Legendary adventure game designer and Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert had waited years for this. By “this” he’s not just talking about the chance to finally make his own Monkey Island 3 – officially titled Return to Monkey Island – but also about the opportunity to announce it. “Announcing this game on April 1 has been a dream of mine for years,” he told IGN, referencing the April Fool’s-but-not-really post on his personal blog. “That was the big thrill to me.” The official reveal, along with a teaser trailer, came the following Monday, shocking the gaming world.
Gilbert had been noodling on a project by himself when Monkey Island unexpectedly came back into his life. “I was working on a little RPG game that I was just doing solo, just me,” he said. “That was kind of a hobby project more than anything.” And then came PAX 2019. “The whole thing started at PAX 2019,” he explained. “I got together with Nigel [Lowrie], who runs Devolver, and he said, ‘Hey, we’re interested in doing Monkey Island. We kinda have a little bit of an in with [Monkey Island IP owner] Disney, and we think we can pull this off.’ So I was intrigued by that. Having them involved made it interesting to me. So I told them that I needed to think about it for a while; to make sure I had a good idea. That’s when I called up Dave. When we felt comfortable, then I went back and said, ‘OK, let’s do this thing.’”
Return to Monkey Island – First Screenshots
Grossman, for his part, was the lead writer on a free-to-play Futurama game called Game of Drones. “[Ron] just surreptitiously sent me a text message. ‘Hey, are you around? Can you talk? Can you keep a secret? I’m thinking about doing this Monkey Island game. Do you want to do it with me?’”
Secrecy, in this case, was paramount. “This was like the Manhattan Project of games,” Gilbert said. “I did not tell anybody. If you were not actually working on this project, you didn’t know about it. I didn’t tell my best friend. I didn’t tell my mother, I didn’t tell my sister.” Added Grossman, “I didn’t even tell my own son.”
As to what such a dream project for Gilbert, Grossman, and fans alike could look like, Gilbert waxed philosophical. “It really was a blank slate,” he began. “I knew I wanted to start the game right at the end of Monkey Island 2. That was this unmovable block, but that really was the only one. Dave and I spent a lot of time talking about ‘What is Monkey Island? What does it mean to us now? What does it mean to Guybrush now?’ Thinking about interesting stories. For me I wanted this game to be a good solid pirate adventure. I felt like some of the past Monkey Islands had veered a little bit into the silly territory. And I wanted this to just be, ‘It’s a pirate adventure.’ Guybrush is sailing the seas and visiting islands, and so that was a cornerstone that I wanted to do. A lot of time has passed since we did Monkey Island. Dave and I are not the same people anymore. And the world is not the same. And games are not the same. We didn’t want to just build a retro game. We didn’t want to go back in time and just build this thing that came from a time capsule. We wanted to move the game forward and move the characters forward and move the art forward and move all the stuff forward. So we spent a lot of time talking about ‘What is that story? What is the story we could do that has a personal attachment to us and not just some random pirate story?’
Despite being Monkey Island 3 both in terms of Gilbert’s history with his own series as well as chronologically, Gilbert and Grossman both say the decision to canonify the other Monkey Island games rather than ignore or dispose of them was an easy one. “Yes, they are canon,” Grossman said, with Gilbert adding, “Neither Dave nor I felt like we could throw them out. There are a lot of beloved games. We love things like Murray. Throwing them out seemed like a pointless thing to do.”
The voice cast, which first appeared in the Gilbert-less Curse of Monkey Island, is still largely unconfirmed, talent-wise, though we do know that Dominic Armato will be back to voice our pirate wannabe hero Guybrush Threepwood, and the teaser trailer made it clear that Danny Delk reprises his role as the overconfident undead skull Murray. The retired Earl Boen will not return as LeChuck, however. “We approached him, but he’s retired and he gave us his blessing to recast that role.”
Artistically, Return to Monkey Island will, like each of its predecessors, feature its own distinct visual style. “Each game has its own look and we’ve come up with a different style for this game, but one that we think takes influence from all of the other ones,” said art director Rex Crowle. “Something I draw on a lot is that the first game was in pixel art and that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The style that we’ve got still has room for interpretation again, even though it’s a high definition painterly style, it’s still a style that fans can do their own fan art of. They can bring their own designs to it.”
Naturally, I couldn’t help but ask Gilbert if Return to Monkey Island is one final sendoff for Guybrush, or if this could open the door for more Monkey Island from him. “I think every game that I’ve worked on, when it gets towards the end, I just hate it and I never want to see it again,” he began. “That was true for Monkey Island 1, and 2, and Thimbleweed Park, The Cave, every Humongous game I ever did. And then four months go by and I realize, ‘Oh this is actually really cool.’ So I think what I’m saying is that now is the wrong time to ask me that question,” he said with a laugh.
I ended with one other obligatory fan question: Will the actual secret of Monkey Island be revealed by the end of this game? Gilbert paused and said, “Oh wow, that’s…um…[laugh]…I don’t know that I want to answer that,” before he added, “I think fans will be really excited and happy for what we did or totally angry about what we did.”
So, not unlike the amusement-park ending of Monkey Island 2, then? “Yes, very much” he said with his heartiest laugh yet.