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There’s another Monkey Island game in the works, Return to Monkey Island and we can expect it to be a single-clicker: that is, to resolve all action through clicking on a hotspot, with no ‘look’ action or other verbs. There has been a tendency over the decades for graphic adventure games to involve increasingly streamlined verb selection. This isn’t just a matter of user-friendliness, rather it has an interesting impact on the design space for the game’s puzzles, opening up some possibilities while closing down others.

We can see this by taking a sojourn through the history of verbs in Monkey Island.

Pre-Monkey Island

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) used the SCUMM engine, which was first developed for Maniac Mansion (1987). Maniac Mansion had the classic wall of verbs at the bottom of the screen, with fifteen verbs. This way of interacting by constructing commands was modelled clearly on existing text adventure game conventions which they might have expected some of the players to already be familiar with.

The game was novel, even by today’s standards, in that it could be completed in different ways by using various combinations of characters who had their own skills or unique interactions with some NPCS. The key verb here is New Kid which switches character: an idea returned to with the more streamlined Day of the Tentacle (1993).

The Secret of Monkey Island

The profusion of verbs in Maniac Mansion is streamlined in Secret of Monkey Island, from 15 down to 12 on the Amiga release, and later 9 for the PC edition.

They were able to strip out Turn on/Turn off and make Walk To the default action for clicking when no other verb was selected. In this way, the Walking verb isn’t removed, but its place in the interface is. Turning On and Off in this game was probably wholly extraneous or could be replaced with Push.

Push and Pull remain and are used a handful of times throughout the game. As the Use verb is always use-something-with-something-else, and object interaction is limited to either using something on the object, or pushing/pulling the object, the puzzles tend towards the use of items in the inventory on elements in the environment.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge

The second Monkey Island game (1991) has the same user interface as the first, but it increasingly makes use of a specific kind of puzzle that is afforded by the wall of verbs: the use of a surprising verb to solve a problem.

The first time this puzzle element appears is on the first island, where Guybrush must close an already open door. This action is motivated in the context of a plan the player might form, but nevertheless involves interacting with an object that in a way that wouldn’t normally appear productive. Given that opening a closed door and closing an open door are both the only useful things you can do with it, and the hint about the door’s additional useful property happens when performing the action, this is a puzzle that could be implemented straightforwardly in a single-click game, but it would lack the surprise element as in a single-clicker the player is bound to click on every hotspot.

This approach is later used to humorous effect when the player can use the surprising verb to pick up a guard dog. Dognapping also features in the non-Lucas Arts point and click game Simon the Sorcerer 2 (1995), which has a similar verb table, but streamlines pushing and pulling, closing and opening into a single icon, and introduces a wear verb. Both games recognise that there is something funny about making the active choice to stick a dog in your jacket or hat.

This kind of unlikely taking is a puzzle-element, albeit minor, that can’t be replicated in a single click. Surprise taking can still occur, where the protagonist picks up an item you wouldn’t have thought was takeable, but there the decision is out of the player’s hands.

The Curse of Monkey Island

The Curse of Monkey  (1997) followed LucasArt’s Full Throttle (1995) in ditching the wall of verbs and instead having a verb coin instead. The verb coin streamlined the 9 verbs into three verbs: ‘hand’, ‘eye’ and ‘mouth’. Hand is a general use action, and hovering over it on an object says the verb that the hand will perform: opening, pushing, taking, and so forth. Eye is just the Look At command. Mouth usually performs Talk To, but in some cases may be Eat, Drink or even Blow.

The wheel opens up new affordances, as many more verbs can appear in the game. This allows for more varied interaction with the objects in the inventory or environment than the earlier Monkey Islands. To achieve this, it sacrifices some surprise, as the nonstandard actions with the wheel are telegraphed. The surprise ability to take the dog in the previous game would no longer be a surprise here, as it would be indistinguishable from trying to pet the dog.

The Use and Give actions from previous games are still present: when items are selected from the inventory, they may be carried and used directly on things or given to people in the environment. Like the Walk To verb before it, these actions remain but no longer require their own buttons.

Escape From Monkey Island

Escape From Monkey Island (2000) followed Grim Fandango in having 3D rendered environment, a more cumbersome inventory process, and awkward movement keyboard. It ditched the verb coin and went for a simple three commands: look, use/talk, and pick up/put away.

Despite these changes, the hover text remained, even as the mouse was ditched altogether (perhaps to better facilitate play on the PS2 console port of the game). This hover text appeared now as a series of selectable actions on the bottom of the screen.

The player could cycle through different objects in their immediate vicinity to use items they were carrying with. Surprise as a puzzle feature was by this point mostly eliminated, as the possible affordances of everything in the environment pop up as soon as you get close. Still, like in Curse of Monkey Island, the use of the hover text allowed for more unusual verbs than the first two games. Both games were able to use this to have amusing one-off actions appear.

Tales of Monkey Island

Tales of Monkey Island (2009) was made by Telltale Games under license from LucasArts and is different in many ways to its predecessors. It has a similar 3D rendered environment as in Escape, but returns to using a mouse and a regular inventory screen once again.

In an age of tablets without a right mouse button, and with a desire to remove user experience frustrations, Tales removed the ability to look and ditched the hover text. The all purpose “use” had finally arrived.

The all-purpose use was long a feature of other point and click games such as the Broken Sword series which had double clicking to perform some action, and right clicking to examine. In these games you don’t know what the object’s affordances are until you start double clicking on it.

The Tales chapters aren’t alone in being a single-clicker: The Journey Down (2010), Broken Age (2014) and others would later take the same approach. One major difference in puzzle affordance is that hints have to appear either dynamically or in the descriptions of non-actionable environmental items, rather than in object descriptions. All actions are unknown to the player before performing them. This often leads to a sort of puzzle-box approach to several of the puzzles.

In Chapter 1, there is the seizing of the Screaming Narwhal and the strapped-in-the-seat scene, and in Chapter 2, there is a fight with a pirate hunter, Morgan LeFlay. In all these scenarios, there are a number of repeatable events that are triggered by clicking on specific objects in the environment. These puzzles are solved by working out what those events do (e.g. hot coals are poured on the deck; a monkey is given a banana; a seagull is roused from its perch) and then clicking on objects in the environment in the correct order to gain the desired effects.

These puzzles can be quite satisfying, in that they give the player a series of repeatable elements to experiment with until they figure out the sequence that will get them what they want. The player can never take an ingenious action, because they will perform all actions possible with a single click, but they may still exercise their ingenuity in devising the correct order.

Single Clicking

From Maniac Mansion’s fifteen verbs, Tales of Monkey Island has three: Walk (by using the keyboard), Use (inventory object) and Do Literally Anything Else. From Curses onwards, the Monkey Island games have introduced various situational verbs, allowing for a wider range of potential action, but in paring down interaction with the world to a single button, the game puzzles become less about choosing the right action and more about choosing the right order of action or dialogue options. Interacting directly with the environment is longer done through deliberate verb selection, but rather speculative selection of hotspots. That said, the core item + environment puzzle dynamic remains and is still one of the main ways the player can enact plans and potential solutions.

Tablets aren’t going anywhere so single clicking is probably here to stay. And that may be no bad thing. It is worth remembering that the most memorable puzzle in The Secret of Monkey Island was Insult Sword Fighting: a purely dialogue driven puzzle the likes of which have appeared in all subsequent games. But it does give a very different ludic feel than when we were going about putting dogs in our pockets.