The modern video game is shaped by allusions to culture, literature, even other video games.
Jarrod Thacker, in his undergraduate thesis “Semiotics and Intertextuality of Video Games” notes that intertextuality only works based on its context and proximity. Much of the intertextuality in video games is only relevant to those involved in the gaming culture but often, as Thacker also notes, there are references to real life within the games. To prove this, Thacker cites the Obama ’08 campaign who bought add space in NBA Live ’08.
There are many types of interextuality within video games. Some things are simply visual, like the health and/or mana bar, usually located in some corner of the screen, or a save point of some sort, which often has some relevance to the game or game series. Other things include narrative cliches and easter eggs, which either show up with in dialogue or are objects within the game.
To discuss the many levels of intertextuality within games I would first like to look at Mario Kart Wii from Nintendo. I’m only going to look at one track: the Luigi Circuit. Throughout all of the tracks there are special billboards with ads for fake businesses and products. On the Luigi Circuit most of the ads are Luigi-based-parodies of Mario products, namely LuigiKart and the green Nintendo logos. There are also ads for Luigi Tires and Shooting Stars. Where else have I seen ads for products to make cars and bikes go faster or drive better? Oh right! On an actual race track. By no means is any Mario Kart raceway able to be likened to any actual raceway, but it certainly has similarities outside of the asphalt.
To further explore intertextual references in games, I’d like to look at the third game in the monkey island series: Curse of Monkey Island (CMI).
CMI is produced by LucasArts, which is important to note since it will reference many LucasArts products and games. Let’s just start at the beginning of the game using this longplay by Yodude1017.
Monkey Island is shown right in the opening sequence of the game because that’s where you left off in the previous game. You, Guybrush Threepwood, professional-amateur-pirate, have just escaped from the clutches of the Zombie Pirate LeChuck in his Carnival of the Damned on Monkey Island. Which, for those of you who haven’t played any of the games before, should explain why Guybrush is adrift in a bumper car.
If you had bought a physical copy of the game when it was released in 1997, you would recognize Guybrush’s journal as the instructions which accompanied your game. In higher resolution you would be able to see Guybrush’s doodles which appear in the pages containing Guybrush’s opening monologue to help set the story of the game. Guybrush’s opening monologue is just full of irony, but only when it is juxtaposed to the animation, furthering Thacker’s point about intertextuality requiring context and participation in order for it to make sense. The monologue in text, with out the aid of the video sends a completely different message than the one accompanied by video. If you were to read Guybrush’s monologue you would feel sorry for him, as the decent human being you are. He is starving. He has been adrift for too long. He misses his beloved Elaine Marley. But when his desire for food is accompanied by the visual of said food passing by him one can’t help but smile.
Back so soon? See something familiar. Well, I would assume so. The opening credits are done in the style of old maps compete with sketches of cartographic tools, treasure chests, jolly roger flags, skulls of dead men, alcohol, burning ships, tiki masks, anchors, and other nautical themed images.
Now, take a step back and realize the game’s setting. The Caribbean. The game’s central plot revolves around pirates and voodoo curses. What better place to set the game than in the home of voodoo and pirates? Would the game work as well if the pirates and the voodoo were set in… let’s say… off the coast of New Jersey? Not unless voodoo was replaced with polluted water and pirates were replaced with politicians. The game makes a huge, and successful, play off the idea of the Caribbean by using the most popular tropes: pirates and voodoo. Later, it will make a play at the tourist attractions, but we aren’t there just yet.
Take a look at the chapter title screen. It’s important. Seriously. There are many important images which will become relevant as the chapter progresses. First, there’s LeChuck in the top emblem. We’re going to kill him. Sort of. Regardless of what we are going to do to him, he is an essential part of this chapter. Then there are the skeleton driven row boats and the canon. Well, Guybrush/the player, is going to use a canon to destroy the skeleton driven row boats. The hook is going to be needed to poke out Wally’s eye and Murray, the all powerful demonic talking skull will make his first appearance in the series. That’s all that really happens in this chapter and it is all on this screen. Isn’t that cool?
But the intertextuality of the chapter screens is only relevant to CMI and hasn’t broken out to touch either the real world or other games. Don’t worry. It’s coming.
Enter Bloodnose the Pirate, the most non-unpleasant pirate you will ever meet. Mostly because he’s not a pirate. Even with the help of the “motivational lectures and audio books-on-parrot” he can’t quite cut it. Mostly because he’s a short passive cartographer from the previous game. Meet the first intertextual throwback: Wally. But some other things happen with Wally other than the greeting of a familiar face. We’re introduced to the pirate version of books on tape. This is another area where experience with culture influences intertextuality. If you played the previous game and have already met Wally, you might be just as excited to see him as Guybrush is. You might also know that is pretty easy to make him cry so you can get what you want. If not however, then you’ll probably go through all of the dialogue options before telling him that he is a failure. Then there are the books-on-parrot, a reference to books-on-tape. Could you imagine the sultry tones of SQAWK! It was the best of time, best of times SQAWK! It was the worst of times, worst of times. Well, if you’ve never had any interaction with either a book-on-tape or a parrot (or loud bird of any variety really) this particular joke is lost on you because of your experience.
When we, the viewer finally see the skeleton occupied row boats we have to laugh. Here are blood thirsty and viscous pirates–wearing children’s swim toys. Swimmies, floaties, water wings-doesn’t matter what you call them you probably learned to swim with them and these skeleton pirates are wearing them like a uniform. So a few things come to mind: #1: These skeleton pirates don’t know how to swim, which we know because of the swimmies/floaties/water-wings. #2 If you’ve never learned to swim, or you never saw these things before, you probably won’t think of #1.
The video is not high enough quality of see the etchings on the voodoo cannonball, so please refer to this image. In is never ending quest to marry Elaine, LeChuck has crafted this flaming voodoo cannonball in order to kill Elaine and turn her into one of the undead. Let’s take a look at the symbols the spell is using. There’s a crescent moon, what looks like a lock, and then–a cute little heart with LeChuck and Elaine’s initials in it. Awww. How sweet. Not only does that heart represent LeChuck’s deep, rotten-heartfelt emotions for Elaine-but it also shows that it’s a crush that got out of hand. The heart and the lettering look like a child drew it. In fact, I’m sure–and embarrassed to say–that if you look in my notebooks from middle school you will most likely see a similar image. (Strangely enough, we learned in an earlier post that circles are good, but not in this case)
So then Guybrush capsizes LeChuck’s ship, uses a diamond to cut a hole in a porthole, floats to the surface in yet another swim toy, and proposes to his girl friend/turns her into a solid gold statue. Well, here’s the part when we meet the tutorial character. Almost every game has one. They are one of the overlying tropes I touched on ever-so briefly at the beginning of this post. This one doesn’t say “Hey! Listen!” but she still has a lot of advice. After speaking with her Guybrush realizes he left his sold golf fiance out in the open on an island surrounded by pirates. I personally think this is also a trope. Not that you get a solid gold girl friend in every game but that the most important object is often left in the open. In Zelda, you don’t have to beat the boss of the temple to get the item in the temple. In Silent Hill, many of the plot relevant objects and notes are just sitting on tables, chairs, or , in one particular case, a toilet. Later in CMI, a plot relevant item will be sitting in a chicken. Yes, in a chicken. And Guybrush will just pick it up. This goes back to Thacker again: If you are not part of gaming culture-this might be lost on you. Also, let us not forget the most popular video game trope that is also being represented here: someone stole your girlfriend.
When Guybrush goes to the Barbery Coast, he meets the future members of his crew. He also gets to play with the hair dressing chair. When I first played this game, I went to a hair salon who’s chair was already raised for me. I was never in the chair when it was raised and it was not lowered to the floor for me to get out of. So I had no reference point for this chair. I was ten in 1997 when I first played the game. I remember looking for a booster seat.
When Guybrush is eaten by the snake the game plays off itself for further in game intertextuality. Yodude1017 didn’t hover over the items to show you what they were so I’ll reveal a little secret: before Guybrush is eaten, the items on the ground are the box of cereal, the machete, the jaws of life, and the golf club. But, once the situation or context has changed for Guybrush, the objects become, snake food, snake killing machete, jaws of life, and snake beating club, respectively.
Then Guybrush meets Slappy Cromwell, a thespian who is doing a pirate themed tribute to Shakespeare. A bad pirate themed tribute to Shakespeare. It is here that CMI takes its first punch at mocking tourism (at least in Yodude1017’s play through). Many resorts have shows to put on for their patrons to enjoy. If you have ever been on a cruise or even down to Orlando, you have probably seen one of the many campy adaptations of familiar stories which have been rewritten to either fit with the theme of restaurant or resort. Well here’s Slappy’s presentation of Speare, the hip new pirate Shakespeare performance. This performance is cringe worthy regardless of your experience with theater, but it is significantly harder to watch if you enjoy any of Shakespeare’s work.
To speed up this post I’ll just make a short list of the remaining pieces of intertexuality left on disc 1 of the game:
– You have to do something for each of your crewmen. You must best Haggis McMutton in the cabre toss, find gold for Cutthroat Bill, and (best of all) duel Edward “Snugglecakes” Van Helgen.
After challenging Van Helgen to a duel, Guybrush is given the choice to choose either a pistol or a banjo. The banjo is the correct choice here. In the truest homage to
Guybrush then repeats Van Helgen’s patterns until Van Helgen goes to fast to follow.
– The second hit against the tourist attractions is the private beach club, Brim Stone. The cabana boy is rude, the towels are coveted material, and food is older than Guybrush and shouldn’t be eaten. It’s like almost every resort vacation I’ve ever been on.
– Captain Blondebeard runs the fast food chicken restaurant. His character and restaurant are a huge dig at the hygiene of fast food in general. Guybrush will steal Blondebeard’s gold tooth, but if Guybrush does not steal it in the correct way, Blondebeard will simply pick it up and throw it back in his mouth. There is also a dead customer in the corner, maggots in the rolls (they’re the secret ingredient), and the grease from the cooked chicken is enough to get tar and feathers off of Guybrush.