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Pirates Sail on the Video Game Screen

Homer and Cicero wrote about incidents involving sea robbers that threatened the trading routes of Ancient Greece and Rome more than 2,000 years ago. Since then, each era has encountered new brands of pirates. Popular culture today glorifies the picture of a band of outlaws who are guided by the wind and their own set of rules—consider swashbuckler Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In recent years, many video game designers adapt tales of the sea to attract pirate aficionados to interactive game play. Two early games, Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Secret of Monkey Island not only brought adventures of the high sea to the screen, but also introduced new approaches to video game design.

Sid Meier's Pirates, 1987, Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NYMicroProse released Sid Meier’s Pirates! in 1987. In the game, Meier departed  from his earlier war games and flight simulators. Influenced by Dan Bunten’s pioneering adventure game Seven Cities of Gold, he blended elements of role-playing, action, and strategy to create a dynamic playing field and player-directed gameplay that inspired future games like Civilization and The Sims. Sid Meier’s Pirates! encourages a player to hunt buried treasure, ransack enemy ships, increase wealth through trade, attack hostile towns, recruit crewmates, and search for a wife or explore new lands with the goal to amass fortune and fame. At the outset, a player selects a year from a list of choices that begin with 1569 and end with 1697. The year chosen matters, because the game reflects actual historical developments. For example, English privateers of the 1500s carried out foreign policy. Historian Peter Earle notes that they were “the illegal but often much admired fighting extension of the militant Protestant English expansion.” Peace treaties eventually caused many crews to lose work and pirates worked together to attack any type of ship. If a player selects to play a later decade, seafaring activity and commerce increase and the dominance of European nations shift, requiring a different set of tactics than would have worked in the earlier settings. The player’s ability to choose a year and his nationality and strengths (navigation, fencing, or medicine), ensure that a player never feels like an old sea dog. A year after the release of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Lucasfilm’s Ron Gilbert teamed up with game designer Tim Schafer and game designer and programmer Dave Grossman to create Secret of Monkey Island. They designed a graphic adventure game that transports players to an atmosphere that resembles the popular Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride and the Golden Age of Piracy (from the 1650s to the 1720s pirates exhibited the characteristics society continues to idealize in them—raiders that roam islands and plunder for gold). In Secret of Monkey Island, a player guides swashbuckler Guybrush Threepwood on his quest to become a pirate. Threepwood must complete three trials: win a swordfight, steal from the governor, and find a buried treasure. The expectations seem reasonable, but Threepwood seems immature and a bit self-righteous. During his quest, Threepwood falls in-love with Elaine, the governor’s daughter. His feelings invoke the wrath of the ghost pirate LeChuck, who kidnaps Elaine and takes her to the mysterious Monkey Island. During game design, Gilbert expressed his frustration with contemporary adventure titles and the team decided to make Threepwood’s death almost impossible so that players focus on exploration. Secret of Monkey Island was also one of the first adventure games to incorporate a dialogue tree—a player chooses a line of conversation to follow when talking to non-playable characters. Pirates are known to exploit the resources of the English language, and the witty dialogue throughout the game proves clever. In one exchange, for example, a woman says, “Now I know what filth and stupidity really are,” to which Threepwood responds, “I’m glad to hear you attended your family reunion.”  Aside from silliness, critics praised the game for its state-of-the-art graphics, intuitive interface, and lively soundtrack.

Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Secret of Monkey Island may seem tame when compared to current titles like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. However, Meiers, Gilbert, Schafer, and Grossman not only brought swordplay and bottles o’rum to gameplay, but introduced innovative design concepts that changed how we play. I’m sure most pirates would say “Aye!” to this achievement.