Humor can be one the of the hardest things to pull off in any medium of entertainment. It might also be one of the most rewarding for both the audience and the creator.
And if game designers find it hard to combine narrative and gameplay then combining humor and gameplay is even more difficult.
The Secret of Monkey Island is pretty famous for being fun, creative, and, of course, funny. Along with standard forms of visual or verbal humor, one of the things that Monkey Island does well is make sure that the gameplay itself is funny. There’s a few different moments where this happens, but there’s one particular example that exemplifies the idea of interweaving the humor and the gameplay so that gameplay and humor are the same thing. Playing the game is actually funny, not just reading a conversation or seeing something silly on the screen.
The moment is when the player character, Guybrush Threepwood, acquires the Idol of Many Hands, but then is pushed off a pier by his rival with the idol tied to his foot. The player sinks to the bottom and then has to figure out what to do.
The warm up jokes:
There’s several jokes that take place over the course of this scene.
First, early in the game, some pirate captains asked Guybrush if he has any special skills, and he says that he can hold his breath for ten minutes. For players who remember this dialogue its a funny explanation for why Guybrush doesn’t drown in this scene right away (he does drown after ten minutes).
Second, there’s various sharp objects half buried in the sand all around you. You can’t reach any of them because the rope that ties you to the idol is too short.
The players might think there’s some clever way to reach the swords and axes, but there isn’t. A cruel bit of irony.
Third, two pirates show up on the pier above Guybrush. Their conversation starts off like this:
“Hey, Nick, I just committed a felony!”
“Did it involve that big knife you’ve got there?”
“Yeah! What should I do with it?”
At first the players might think, “Ah, so it’s not really a puzzle at all. I just had to wait for these pirates to show up and they throw the knife in the water for me to use. That’s funny.” But, like the sharp objects in the water, this is just a bait and switch. The pirates have a funny argument over whether to throw the knife in the water, but ultimately the felon decides to keep it and then they walk away. So, that’s funny as well.
Then the players realize that there really is some puzzle that has to be solved here.
The actual puzzle and the ultimate joke:
And this is where we reach the fourth joke, and it’s probably one of the most ingenious and creative moments of any game, all the more so since it’s hilarious. (Spoilers, obvi.)
The players have to realize that what’s keeping them trapped is that they’re tied to the Idol of Many Hands, but that just a few minutes earlier they actually had the Idol in their inventory and were walking around with it. So, you just have to tell Guybrush to “Pick Up” the Idol, and that’s it! Once it’s in your inventory you’re free to climb out of the water.
It’s one of the most hilarious moments in any game. I actually burst into laughter when I figured it out the first time.
This joke deconstructs the representation of physical reality in games, pokes fun at the nature of inventory systems, and I’d like to add a third thing for the “rule of threes” but I can’t think of anything right now.
The Stunning Conclusion:
Most importantly is that the gameplay is funny. The humor is not done through dialogue, or text, or some visual gag. The way the player solves the puzzle is what’s funny. It is the players’ realization of what to do that makes them laugh.
There’s a few other moments like this, like when you realize you have to use an old kitchen pot as a crash helmet, or the insult swordfighting, but this underwater sequence is the best of them all.
And most game developers aren’t able to do this. Consider Portal, one of the funniest games. It’s funny, but all its humor comes directly from the dialogue of Glados. You never laugh at HOW you solved a puzzle, nor at how you move from one area to the next. Or consider something like Earthworm Jim whose humor mostly comes from visual gags and absurdity, which although funny, is separate from the gameplay itself. Even later Tim Schaeffer games are funny because of dialogue, irony, or juxtaposition, but not because of gameplay.
And that’s because making gameplay that’s funny in and of itself is very hard, which makes it all the more impressive that the Secret of Monkey Island did it so many times.