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or How to understand images in art and to win a videogame without walkthroughs. and the proof that this game is really a piece of art.
One - A Game of Art. When I saw Monkey Island 2 for the first time, I was a twelve year old boy, and I immediately thought that it was a masterpiece. I used to play it in my friend’s house, because I didn’t have a pc - once upon a time there were people without computers. Sadly I never played the whole game, just a few scenarios, because my friend proceeded playing the game on his own when I was not with him. Of course I will never forgive this childish behaviour. Now, twenty-eight years later, I’m playing that game on my mobile phone. The boy I was in the first 90s was a boy who dreamt about a machine in the penny arcades with ALL the games and INFINITE credits. They told him it was just a dream. Ten years later, the M.A.M.E fulfilled this lifelong dream. Now, it’s time to give this boy a new revenge: When he told that Monkey Island was ART they told him it was JUST A GAME featuring weird pirates. Twenty-eight years later, this boy works as an artist and he wants to proof to the world that he was right, and explain why. For the uninitiated, the Monkey Island games are adventure/puzzlers following the story of the plucky wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood. After beating the ghost pirate LeChuck and winning over the lovely Governor Elaine Marley in the Secret of Monkey Island, Threepwood has fallen out of Elaine's good graces and decides to pursue the fabled treasure of Big Whoop in the second chapter of the saga.
My opinion is that Monkey Island, a part from being an excellent game and a funny pirate’s tale, is a smart mediation and a working metaphor of understanding images in art, and I will try to explain why. Two - The contemplation of images. Contemplation is the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time with a deep reflective thought. There are not many products of the contemporary society who teach or stimulate contemplation; thanks to media and advertisements every single day of our lives we are bombarded by the greatest amount of visual messages ever created by man in the whole history of mankind. At least this happens in every country where the Monkey Island game was played. In my lifetime, a very poor quantity of these messages caused me to “contemplate”, to consider them as artworks. One of these was Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s revenge, and this is one of the reasons why I would call it a work of art, or more precisely, a work of art about art. When we look at any form of static visual art (being it painting, photograph, mixed media, digital, whatever) we are not guided by a timeline or an explicit story. We are one with time, and the skills of the artist united to our interpretative skills and endeavours will bring the image to life. The image is static, but it will live in our minds, hitting and mixing our ideas. Once again a note for the uninitiated (or n00bs): the Monkey Island game is a “graphical adventure game”, that is a computer-based game in which the player assumes the role of protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle-solving, instead of physical challenge. The genre's focus on story allows it to draw heavily from other narrative-based media such as literature and film, encompassing a wide variety of literary genres. Nearly all adventure games are designed for a single player, since this emphasis on story and character makes multiplayer design difficult. Monkey Island 2, like the first one, it’s a collection of wonderfully crafted pixelated scenarios where the whole story takes place. Basically, a series of 8-bit paintings where you must explore every tiny detail in order to find objects, talk with people and do every sort of weird things in order to proceed with the adventure. There are many moving objects in the scenarios - you in the first instance - but the images are mainly static; your eyes will explore them, looking for some unseen detail to reinterpret in order to keep going on with the game. As a side note, the third chapter of the Monkey Island saga is similar to this past one, but drawn in a cartoon-like style (farewell pixels), while the last two chapters works with a 3D engine (What an Apostasy!).
What I intend to point out this is that Monkey Island 2 is a sort of forced education to contemplation. The images of the game are wonderful samples of pixel art, maybe the best I’ve ever seen, but of course they are not comparable to (as an example) a painting by Francis Bacon. However, in order to solve the game, you have to contemplate them. I support the truth of the commutative propriety of contemplation: Art leads to Contemplation as Contemplation leads to Art; probably the artistic appeal (now a trend) of “big square pixels” owes much to this game, and it’s not just a matter of nostalgia. If to contemplate a petal can lead to wisdom, contemplating a coloured square can do the same, and we should thank this game if a small part of our soul is sometimes enlightened in front of a pixel. Three - Building the sense of nonsense While playing Monkey Island 2, you have to take and combine objects (and deal with dialogues) in a completely unusual way. For example (warning, spoiler!), you have to combine a monkey with a hydrant to open it - a nice way to use a monkey as monkey wrench. In another parts of the story you have to use a banana with a metronome to obtain a device that you will use to hypnotize a monkey. Every part of the image can be combined. The interpretative key is diffused through all the game and you are forced to not only “see” the nice pictures, you must watch and rebuild them. In other words, the viewer is called to build the image
and its sense like it happens with every artwork, but in a literary way. There is not so much difference between a painting like “The Ambassadors” (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger and the “use-monkey-with-hydrant” scene in Monkey Island 2. The Holbein’s painting, located in the National Gallery in London, is a double portrait, and contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It is also a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting. Especially it’s anamorphic skull puzzles all the art historians. The viewer can perceive the skull at the feet of the two ambassadors only watching the painting from a certain point of view. What does it mean? Does the anamorphic representation make the limitation of human vision explicit, since we can either see the painting from the front or the skull from the sides, but not both at the same time? Does it mean that Divine vision transcends the human limitations of time and place? Does the syntax of the painting mean that human mortality obscures a direct vision of God, the absolute centre of the world? Moreover, can a monkey be a monkey wrench to open a hydrant and be hypnotized by our banana-metronome? Does the syntax of the game mean that human languages reveal a new vision of the world? The answer is right there, in the images. Four - The “LOOK” command. So many words have been spent about the interactions between images and words that I’m not going to explore this huge field right now. What I’m going to talk about is the importance of the idea of a “history of art” in Monkey Island 2. To win the game, you mustn’t forget any scenario you have passed through. A detail that looks useless for your purposes becomes often necessary later. An image is a world on its own, but worlds are connected and talk one with each other. Art is a Multiverse of worlds, and the different islands in the game are exactly the same. Each artist, like each island, speaks its own language, but you can reach a
deeper and different understanding if you manage to navigate from one to another, and to build new connections. Then, you can learn some words from the vocabulary of the bigger set, “Art” in general. The image is important, so don’t forget to “LOOK” at it! You (or Guybrush Threepwood) will talk about it, and using a new language you will discover (create) something more. Your feelings and opinions about what you see will be part of the picture, and you will store some of its unrevealed secrets for the time when you will be ready to unveil them.
Everything talks, inside and outside Monkey Island. So don’t forget to LOOK! Five - To win the game. The only way to win (without walkthroughs) is to enter in the very spirit of the game. To do this, you must enter inside the images; you must be Guybrush Threepwood, think like Guybrush Thriftwood, act like Guybrush Peepwood. This sound quite obvious since you are playing a videogame that requires a good amount of identification like every game. The point is: You must do the same in Art to fully understand a picture. You must be, think and act like a painting. Obviously this doesn’t imply to be hanged on the wall, but to fully trust the world inside the picture: more than a window, the frame is a door. Sometime with a videogame it can be easier, but in Monkey Island the purpose can be fulfilled only through contemplation, like in art. As I wrote before, this is not a 3D modern game that projects you directly in the middle of bullets, monsters, weapons and stuff like this. For the whole game you will only look at pictures with something moving inside them, and you will read texts. To enter in the very spirit of the game
you have to trust the game, to let the Island live in your head. This is probably the reason why I found this game easier when I was twelve; children are very good at changing worlds. As a conclusion to these notes, I will remind everyone who played the game what the three men of low moral fiber told you in the Scubb island: Pirates: We met a philosopher on the island, and he told us something that changed our lives. Guybrush: That you should bore passers-by to tears with long stories? Pirates: He told us that the entire world is a stage and that we are merely players. So, we became performance artists. And they really are, like every living part of an artwork. Six - Ending notes In writing these quick notes, I neglected two important parts of Monkey Island: text and music. Of course, they are both fabulous, but I decided to concentrate my attention to the visual aspects of the game. I hope that some pirate with a deeper knowledge than mine in these fields will take this ending note as an invite and a challenge.
Francesco D’Isa, www.gizart.com. English editing by Roberta Zaino.
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