While playing one of the all-time great adventure games, FatNicK found himself listening to one of the most amazing pieces of 90s VGM without even realising it – a groundbreaking composition of interactive music.
Of all the PC games I played in my formative years, LucasArts’ adventures are the ones I remember the most clearly.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell, Michael Land
I don’t think this is particularly surprising, either; with oddball puzzles that were always only just on the solvable side of insane; a mature sense of humour; and, most importantly for this piece, well-executed scores that would represent everything that the industry would later describe as “cinematic”; I think these games were always destined to make a bit of an impression.
Though I have happy memories of the likes of Loom, Day of the Tentacle and the Indiana Jones series, the Monkey Island games were my LucasArts titles of choice. Having first caught site of in an old issue of CVG, the game became somewhat of an obsession. The screenshots may have been from the original 15-colour EGA version of the game, but it still looked so much more advanced than anything I’d played on my dad’s PC-1512. I was instantly hooked.
So hooked, in fact, that I channelled every effort into obtaining it. Having endlessly badgered a friend for a dodgy copy (sorry, LucasArts…), I had to convince my dad to spend one of his lunch hours photocopying the code wheel before spending a week practically living with my grandparents in order to complete it (thanks to them owning a 286 – relatively mighty for its day).
A three-headed monkey
Of course, having put so much effort in to acquiring it, the Secret of Monkey Island had a lot to live up to. The hype turned out to be well-deserved, though – I was in awe from its opening shot (a panoramic view of the constantly-nocturnal island of Melee, underscored by the game’s theme), and I finished it in double-quick time – even if the relationship with the friend who’d lent it to me had become somewhat strained by my attempts to use him as a primitive form of GameFAQs (I was probably an obnoxious child)!
So when I learned there was a sequel, I simply had to have it. Thankfully the logistics were a lot easier by then: my grandparents had donated their ageing 286 to us, and I had enough of my own money to buy my own legitimate copy. Hurrah!
Due to my familiarity with LucasArts’ style of thinking, I played through the sequel in an even shorter amount of time than I did the original, burning through the entire experience over the course of one Easter weekend. My parents had created some pretty impressive egg hunts over the course of my childhood, but that year my main preoccupation was winning a digital spitting contest (sorry, mum).
They wouldn’t know a good story even if they paid 50 bucks for it
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge improved over the original in every way. The plot was barmier, the world was richer and more detailed, and the player’s inventory now used nifty little pictures instead of words to represent the items you were carrying. However, there was one area of the game that was improved to such an extent it actually made earlier LucasArts games difficult to return to: the music.
That’s not to say that the original score of Monkey Island wasn’t fantastic – it really was. In fact, there were several pieces within this soundtrack that I would use as my go-to examples of how to write music for games; I can’t think of a single piece of music that captured the personality of its target as well as the theme for villainous ghost pirate LeChuck, for example. The score for the original Monkey Island does an important job of rounding off the series’ world so it feels like a place we can visit and touch.
The problem was that this picture could never be fully complete. Though the music included in the original Monkey Island did a brilliant job, large chunks of the experience were scored with nothing but silence. To an extent this is atmospheric (especially when the player is wandering the deserted moonlit trails of Melee Island in search of a swordsmen to challenge), but in other sections it’s definitely a major drawback. Consequently, the team at LucasArts went for wall-to-wall sound in Monkey Island 2.
The effect of this focus on music was utterly remarkable. It was always going to be difficult for a sequel to match the impact of those very first scenes on Melee Island, but somehow, Monkey Island 2’s understated opening – which sees our accidental hero Guybrush Threepwood sitting round a campfire boring residents of Scabb Island with the umpteenth retelling of an embellished version of how he defeated the ghost pirate LeChuck – managed it perfectly.
A big reason why this scene managed to be so compelling is because, unlike earlier LucasArts titles, there’s no cold handover between cutscene and gameplay. The music plays as Guybrush leaves the campfire and we are granted control as he wanders over to the town of Woodtick. The music is still playing in the cutscene where he is robbed by the villainous Largo LaGrande, and continues to play as control is handed back to the gamer and during the exploration of the town of Woodtick. The world became three-dimensional and complete, leaving us with an interactive cartoon.
Of course, by the early 90s it wasn’t at all unusual for games to have music play consistently throughout the experience, but for adventure games, the situation was still a little complex:
In a vertical shoot ‘em up, the player is either making progress through a stage or they have been destroyed – two eventualities that are relatively straightforward to account for. However, the player doesn’t move in a linear fashion in an adventure. How can a composer keep the music relevant even when the player has been stumped by a puzzle and is wandering the landscape desperately trying random item combinations?
The solution to this was, quite simply, to let the game know what the player was doing. Between the development of Monkey Islands 1 and 2, LucasArts developed a system called iMuse to help them make what is now known as interactive music. When people talk of interactive music, it’s not referring to the player reacting with the music (a la Guitar Hero), but the game code and music code interacting with each to allow the music to respond perfectly with the actions of the player.
Earlier games had always had elements of interactivity, to an extent. Think about the way the music changes in Super Mario Bros. when the player acquires an invincibility star, for example. iMuse, however, was about taking this basic principal and building it deeper into the game. The music for Woodtick is the perfect example of this.
Ticking along nicely
As a result, Woodtick became a much more interesting place. As the only notable settlement on Scabb island, it was effectively the central hub of the first chapter of Monkey Island 2, and where the main tension of the first act was established and resolved. It’s a pretty small place on the whole, and comprised just a handful of locations including a hotel, a floating bar, some pirates of low moral fibre, and the house of Wally, a friendly cartographer.
My personal memories of this are of both excitement and anguish. As one of the first locations visited in the game, it still evokes memories of opening up Monkey Island 2’s chunky cardboard box and waiting – somewhat impatiently – for the game to install. On the other hand, Woodtick represents one of my only frustrations with the game, as I spent a good couple of aimless hours searching it (and the other locations around Scabb island) for the final piece of the puzzle that would allow me to vanquish the villainous Largo LaGrande.
Thankfully, throughout my desperate search, the music never became boring or irritating. There’s a good reason for that: the locations of Woodtick are underscored by several interconnected themes that effortlessly switch back and forth between themselves based on the actions of the player.
The main Woodtick theme was, essentially, a holding pattern: a jumpy bass line and syncopated rhythm track helped cement the reggae-based nature of the soundtrack, but they weren’t driving or forceful; offbeat chimes and accordion snippets helped to further nail down the reggae feel, while also adding interest for our ears. Finally, an ethereal ‘pad’ – a slow, string-like sound – hung over the top, adding an air of mystery.
This was all very clever. On a practical level, the relatively busy nature of the piece meant that, while short, it didn’t become boring or irritating, especially since the main area of Woodtick is an area you generally just passed through. On a musical level, the ideas were all spot on too. The reggae mixed with the rest of the songs on the soundtrack to give it a consistent feel. The busyness of the track matched the fact that Woodtick, though small, was the closest that Scabb Island has to a proper town; the mysterious ethereal pad reminded the player that Guybrush was still a stranger to it.
The real beauty of Woodtick, however, was the way it changed the second Guybrush walked to a new location. Every area in Woodtick had its own theme, but they were all closely linked at a musical level. Not only did they share the basic rhythmic groove from the main theme, but they all began with the same melodic phrase (daaa da, da da da, da da daa da daa).
That’s not to say they were identical, of course – after the same melodic intro, each Woodtick sub-theme launched off into its own melody, played by its own unique arrangement. Where the Bloody Lip bar had a remarkably bold arrangement – all bright brass and overstated reggae chord stabs – cartographer Wally’s theme was more gentle and mysterious, with a subdued pizzicato (picked) string backed up by elongated pad sounds.
Perhaps my favourite, however, was the Swamp Rot Inn which, in keeping with LucasArts’ cinematic leitmotif approach to composing, bridged the Woodtick theme with a lazy, less threatening version of the music used for Largo LaGrande.
While Woodtick had several cinematic-style themes, this meant nothing if they couldn’t be used cinematically. The first erratic restart of a tune caused by the player re-entering a room too quickly, for example, would spoil the illusion completely. Ooh ‘eck. Fortunately, this is where the sneaky iMuse system came in to play. Built on the back of the ‘sys-ex’ messages that were built into the MIDI standard, iMuse allowed the programmers to reconfigure the synthesiser chip used by the Adlib/Sound Blaster soundcards completely on the fly, allowing one track to seamlessly change from one set of instruments to another.
Mind you, back then, seamless was easier said then done. First, there were the musical issues; if each track featured a single transition point where it could move to a different tune, a player might have to wait 10 to 15 seconds for the music to catch up after entering a location. This wasn’t acceptable, so each and every one of the Woodtick compositions had multiple entry and exit points.
Alongside the musical issues, there were all kinds of programming logic problems too consider too. What if a player entered then left an area multiple times in quick succession – what would the music do then? To keep everything running smoothly, a massive amount of work was needed on both the musical and programming sides of the coin.
All of that work ended up, of course, with me randomly wandering around Woodtick, desperately searching for the trigger that would allow me to get rid of Largo. I went to the inn. I went to the bar. I went to see the men of ill repute. I went to see Wally. I left Woodtick. I came back. Repeat multiple times. While all of this was going on, the music was doing all sorts of incredible things in the background but, in my preoccupation, aside from the fact there was music playing, I didn’t really notice any of it.
Is that a failure on iMuse’s part? No. If anything, I would say it was an ultimate victory. After all, as I said earlier, the whole point of the music in games like Monkey Island 2 was to seamlessly blend into the background, to become part of the world. In becoming invisible, the iMuse system actually fulfilled its creators’ loftiest ambitions.
If the monumental amount of work behind iMuse went underappreciated at the time, at least the other work on the soundtrack did not. Not only is it a soundtrack remembered fondly by your humble author, but it was clearly thought of highly by others at the time as well. A great example of this was the sheer number of game worlds created for Epic MegaGames’ ZZT which included mangled PC speaker-based renditions of various tracks from the game.
But more importantly than that, the Monkey Island 2 soundtrack laid the foundations for what was to come. Interactive music would take a brief hiatus with the rise of more linear, CD-based audio, but these days it’s back with a vengeance. The next time you’re playing a game like Hitman or Assassin’s Creed and you hear the music spontaneously change to match the actions on screen with the current threat level, remember it was iMuse and the team at LucasArts that started it all.
An almost invisible part of a wonderful, spellbinding game, the soundtrack for Woodtick is a wonderful suite of interconnecting tracks that showcased the future of videogame audio.