When Ron Gilbert announced he was going back to finish what he started thirty or so years before, fans were thrilled. Not only we were going to see our favorite Monkey Island characters once again, but also get some closure to the story and find out what (really) happened. Gilbert explained it would be a continuation of Monkey Island 2, but would also be in canon with all the later games. How did he accomplish such a feat? Well, by not making any significant choices, as Return to Monkey Island feels like a Disney game, through and through.
Spoilers will be kept to a minimum through this, but, clearly, if you’ve not finished or played Return to Monkey Island yet, you might want to read this later. In Return’s story, Gilbert and his team reference nostalgia towards the series again and again, along with players’ expectations. Guybrush, doubling as the player, walks down the Melee Island docks and wistfully remembers good ol’ times when the town was alive and the Scumm bar was full of (nicer?) pirates and Stan was still trying to dupe people into buying ships.
The “how green was my valley” discussion comes up a lot in the story, along with another narrative thread which had me quite interested. Guybrush goes looking for the secret of Monkey Island and, in doing so he has a bit of a dark turn. The mighty pirate starts ruining lives, taking advantage of others and destroying natural habitats, everything in his path becomes unimportant as long as he can still reach his coveted objective of uncovering the secret.
At one point, Elaine even reads back his “list of twelve crimes” to which he reacts pretty nonchalantly. The dark turn of Guybrush is definitely something I was expecting to come back in the end big time, as a twist. Perhaps Gilbert would use it to address the players’ manic nostalgia, also, perhaps, a quick jab at all the people who posted hateful comments for the art style. That does not happen, after Elaine “confronts” Guybrush, the topic does not ever come up again, it is of little consequence on the story whatsoever.
Elaine herself is also a pretty different character from any of the previous games. If you remember her as a strong, independent woman who needs no man and can barely tolerate her husband… well, you might remember wrong. In Return to Monkey Island, Elaine is just all smiling and sweet, she does defend Gubyrush with her sword at one point, but there’s very little of her old strong character here. And no, it is never explained why she’s remarkably different from previous games.
So, we come to the ending. Without spoiling too much, Gilbert is up to his old tricks again and we can safely say the conclusion… does not really “conclude” anything. Regarding how can Return stay in canon with the series, the other games are simply treated like “adventures”. Basically, anything can be considered “canon” with the Monkey Island series in doing so. Did you develop a fan adventure game where Guybrush meets the Ghostbusters? Sure, that’s canon, who cares? Typical Gilbert ending aside, this feels like a very Disney move. Let’s not really change anything major, let’s not close any possible doors and let’s not dwell too much about topics (nostalgia, fans, etc) that might be sensitive. Let’s just consider it “another adventure for Guybrush and his friends” and call it a day.
And this is not a problem with the ending per se, it’s the whole game that hinges on being a metanarrative which ends up making the story feel devoid of weight and meaning. Much like the “it was all a dream” ending, one might like the idea or not, but it is a choice that ultimately weakens the story, rendering every choice made by the characters meaningless. At least, if it was all in function of Gilbert’s big meta ending and nothing really mattered, he could have made some more unique storytelling choices. Elaine could have married someone else, and Herman could have died. I don’t know… Something!
I was expecting much more by a creator going back to a series that, for so long, he’s been wanting to go back to. Return to Monkey Island was marketed as “the guys are back and they’re going to finish what they started”, but that didn’t happen. Return has no answers to give and does not meaningfully impact the series and its characters either (unless you consider “someday Guybrush and Elaine will have a son” impactful?). Return is a solid point-and-click adventure, but it feels like Gilbert did not really have anything meaningful to add, except for a few (pretty funny) jabs at anti-vaxxers. It is another “?” in a long series of “???” in the Monkey Island canon.
As much as it might be understood as a look at our relationship with adventure games, it definitely feels like the creator’s intention was just making another “goofy” Monkey Island. Nothing wrong with that, but after so long and so many other point and clicks (some of which with a much better story) under the bridge, it was reasonable to expect Gilbert to retake control of his creation. To steer the helm towards new messages, different characters, and strong design/story ideas. Instead, with all the promising narrative strands tossed aside and an ending which just copies ones he’s done before, I’m sadly going to call Return to Monkey Island for what it is: disappointing.