[21 March 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Dialogue heavy games like RPGs or adventure games are almost always centered around fantasy or science fiction. They often resort to this because it helps keep the setting entertaining and not bog down the player with anything that’s not immediately high on the “wow” factor. After all, given that the player is going to be listening to hours of people yapping, such a setting helps keep the game fun by steering the experience away from everyday life or giant therapy sessions. Yet not every game is confined to keeping their interactions informative or expressly for moving the story along. Sometimes the designers make them funny. One of the poster children of the comedy section of video games has made a comeback and has gotten better in the follow-up to its inaugural season. TellTale Games’ Sam & Max: Season 2 uses funny dialogue and stories to effectively combine the perks of episodic comedy shows with adventure games in an entirely new format.
TellTale games uses a lot of curious words to describe this game to people. Rather than call them mini-adventures or sub-games, they’ve adopted the terminology and style of cable television. The episodes come in seasons, each session is called an episode, and the game references past episodes while still being open to newcomers plot wise. This even shows up in the game’s design by the strong emphasis on dialogue rather than inventory management or exploration. This is so much the case that it might be more appropriate to forget calling the new Sam & Max game an adventure title and call it what it really is: an interactive sitcom.
You’ll meet plenty of new characters along the way…
Imagine playing as a character from The Office and immediately walking over to Dwight’s desk to see every joke he had for that episode before going to see the rest of the show. Consider an episode where you can click on Stewie in Family Guy whenever you want to hear what he has to say. Or, perhaps most startling of all, not listening to them if you don’t want to. Within the trappings of this simple ‘point & click’ adventure game is a very well-written comedy show where the player gets to control which characters get to talk and how much. No, you don’t have much control of the plot’s direction, as in Mass Effect, but as a comedy that wouldn’t really be a very effective game design anyways. What else is a sitcom except a process of thrusting your favorite characters in unexpected circumstances? If you like the joke, you can ask for more. If you don’t, you skip it. This game is funny and it accomplishes this feat by utilizing the player-selected jokes as an excuse to diversify the humor. Sometimes the gag is just wordy dialogue, sometimes it’s a clever historical reference, and there is even the occasional fart joke. Overall, there should be something for everyone here should they choose for it to be.
Appearing in this game sitcom are the star duo from Steve Purcell’s original comics and Lucasarts’ adventure game Sam & Max Hit The Road. Over the years the dynamic between the talking dog and rabbit has shifted a lot, with Max remaining the violence-prone rabbit that he has always been but with Sam constantly evolving. In the original Lucasarts game, Sam came across as something of a big brother figure to Max’s violent nature: prone to mischief himself but content to let Max do the more disturbing stuff. In the cartoons he kind of took on a frat brother role by being equally deranged. In the Telltale Games interpretation, the dynamic seems to have shifted once again to Sam being the mature counter-balance to Max’s disturbing aggression.
The comedy routines between them run a bit like Calvin & Hobbes humor taken to a freakish extreme. Max may be a bit more passive in his role than Bill Watterson’s 6-year-old protagonist, but Max’s ability to express the immature impulse while Sam (the Hobbes figure) balances him out works well. A prime example: when confronted with the puzzle of how to talk a suicidal rat from leaping off a building, you can choose to have Sam say, “Don’t do it! Think of your wife and kids!” On the other hand, when given the option to have Max talk he says, “Don’t jump! I should be the one who kills you!” Naturally, the cute cartoon appearance and sadistic grin of Max take this dynamic to great levels, and the routine holds up throughout this second “season”.
...including this sad elf.
Won’t you help the sad elf?
Season 2 balances its adventure game roots by maintaining a steady cast of characters that you always interact with in each episode back in your home neighborhood. The paranoid Bosco, Abraham Lincoln’s talking head, and the hilarious deranged computers are examples of the NPC’s that make up the cast of regulars for each episode. Alongside those major players are the diverse locations that each episode has the protagonists visiting. The North Pole has a deranged Santa Claus, Easter Island has baby Glen Miller, and Germany has an emo vampire, and these are just some of the stars of these first three episodes. With both the promise of variety and familiar faces, each episode of the season is consistently shaking things up while maintaining consistent subplots to give continuity to repeat players.
Even though the dialogue is what keeps you entertained, the game still features a great array of puzzles to go alongside all of the talking. Even if you get stuck, the hint system is usually sharp enough to lead you in the right direction by letting you know where to go or what you should be figuring out. If that isn’t enough, you can always go online and just read the walk-through the company posts with each game. When a company explains how to beat their game on its own website, it broadcasts pretty clearly the point of the game to people: this is about being fun. It’s about giving you a good time for a couple of hours and leaving you wanting more the next time around. One of the primary distributors of the game, GameTap, explains their goals behind producing the game in a recent interview with Gamasutra: “Episodic seems to fill the compelling aspect of traditional 40-hour games with a more casual game-like time commitment. You can experience the full roller coaster of the plot or story or gameplay in a shorter amount of time, and still get the same sense of satisfaction from having finished something casual.”
There are a lot of people in the video game industry who are predicting episodic content to be the future of video games. You’d download the next level, you’d get the next chapter, and like the serial publications of Dickens or Mark Twain, the story would drag on into a grander whole. I was able to review the first three episodes of the second season of Sam & Max and can honestly say they were all tip top by themselves. But it was the way the jokes would carry over from episode to episode that I ended up getting hooked. The characters whose drama I’d check up on in the following episode, the steady accumulation of souvenirs from solved cases, and the constantly building repertoire of inside jokes make it so each episode rewards the player for trying the previous one. You may be able to enjoy each episode as a stand-alone, but I’d be impressed by your restraint if you didn’t go back and play the others afterwards.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sam-max-season-2/