switch graphics

Having It Both Ways in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This is the fifth essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.

You can solve the problem with the touch of a button. This is the everlasting refrain of the tech industry and a concept that has informed video game design, from the charming erasing methods in Mario Paint to the infamous “Press F to Pay Respects” prompt in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The notion has special relevance for game remakes because of its role in 2009’s The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. By pressing a button in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, the player can swap between the pixelated graphics of The Secret of Monkey Island and the hand-drawn visuals of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition.

What does having this ability mean, ideologically? At first glance, it seems that tech has made our world better again. With the touch of a button in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, we can:

  1. Table any complaints we might have had about The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition failing to match, preserve, or otherwise acknowledge the aesthetics of the original The Secret of Monkey Island.

  2. Make immediate comparisons between the original and the remake — imagine the time you can save as you form your own evaluations of the original and the remake!(!!!)

  3. Show our grandchildren (if we ever have any) and our grandparents (if they’re not dead) how neat it is to switch between the pixelated graphics of The Secret of Monkey Island and the hand-drawn visuals of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition.

[The above list IS NOT exhaustive. If you have anything to add to it, please shoot me an email at pressgrove84@yahoo.com. Make sure to title your email with the following: “GAME BIAS READER’S SUGGESTION: List of Things We Can Do by Pressing F10 in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition.” I may never read or notice the email if you don’t use that title.]

Here’s the upshot about the power of that button: if you don’t feel led to praise the remake’s visual, audio, and interface changes, you will feel led to praise the remake anyway because, as a nifty product, the button allows you to place aside any reservations about the remake with instantaneous access to the original. It reminds me of a 2016 video by James Rolfe, a.k.a. Angry Video Game Nerd, called “Star Wars – Are the Special Editions bad?” In this video, Rolfe analyzes various alterations that director George Lucas made in his “Special Edition” versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, and comments on how those alterations provoke arguments among Star Wars fans. Close to the 8-minute mark, Rolfe says the following (bolded emphasis is mine):

Anyway, the Special Edition changes are not all bad. It’s kind of a mix. If it were up to me, I’d keep some of the changes, but discard lots of the rest. It would be nice if we all had the chance to customize our own Star Wars movies. Want to keep Jabba [in Star Wars: Special Edition] but don’t want Greedo to shoot first? Imagine that: an interactive Blu-Ray edition where you get a menu, where you can check all the things you want, then sit back and enjoy your customized version of a classic saga.

As I listen to Rolfe chuckle like a gee-golly character from a 1950s sitcom, I must admit that at some point I do think, “It is nice we all have the chance to see both versions of The Secret of Monkey Island with the remake.” And when I compare The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition to something like Star Wars: Special Edition, I do consider the former more respectful of history and artistry, not to mention more accommodating for people, like me, who want to know what a piece of creative work actually looked like when it came out.

What if The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition had lacked the magic button? I would be writing a more dismissive article at the moment, chanting something along the lines of “How can you remake something that is a legitimate top 10 video game of all time? You capitalistic swine!” I would skewer the new graphics, pointing out that they’re inferior to the hand-drawn brilliance of The Curse of Monkey Island, that they merely look “clean” compared to the more expressive pixel-based visions in The Secret of Monkey Island. I would explain how the remastered organ music for the church scene sounds sanitized and less menacing. I would throw the remake a bone for having some of the best voice acting in video games, while also bringing up the fact that the writing is so outstanding that LucasArts doesn’t need to, again, copy what made The Curse of Monkey Island a great sequel.

It’s almost as if that button cheats us out of passionate reactions. I find the description of the game on Steam most telling: “Purists will also delight in the ability to seamlessly switch between the updated hand-drawn re-imagining and the original classic version.” Indeed, I’ve not noticed any purist movement to condemn The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. This is not to say no purists have voiced their dissent. The most prominent and obvious purist is Ron Gilbert, who represents one-third of the holy trio (Gilbert, Tim Schafer, and Dave Grossman) that created The Secret of Monkey Island. Gilbert, unlike Schafer, argues classic games should be untouched just like classic black-and-white movies should be untouched. During an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Gilbert takes no prisoners:

It’s true that you can often switch back to the original graphics … but that is also true of colorizing black and white movies. You can always watch the original, but that doesn’t make colorizing it any less of an artistic sin. Saying you can switch back to the original art feels like a cop-out.

That same Rock, Paper, Shotgun article has another provocative gem of a quote, but from the opposite side of the aisle. I can’t tell you who said this quote, as the editor of the article doesn’t appear to understand the importance of clear attribution. It would be logical if the quote came from producer Craig Derrick. In any case, below is the quote, with its most significant part bolded:

Once we started getting the original code up and running on the new devices, we discovered we could put the new art on top of the old and then transition between the two seamlessly. It was a perfect A-HA moment, a bit of a gimmick, a way for people to see the work we were adding and quite frankly the backbone of the entire project. I honestly don’t see why anyone remastering a classic game today wouldn’t use this idea.

That phrase resonates because it calls attention to the publicity angle behind The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. The gimmick is related to the “sin” that Gilbert mentions. The gimmick washes one’s hands of blame (a strategy Pilate would endorse). The gimmick, most powerfully, nods to us when we talk about the critical necessity of holding onto video game masterpieces in their pure form. As a gimmick, the touch of a button doesn’t just amount to convenience — it justifies the advancement and use of tech, which, we are told, always has a potential solution for our troubles, practical or philosophical. George Lucas got it wrong. The “Special” in “Special Edition” should address more than technical details. It should put deep ethical cries about preservation on mute.