One of my goals this year is to play more games and extract some tips on good game design along the way. This is my sixteenth review in this series called “50 games”.

“The Secret of Monkey Island” is a classic point and click adventure from Lucasfilm Games. If you haven’t played it, play it. It’s worth it. I re-played it with Dos Game Club as it was September’s game, and I thought I could write down some thoughts on what makes it great from a game design point of view.

I played the first version, with EGA graphics. And while it was a perfectly acceptable means to display the world, it’s clearly not the graphics that makes the game stand out. Nor is it the music - the title theme is legendary, but the game itself is mostly quiet with with some jingles and themes triggered by events.

No, I think what makes the game great is how smooth and natural the conversation and jokes feel, combined with a fairly streamlined plot with clear goals and puzzles with solutions not too “far out”. I remember reading that some of the dialogue was entered as placeholder, but ended up making the cut because it just felt natural and funny.

And great characters! Herman, the cannibals, and Stan are all solid characters with personalities and humour that still feel funny to this day. Guybrush might be annoying at times, but he is genuinely just wanting to become a pirate in this pirate world.

Compare this with the sequel: Having re-played a bit of MI2, it’s striking how Guybrush has changed - maybe as part of his fame, but still, it means you control a less likeable character.

For a game that is almost 30 years old, it’s also refreshing to see strong female characters, but even more refreshing that the game not even once makes a point about it.

In terms of the puzzles, they most often make sense (at least isolated). I got stuck a couple of times, and had some small hints from fellow Dos Game Clubbers in order to continue - but I think that’s part of how the game was meant to be experienced, bouncing ideas and solutions off your mates.

The game also tries to help reduce the brute-force approach by removing useless objects in between the various acts. I think the main thing is that each act has a pretty clear goal so you never really wonder “what am I doing again?”.

So what lessons can I take from this game from a gamedev and game design point of view?

  • Story, dialogue and puzzles are the heart of point and click games. In 2018 I don’t mind playing an EGA game because it still flows and “feels” great!
  • Characters! Personality goes a long way…
  • If puzzles have sensible solutions, it makes it less frustrating when you eventually find them
  • Clear overall goals makes the game make sense