Guybrush has reached Monkey Island. After wandering for a while in the afternoon heat, he finds a path ascending the side of a plateau, which he climbs. The plateau is bare and high. In the distance, the jungle’s carapace unfurls toward the sweep of the white beach, beyond which the sea heaves and sparkles.

An old man – Herman Toothrot, who will one day transpire to be Guybrush’s grandfather – shambles up behind him and says, “I never get tired of this view.”

So what does it look like? Well, there are 32 colors on the screen, artfully distributed to create the impression of depth and texture. Objects in the foreground are reasonably detailed, but those in the distance are hazy, and everything on the screen is made up of clearly discernable blocks, like a LEGO sculpture. While nobody could possibly mistake the scene for life, it might pass for an impressionist painting through fanciful eyes.

By modern standards, the Amiga A500 on which I played The Secret of Monkey Island was a weakling, some 20 times feebler than my mobile phone in terms of CPU speed, and although this method of comparison is far too crude to do Commodore’s ill-fated home computer justice, it should give you an idea of how far we’ve come to reflect that it’s possible to play Monkey Island on an iPhone while still using that device for a range of other applications. By the same crude method of comparison, the PS3 is well above 400 times more powerful.

Cinema has followed the same path. Early attempts at creating dinosaurs and monsters look risible when held up against, say, Peter Jackson’s King Kong or Steven Spielberg’s various dinosaurs, and it’s often only through context that we can tell real from fake. We know that there are no such things as giant spiders and hobbits, so the fight between Frodo and Shelob in The Return of the King can only have been manufactured. It would be almost impossible to tell otherwise.

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However, no matter how good special effects get, the development of cinema is seldom considered to be one of steady improvement. Special effects certainly contribute to certain films’ success, giving sufficiently financed directors huge expressive potential, but nobody would suggest The Lord of the Rings trilogy were better films than The Third Man. Indeed, most critically regarded films use CGI special effects sparingly, and the relationship between critical – though not necessarily commercial – success and CGI usage is weak. Of the top 20 films of 2007 on Metacritic, only Ratatouille and The Bourne Ultimatum could reasonably be considered special effects-driven.

Why is this? Why hasn’t Citizen Kane, a film made by a director with almost crippling technical limitations, been washed away by subsequent tides? Could it be, as V. F. Perkins argues in his book Film as Film, “mechanically imposed limitations act as a spur to … creativeness”? And could the same be true of videogame developers?

It’s certainly true that games have used cinema’s discarded templates. Like early filmmakers, early game-makers were unable to use audible speech and so employed printed titles. As in silent films, the visible action in early games is broadly divided between long shots, in which a fair amount of material is visible at the cost of visual fidelity, and extreme close-ups, wherein the emotional state and actual facial appearance of a character is briefly evinced at the cost of everything else. The Secret of Monkey Island employs both tricks.

No doubt its makers drew heavily from the lessons of silent film, but the secret of Monkey Island‘s enduring success is more interesting than the methods it employed to overcome its technical limitations. The real secret is the limitations themselves.

The vast majority of videogame jewel-cases feature the word “interactive” somewhere on them. Interactivity is one of videogames’ primary selling points, and there’s no doubt that when a person plays a videogame, he is interacting with it. He acts by pressing buttons on the keyboard or moving the mouse, and the avatar he is controlling reacts. In turn, adversarial sprites respond by aggressing, while friendly sprites respond in some other way. The videogame and the player act upon one another.

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However, the word “interaction” has another shade of meaning; you’d probably characterize it as an imaginary or constructive process. This is the kind of interaction that occurs between a reader and a book, or an impressionist painting and its audience. In the case of a book, the writer provides the reader with cues in the form of words. For example, take “the man walked into the green room.” Everybody who reads this sentence supplies his own man, his own room, his own shade of green. He constructs the scene largely from the store of his imagination, so that the resulting memory is a joint production. Similarly, while appreciating Monet’s “Impression Sunrise,” the viewer is really supplying much of the scene himself. Monet provides the colors and, to an extent, the form, but the precise appearance of the three daubed-boats retreating from the foreground, the adumbrated chimneystacks and amorphous structures in the distance, belongs to the viewer. The audience of a black-and-white silent film, meanwhile, provides its own sounds and colors, engaging in a kind of sensory interaction with the filmmakers, collaborating with the creator to construct the scene.

A videogame is physically interactive; whatever way the form develops, it will always be the case that the greater the limitations on the freedom of the player to exert his will in the game-world, the greater the basis for criticism. However, the overwhelming majority of game developers have enthusiastically taken the opportunity to divest their audience of any imaginative collaboration in the story. Both sight and sound come pre-packaged.

Of course, if early film audiences could travel in time they would be spellbound by the extent to which modern special effects can realize the grand and phantasmagorical, just as modern videogames can be enthralling. During my adolescence, I never imagined a game like Tomb Raider would exist, let alone Crysis, whose graphics were the reason for much of its positive press.

It would be wrong to deny that looks can contribute to a gaming experience, and this doesn’t only refer to those made possible by unsurpassed technical might. Okami was lauded for its distinctive cel-shaded art style, a technique well beyond the humble A500’s range, but hardly demanding by modern standards. A game-maker will forego visual fireworks for a game’s sake. He’s unlikely, however, to intentionally blur his sprites to the degree that they’re difficult to make out.

While exceptional beauty in a game is worth noting, videogame criticism is unhealthily concerned with commenting on its opposite, as if the substance of a game can be seriously undermined by the style. In the February 1 Joystiq podcast, for instance, Justin McElroy criticized the Wii game No More Heroes for looking “like an N64 game.” Can you imagine a film journalist criticizing a film because it resembled The Third Man, or was screened in black and white? If monochrome can have an expressive function in film, why can’t silence and poor resolution in a videogame?

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I recently had a conversation with someone about the Monkey Island games, and we got onto looks.

“It is just me,” I said, “Or is old Guybrush better than new Guybrush?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I like older. I don’t like his face. I don’t like his voice. He sounds – wrong.”

And that’s it. There’s nothing objectionable about Dominic Armato‘s performance as Guybrush in The Curse of Monkey Island, nor with Chris Miles’ accomplished artwork, but nevertheless, for those who’d grown up with the series, these interpretations were bound to be, not wrong exactly, but wrong, as anybody’s concrete depiction of imagined stimuli is bound to be.

In the first two games, Guybrush’s facial features are, by necessity, hazy, made up of fewer than a hundred pixels and about six colors. His voice is text, as are the voices of the other characters, and much of the game takes place in a long, pensive silence. Because the lines are blurred, the player adorns the island with his own archive of sights and sounds, and while many gamers no doubt like the order that time and LucasArts eventually brought to this untamed state, I’m with Herman Toothrot: I’ll never get tired of this view.

Rob Hearn is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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