest containing The Secret, but do not open the chest. Turn out the lights, leave with Elaine, and tell your son you never wanted to know what was in the secret, it couldn’t live up to expectations. This ending ends with a shot of Guybrush removing the key from his pocket, and sitting alone feeling contented, which is thematically satisfying, but easy to miss.
However, I also want to discuss an ending you may reach if you thoughroughly explore the theme park facimile, and try to work through your dialogue options with your son from top to bottom.
By opening the chest, then telling your son you found gems and gold inside, you get confirmation by not skipping the game’s credits that yes, the events of the game did happen. The tresure was reall, it was tangible, the story was not pretend, and it was not a story he was inventing on the fly to give his kid joy and attempted closure.
My problem with the ending to Return to Monkey Island is ultimately a combination of its jarring rug pull, lack of narrative thread closure, unsignposted multiple ending system, and unclear sense of narrative direction.
The wooden city location feels like it’s there simply to be surprising and confusing, without adding anything of value to how the game handles its narrative themes. Had it been a wooden recreation of what lay beyond the final door, as a way to remove some of the specifics from the final interaction and leave some mystery for Guybrush’s son and the player, that might have made sense. What was presented here was largely just confusing and jarring.
Had this all been a dream, I could have seen the thematic elements they were trying to end on, but I’d argue they were poorly signposted, and the ending’s optional choices undercut that ending’s chances of being seen as canonical.
The fact the game enters a state of multiple endings is poorly signposted, and if you’re not careful, it’s very possible for this story’s canonical ending to be that Guybrush simply opened a chest, found loads of gold and gems, and that was that. You didn’t get to see it happen, but Guybrush won and got loads of treasure. The end.
The fact that the closest the game has to a narratively fulfilling ending can be so easily missed, by players trying to avoid missing content and be thorough, or get answers amidst a confusing change in location, is really disappointing.
I am okay with an ending that subverts expectations, and incact was looking forward to one here. I don’t dislike the ending because it sidesteps the confrontation with LeChuck, or a reveal of what The Secret truly is. I dislike it because I feel like there are much more naratively cohesive ways the ending could have done that subversion that felt more clear in their messaging, whatever they intended it to be.
Return to Monkey Island is overall a fantastic game, and one I deeply enjoyed, but it really felt like it was setting up a perfectly satisfying ending about making a choice not to hunt a treasure you’ve hurt others in pursuit of, that could not possibly live up to the mystery after decades of debate. The ending was right there, and the choice to instead go for a confusing delivery, lack of answers, and ability to give yourself a boring end without knowing, just did not feel satisfying to me, at the end of a story that felt so narratively fulfilling and cohesive.