Despite being called The Secret of Monkey Island, the first game in the Monkey Island series never really delved into what the eponymous secret actually was. The focus is on Guybrush Threepwood and his madcap misadventures as he frolics around the Caribbean, confronting undead pirates and finding love. The series did not become a success thanks to the attraction of a mysterious secret, and the title became a kind of relic.
That was until Return to Monkey Island put the mystery back in the spotlight. The game makes it clear that the secret is something we should have been paying attention to all along, and the game’s seeming unwillingness to tell us what the secret actually is has caused a lot of frustration and discussion among fans.
At the end, Guybrush comes through a door and you are led to believe that he is about to have a dramatic confrontation with his arch-rival LeChuck and new villain Captain Madison. Instead, he steps out into an amusement park. In a recent Q&A, creator Ron Gilbert explained that this has been the secret all along – Guybrush was at an amusement park the whole time.
Ryan Bamsey and Meg Pelliccio are lifelong fans of the Monkey Island games who have already spent far too much time debating what the latest game’s ending means. They then had to scrap the first draft of that article when Gilbert revealed the truth, removing the need for debate. However, this confirmation provoked an interesting question: Was revealing this inconvenient truth a mistake?
M: The amusement park theory had actually been around for years, but it fell by the wayside when Gilbert was no longer at the helm. There has been a lot of discussion online about what the Return to Monkey Island ending really means. In the game we get several explanations for the mystery. A lousy t-shirt? Gems, rubies and gold? Of all the options, I liked to think the real secret was what we, as a single player, made it to be.
For me, the secret meant different things. It marked a return to a series I’d adored since childhood and offered a touching trip back to cherished memories of playing the original two games with my siblings. Oddly enough, it was also about the IRL friends I made along the way. For me, part of the joy of Return was chatting with Ryan — we both discovered that we solved puzzles differently or noticed little things that the other didn’t. And that also led to us discussing what we think really happened in the end. That candid interpretation was part of the fun, but with Gilbert providing a definitive answer, it feels like we’ve lost some of what made the mystery so special.
R: I agree – while I personally don’t like ambiguous endings, I can understand why Return had one. Monkey Island is a special series for so many people for so many different reasons, so it felt right to underscore that fact with a “the secret is what you make of it” ending – that’s how it is for the player personal. Then to say that “actually the secret is that the whole thing is a fake story and none of it really happened” doesn’t sit well with me.
Gilbert said this was an idea that was thrown around with the first game but ultimately scrapped, but we see remnants of the mystery in things like the anachronistic grog machine and treasure hunter t-shirt. Anachronisms became part of the whimsical and unique world of Monkey Island, not a grim reminder of a harrowing truth.
Revealing the original idea for the true nature of the mystery would be fine in a vacuum, but it seems that with Return ending, Gilbert is determined to make it the absolute truth of the series. Guybrush isn’t a pirate, he’s a soil tester. Mêlée Island is an amusement park set piece. The adventures did not take place and there were no missions. Knowing this, any debate is fruitless – the question of what happened to Morgan after Tales is debatable, it may not even exist. LeChuck’s apparent immortality is not a plot point to be analyzed, but a convenient trope. This new confirmation has taken some of what makes Monkey Island fun and flattened it.
M: A stupid part of me still holds onto the hope that this isn’t the real secret. At least not anymore. I understand that was the original plan back in 1988, and even though Gilbert said, “That is the secret,” he also notes that the idea was abandoned early in development. Maybe the series’ popularity derailed that plan as fans clamored for more, maybe all the post-Gilbert games changed Guybrush’s fate?
If we take what Gilbert says at face value, if the secret is really just a theme park, there are still things that don’t make sense in the game. At the end of Return, Elaine says she found the lost map to Mire Island’s treasure. What is that if not a hint of a possible new adventure for Guybrush? Are we to believe this is an actual pirate adventure or just a new amusement park ride under construction?
Many parts of Return, particularly the ending and various optional post-game scenes, are open to interpretation. I can’t bring myself to believe that all of this fits neatly into the notion that it’s all wrong. There’s just too much to talk about — something Ryan and I talked about (at length) ahead of Gilbert’s recent reveal.
For example, I always found it strange that Dee – the third child from the opening – bore a striking resemblance to Captain Madison. So part of me wondered if, similar to LeChuck’s Revenge, the idea was that the events were just some kids’ made-up adventures. Do not get me wrong. I don’t necessarily how Neither does this theory, since it also falls into the whole “none of this is real” camp, but I liked to think of it as one of many possible theories, because that’s what they were, theories. Interestingly, one of the optional post-game scenes is Chuckie chasing Dee with a key in hand, furthering this idea.
R: While Meg didn’t like that idea herself, I stuck with it – it just makes so much sense and doesn’t mix with the canon established by the previous games. In my ideal world, Guybrush, LeChuck, and Captain Madison all end up facing the same curse that fooled Guybrush at the end of LeChuck’s revenge. They are all victims of the Carnival of the Damned, with Captain Madison taking on the role of Dee while LeChuck takes on the role of Chuckie. At least that’s not how the story has to end and we have a great plot hook for the future.
From the looks of it, I’m cautious. It seems Return is a success and there’s a good chance we’ll get another Monkey Island in the future. I share the same concerns as Meg – will a new Monkey Island continue to build on this bizarre metaplot, or will it return to what draws people to the games in the first place? I personally pray for the latter. I love pulling on metatextual strings to open up new, exciting possibilities, but the mother of all retcons, throwing six games into a beloved series doesn’t look good and leaves me disillusioned.
NEXT: Return To Monkey Island is a reminder that the point-and-click adventure is still the chilled genre