Just Like Monkey Island
Written by Deirdra Kiai
When I discovered the wonderful world of amateur adventure game development, all I wanted to do was make a game that was just like Monkey Island.
Well, okay, not just like Monkey Island. Unlike a number of people, I had no intention of writing a fan-made sequel or anything silly like that. From the start, I know I wanted to do something of my very own. Something original. But back then, I don't think I was quite sure what that something was. All I knew was that I wanted to make a game that made me feel the same way as I did when I played Monkey Island.
At first, I hypothesized that such a feeling came from a game's surface elements. The art. The animation. The music. Thus, I decided to learn how to draw, animate, and compose. I bought a scanner so that I could transfer my cartoonish scribbles from paper to screen. I bought a MIDI keyboard so that I could turn the melodies in my head into blips coming out of my speakers. I took out my notes from the animation class I had taken that year at school, and made walk cycles for the character I had created. I kept working at perfecting my craft until I started to create the beginnings of a reasonably nice concoction in 640x480 resolution (which was reasonably state-of-the art circa 1999-2000). It wasn't quite up to professional standards, but compared to the vast majority of amateur adventure games created by people who just couldn't draw, I felt as though I was well on my way to success.
Somewhere along the way, however, I realised that there was far more to Monkey Island's greatness than just its presentation. Sure, pretty graphics and music were useful as window dressing, but the way that the game was designed was what made it so immersive, and so much fun. The way the story was written, and the way the puzzles were designed to be challenging but fair. "Of course," I realised, "why didn't I think of that before?"
So, I went back to the drawing board, redesigned my game so that it had a better story, created puzzles for it that made sense (for the most part), sprinkled some Monkey Island in-jokes throughout for good measure, and after several months, I finished it. The people who played it loved it, and they even laughed at the Monkey Island jokes. As I watched them do so, I smiled, knowing I was definitely on my way to success.
It was while I was writing my second game that I realised that I needed to do something more. Yes, classic adventure game mechanics were nice and all, but there had to be a reason why they were no longer very popular with the mainstream. I then concluded that what I had to do was not copy Monkey Island, but innovate over it.
I played a couple of old RPGs and was blown away by their non-linearity, and subsequently added the same non-linearity to my own game in the form of branching narrative paths. I studied discrete mathematics and symbolic logic in school, and applied it to some of my puzzle designs. I made a few Monkey Island in-jokes, but also made glaring references to my previous game, as well as to my own personal life. When I finished the game, many of the people who played it got lost in its aimlessness, but those who did manage to find their way around seemed to enjoy themselves. I thought I was closer to success than ever before.
And yet, as time marched on, I slowly began to realise that innovation for the sake of innovation was meaningless. Today, what is truly important to me, in the grand scheme of things, is the theme of a game: its meaning, its purpose, the messages it wishes to convey. The gameplay mechanics, whether tried-and-true or new-and-improved or something in between, should serve to illustrate this theme in a clear, appropriate manner -- and for that matter, so should all the surface elements. If one of these many pieces doesn't fit, it results in a jarring, unpleasant experience that is neither meaningful nor fun for the player. The whole is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.
I have no idea whether I am anywhere near success. I have no idea whether I'll ever get there. I have, however, stopped putting Monkey Island jokes into my games, for they, just like anything else, deserve to be unique entities of their own.