Pirates, Monkeys and Rubber Chickens: How humour motivates player progression and exploration throughout The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

The seamless sewing of humour into almost every facet of the swashbuckling point-and-click adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) is the main motivating factor for players to sit through hours of dialogue trees, furiously combine inventory items and time their actions to solve puzzles. This analysis will describe and analyse the three forms of humour used to encourage player progression and exploration: narrative humour (used for exposition and plot progression), designer meta-humour (used to parody the adventure game genre) and action humour (used to include combat that contributes to the narrative instead of interfering with it).

The narrative humour of The Secret of Monkey Island is embedded in interactive dialogue with other characters, cut scenes and the protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood’s commentary on objects and people in his environment. These encourage the player to explore areas beyond the minimum interaction required for player progression.  Ryan (2008) describes this ability as spatial immersion, a form of narrative immersion where players have a sense of place and pleasure taken in exploring the story world. For example, players need only work through parts of dialogue trees until they figure out their next course of action (through subtle hints embedded in coversations). Alternatively, clicking through all the different branches gives players more background knowledge about characters and environments. (E.g. Murray the talking skull commenting “I’m not bald! I just have a really high widow’s peak.”)

Furthermore, narrative humour motivates players to solve puzzles that require trial-and-error by reducing frustration and rewarding players once completed. According to Tim Schafer, these bribes are necessary to motivate players, as they do not always care about the character’s motivations (Pearce, 2003). By keeping a light-hearted, humorous tone throughout the game, The Secret of Monkey Island also gives a sense of narrative immersion in relation to story (Adams & Rollings, 2010), as it allows the game to venture far into the realms of absurd humour without alienating the player (Lnakoski, Heliō & Ekman, 2003).

It is this constancy that allows The Secret of Monkey Island to engage in meta-humour, the likes of which would destroy immersion in more serious games (Adams, 2004). Otherwise known as self-referential humour, meta-humour is the practice of making in-game references to out-of-game objects (Adams, 2004). The meta-humour of The Secret of Monkey Island consists of parodies of traditional adventure game elements (unavoidable and numerous deaths, parodied by Guybrush pretending to die), aspects of gaming (examining a tree stump in the forest leads to a screen questing the player to insert non-existing discs #22 and #23) and references to the designers themselves (when talking to the prisoner Otis, Guybrush mentions Ron, Tim and Dave –the first names of the lead designers). The use of sporatic meta-humour is similar to the purpose of hidden easter eggs and achievements external to the narrative (e.g. Xbox live achievements) in that it encourages players to aggressively explore the game.

Meta-humour also increases appreciation of game design, although Adams (2004) claims designers can go too far by inserting jokes to purely show off intelligence. However self-referential jokes in The Secret of Monkey Island serve to heighten player enjoyment, serving as a pre-text for absurd situations by acknowledging the absurdity of certain adventure game conventions (E.g. Herman Toothrot breaking the fourth wall and joking directly to the player).

Similarly, humour also serves as a pre-text for the unique form of combat in The Secret of Monkey Island, otherwise known as insult duelling. In insult sword fighting, the player works to find the appropriate pair of insults to allow Guybrush to defeat pirates. Given that combat is an essential element of pirate tales and that combat is spurned by adventure game purists, insult sword fighting allows players to fight other pirates without breaking the illusion of safety (Barnes, 2012).  It also allows combat to contribute to the narrative instead of interfering with it, an important convention in adventure games (Adams, 2010). The humorous pairings also make the search for the correct answer less tedious, exposing players to new material amidst a repetitive activity.

Ironically, the various forms of humour in The Secret of Monkey Island help categorise it as an adventure game, whilst simultaneously setting it apart from and beyond other games in the same genre. The narrative, meta- and action humour embedded in the various game elements throughout The Secret of Monkey Island ultimately serve as the main drive for the player to solve puzzles and progress to the next plot segment, as well as encouraging exploration amongst the game world.



Dickens, E. (2004) The Top 20 Adventure Games of All-Time: #2: The Secret of Monkey Island. Retrieved from: http://www.adventuregamers.com/articles/view/18100 on 13/07/2012.


Adams, E. (2004) Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion. Retrieved from: http://designersnotebook.com/Columns/063_Postmodernism/063_postmodernism.htm on 13/07/2012.

Adams, E. & Rollings, A. (2010) Fundamentals of Game Design, Prentice Hall, p. 26, 564.

Barnes, R. (2012) Redux: The making of Monkey Island. Retrieved from: http://www.totalpcgaming.com/features/redux-the-making-of-monkey-island/ on 13/07/2012.

Lankoski, P., Heliō, S. & Ekman, I. (2003) Characters in Computer Games: Toward Understand Interpretation and Design. Retrieved from: http://www.digra.org/dl/db/05087.10012.pdf on 13/07/2012.

Pearce, C. (2003) A Conversation with Tim Schaefer. Retrieved from: http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/pearce/ on 13/07/2012.

Ryan, M. (2008) Interactive Narrative, Plot Types, and Interpersonal Relations. Retrieved from: http://users.frii.com/mlryan/plottypes.pdf on 13/07/2012.

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