Chaos Theory and The Curse of Monkey Island

There’s been a tempest.

Our brave vessel, dashed all to pieces, and now I need to bring my mutineering crewmate a cauldron of nacho cheese, naturally. Haggis McMutton, the barrel-chested pirate turned barber turned pirate again, is once more pining for the life of a hairstylist.  First though, he’ll have to fix up the ship, and the manual labour is playing havoc with his delicate skin.

Fortunately, he keeps a large bottle of moisturizing lotion around for these occasions. Guybrush needs that slippery lotion to remove a cursed ring from the finger of his beloved Elaine. She’s currently relaxing in a moonlit woods. She’s also been turned to solid gold. But Haggis? There’s no way he’s parting with it. At least, not until the ship is fixed.

So this is what Guybrush does:

He nabs a chisel from a nearby graveyard, sneaks into hotel storeroom, and chips himself off a mitt full of cheddar from an enormous wheel. Outside, on a tiki light-illuminated patio, a cauldron sits on a barbecue. Guybrush fills the cauldron with cheese. He casually treks to the top of a nearby volcano. At the summit, he heaves a huge slab of jiggling, grey tofu from a buffet table, and carves out a mouth and two eyes.

He pushes his head into the tofu, and uses the mask to blend in with a trio of vegetarian cannibals in the midst of sacrificing an effigy made of fruit to a lactose intolerant volcano god.

Still with me?

The Curse of Monkey Island - Fruit

Good.

Guybrush sprinkles the cheese into the volcano, the god gets sick, and the volcano erupts. The lava runs down the volcano and finds it way underneath the barbecue grate, melting the cheese. He drags the fondue to Haggis, who agrees that it’ll do nicely as a tar substitute, and gives Guybrush the lotion.

This is how Guybrush’s journey through The Curse of Monkey Island is defined. There’s a thread of drunken almost logic snaking its way through these farcical encounters, like an Ouroboros trapped in a grog barrel. Puzzle solutions are obscured in fog of serendipity just thick enough to be both perplexing and blindingly obviously, depending on which side of success you’re standing. A corsair that veers from off course, to of course!

Guybrush exists somewhere between earnest aspirations of piratehood and postmodern awareness of his place as a video game character. In ever passing for a pirate at all, he represents what Ian Danskin calls the wish fulfillment of ‘getting away with something’. He’s fearless, because as everyone knows – including Guybrush himself – you can’t die in LucasArts adventure games. Fearless, optimistic, and somehow constantly shocked at his own success.

He’s also a character able to exert an almost magical will on the world around him. Not through competence, but through chaos. Chaos not as an absence of logic, but as the mathematician Ian Stewart puts it, as ‘lawless behaviour governed entirely by law’.The Curse of Monkey Island - quicksand

“The most far-reaching insights that chaos theory offers us are that patterns of order emerge spontaneously out of random behaviour” – J. Parker

The example often used when talking about chaos theory is that of a butterfly’s quivering wingspan hurling fearsome tornadoes across the other side of the planet. In The Curse of Monkey Island, the tornado moves the butterfly, or rather, the volcano melts the cheese.

Increasingly ridiculous events pile on top of each other, sparking rube-goldberg machines of cause-and-effect in what J.Parker calls ‘felicitous convergence’. Guybrush, as idiot-savant agent of chaos, is able to set dynamic events into motion with consequences that always seem to contain themselves within the closed system of whatever it is he’s trying achieve. Not bad going for someone who can’t stand to touch porcelain.

Puzzles in adventure games like The Curse of Monkey Island frequently require the ability to draw connections between disparate events in a manner the borders on the superstitious, or even the conspiratorial. But that’s only if we view them as fundamentally disordered.  Seen as chaos in the scientific science – as “systems rich in information rather than poor in order” – they start to work.

Comic legend and chaos magician Alan Mooreof V for Vendetta and Watchmen fame, once used a fittingly nautical metaphor to cast his trademark shamanic scorn on conspiracy theory logic. “Nobody is control” Moore says. “The world is rudderless”. I’ve written about maps and territories before, and Moore’s outlook mirrors this quantum view of reality. “All our scientific observations of the universe and quanta can only, in the end, be observations of ourselves.”The Curse of Monkey Island - Sunbathe

So when Guybrush squeezes cooking oil onto the back of a sunbathing conquistador and peels off the tattoo of a treasure map, burnt skin and all, is he truly being resourceful, or just reflecting his bumbling, chaotic nature back onto the universe? That ‘lawless behaviour governed entirely by law’ that Stewart spoke of…couldn’t you describe being a pirate in exactly the same way? A chaotic existence that fits into a rigidly defined set of principles and concepts? Adventure game logic and piracy might just be the perfect shipmates.

We can look at puzzles as the narrative building blocks of adventure games like The Curse of Monkey Island. When recounting the story events, we might be tempted to say something like “Guybrush broke his love’s curse, defeated an undead pirate, got married, and sailed off into the sunset”. But that’s just the broad strokes. If we define Guybrush’s journey through his actions, it can almost feel like one long, blind stumble at times.

Like this one, for example. Guybrush needs access to a ship, but every time he climbs on board, he’s made to walk the plank by a gang of monkeys with cutlasses. So, using a serrated knife, he saws the plank clean off. No plank? No problem. The monkeys tar and feather Guybrush, who stumbles into a fried chicken restaurant, only to be mistaken for the demon chicken, El Pollo Diablo. Captain Blondebeard – the kindly, toothless cook – attacks Guybrush with a frying pan, knocking him into a giant metal pot. He seals the lid, and sends off the freshly prepared bargain bucket to the ship in the harbor.  By getting caught up in another ridiculous set of circumstances outside his control, Guybrush is one step closer to success.

The Curse of Monkey Island - ship

Far from this taking power from his victories, though, I think this is what makes Guybrush such an inspiration. Few of us can hope to wield Sherlock-esque powers of deduction and mastery. All of us, however, can hope to make some sense of the blind chaos that seems to surround us sometimes. I think another comics legend – and another student of chaos, Grant Morrison, said it best.

“If the universe is intrinsically meaningless, if the mindless re-arrangement of atomic debris into temporarily arising then dissipating forms has no point, I can only ask, why do I see meaning everywhere, why can I find a point in everything?”

By finding the patterns in chaos, the meaning in the absurd, Guybrush might just be the hero we need right now.

Just don’t tell him that.

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Nic Reuben Author
Nic Reuben likes to pause games every five minutes to ponder the thematic implications of explosive barrel placement. When he’s not having an existential crisis over CAPTCHA verifications that ask him to prove he’s not a robot, he’s reading sci-fi and fantasy short stories, watching cartoons, and mourning the writing standards in Game of Thrones
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Nic Reuben Author
Nic Reuben likes to pause games every five minutes to ponder the thematic implications of explosive barrel placement. When he’s not having an existential crisis over CAPTCHA verifications that ask him to prove he’s not a robot, he’s reading sci-fi and fantasy short stories, watching cartoons, and mourning the writing standards in Game of Thrones
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