Is The Secret of Monkey Island … Thinginess?

This is a guest article by Namir Ahmed, a Masters Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Western University, London ON. He’s also the Project Coordinator for the Sustainable Archaeolgy Animation Unit, where he does really fun stuff related to the digitization and visualization of cultural heritage. He doesn’t have a blog but has a twitter: @namir

In the past the idea of thinginess has made me guffaw, scoff and deride in an endless circle of contempt. I study archaeology, I would think, hard physical facts, not this wishy-washy cultural anthropological construct. What does thinginess have to do with anything? Turns out, it has to do with everything.

It wasn’t Heidegger’s jug example, in which he defines the jug not as the spout or the handle, but the void inside. It wasn’t Tim Ingold’s kite, defined as a kite not by its construction but by the forces acting on it; the wind that keeps it aloft, the hand that plays out the string. It wasn’t either example, though both are well thought out and applied. It was “The Secret of Monkey Island”. Play the game, or play it again as I did, and you’ll see that thinginess abounds.

At its heart Monkey Island is about discovery, following and kin to Sierra’s ‘Quest’ series of games: Space Quest, King’s Quest etc. and of course The Secret of Monkey Island’s spiritual predecessors, Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. This genre of game blends humour and intelligent puzzle design in a way few games have seen since.

More importantly and beyond stylistic similarities these games are driven by the interaction of everyday (more or less) objects. Employed is a mechanism where the narrative of the game is propelled forward as the purpose and real meaning of objects is discovered. In other words, when thinginess is defined.

Here’s an early example. Guybrush Threepwood, intrepid wannabe pirate, finds himself at a circus tent, the two owners convince him to test their cannon by being shot out of it. Simple enough. Guybrush needs the money and the brothers are willing to pay.

Problem: Guybrush needs a helmet and clearly has nothing that fits the bill … or maybe he does … the player does a quick scan of her inventory, pot, fish, grog … wait a minute … pot. With a click the pot is selected, another click on Guybrush and he smoothly places the pot on his head and slides into the cannon. BOOM! He smacks head first into a pole. Good thing he had that pot.

Only now it’s not a pot. It’s a helmet. We’ll come back to this.

Trevor Owens a Play the Past contributor discusses the idea of a born digital object versus a  transcribed digital object:   Born digital objects he argues are objects of worth in themselves rather then straight copies. In the world of Monkey Island objects exist within this reality and are defined as such. There is a term for this in physics: Frame of Reference, and there痴 a term for this in everything else: Context.

As I write this, context seems to me an obvious idea but I’m consistently surprised at how often it’s glossed over or completely ignored. Archaeologists have a tendency to look at artifact assemblages based solely on morphological characteristics rather then trying to place them within a frame of reference. Is a pot recovered from a farm the same as a pot recovered from a palace? They may be the same make and brand, but the meaning that’s infused is completely different. Our intrepid hero Guybrush can take his ‘chicken with a pulley in the middle’ (play the game, trust me) and use it to traverse a chasm but give that same ‘chicken with a pulley in the middle’ to Halo’s Master Chief and suddenly the rules of that particular game world are broken. The player is at minimum left confused and at worst pulled completely out.

I’ll be the first to admit this glossing over likely happens because defining context based solely on cultural material is extremely difficult … to put it lightly. In fact if the purpose of Archaeology is to create context then we’re moving into Catch-22 territory; archaeologists need to create context but can’t until context is created! Phew, give me the world of  Monkey Island anyday. At least there objects within have programmed thinginess operating perfectly in line with the goals of the narrative. But this might be the inkling of an answer, perhaps from this perfect alignment a strategy for dealing with the unwieldy idea of thinginess can be derived. If thinginess is tied to goals and context then defining two variables may inform the last. At the least this seems to be how puzzles within Monkey Island operate and are solved.

Let’s revisit the helmet / cannon scenario. The player knows within the context (rules of the world) established by The Secret of Monkey Island needing a helmet doesn’t mean having to find an actual helmet. The player also knows in order to move the narrative forward a helmet needs to be found, therefore a helmet has to exist. The player naturally looks at her surroundings and inventory to find an object that fits the bill: Fish. No. Meat. No. Pint of Grog. Tasty but no. Pot … hard surface, empty internal space, an opening. Yes. Is this simply defining commonality? Maybe. But I think there’s value in the internal process that leads the player to conclude a pot might work as a helmet. In fact I think this is the process of discovering what thinginess or the actual essence(s) of an object is.  Thinginess then may have a real direct connection to the one (or more ) aspects of an object that allow it to operate in different scenarios.

Interestingly video games more and more have moved away from objects that have meaning beyond just appearance and action. This may have to do with the limitations of programming or the shifting scope of games today or even the changing wants and needs of audiences. Objects in contemporary games tend to wear its intentions on its sleeve, so to speak. To view them is to derive function but not meaning.

Here’s an example, my current game of obsession is Battlefield 3, a fantastic visceral first person shooter. If an object is left on the field of battle, there are three distinct possibilities for that object, If it’s a weapon or a crate: I can use it to fullfill very specific functions such as supplying ammo or health. If it’s a cracked wall: I can bring it down. If it’s debris: I can go around. These three possibilities hold true in the context of BF3 and are defined in seconds. The game and the objects within expect nothing else nor should they. Meaning is given not discovered and thinginess is ignored. Let’s push this example a little farther, if thinginess as employed in The Secret of Monkey Island were incorporated into  BF3, what would that look like? First let’s ground ourselves in the same context so the world rules of BF3 still apply here. Thinginess might mean the ability to pick up debris, pile it to use as cover or it might mean simple use as a hand to hand weapon. Both scenarios play on the essential nature of that particular object and each scenario is tied together by discovered thinginess.

Perhaps the closest spiritual successor to old school adventure games like Monkey Island is the world building game, Minecraft. Specifically its recipe object creation system. It’s such a clear example of materials versus meaning that I think every archaeologist should be forced to give it a go. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Minecraft operates on a unique object creation principle. Materials are ‘mined’, the resulting resource is represented as a cube. Cubes are then placed on a crafting table, different configurations create different objects.  For example  three planks placed over two sticks (themselves made of planks) in a T configuration creates a pick-axe. Despite being made of 3 planks and 2 sticks, the object isn’t defined as that. In the case of minecraft the thinginess of an object is the result of how it operates in the world and not simple composition. Minecraft unfortunately in my mind missed an opportunity by not allowing these recipes to be discovered, rather they were given over on the web.

In The Secret of Monkey Island, revealing the true meaning of an object was an act of discovery, in some ways like Minecraft an act of creation. One had to think outside of preconceived notions of object. The player had to push from their minds set ideas of what a pot is generally identified as: a tool used in cooking, or that a mug of Grog could only be used to drink. The player begins to explore other avenues of use.

Chris Gosden, in his 2005 paper “What Do Objects Want?” explains that objects operate under the same principles as organisms … they want to reproduce. He goes on to explain this reproduction happens as a result of tactile and subconscious imprinting on makers and users. The act of thinginess discovery may create a bond between the user and the object, to discover meaning is to know and perhaps feel for. For most archaeologists this is antithetical to the idea of science. I argue this is necessary for archaeologists to near the truth of an object.

But really what’s the point? Beyond finally being able to work The Secret of Monkey Island into a piece? Thinginess and the discovery of thinginess has value in Archaeology if used to define a connection between context and use. It heightens soft data and places the quantitative and qualitative on equal footing, numbers here work in tandem with relations and connections of meaning, morphometrics works hand in hand with Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Guybrush Threepwood clicks through The Secret of Monkey Island linearly one puzzle at a time but player and avatar experience the creative and joyful process of object discovery together.

There’s tension between the quantitative and qualitative to be sure but allow me to sum it up with the following exchange:

You fight like a dairy farmer.

How appropriate. You fight like a cow.

Play the game. Trust me.

Image: Copyright Lucasarts. Art by Steve Purcell

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