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The Next Big Thing

(Focus Home Interactive; US: 21 Apr 2011)

The Next Big Thing is a tricky game to describe.  While it probably is not “the next big thing” in gaming (indeed, in genre and style, it hearkens back to the ‘90s heydey of the point-and-click graphical adventure), it scratched an itch that I have had recently to play a really nicely paced, well plotted point-and-click adventure game.


Set in a universe vaguely resembling our own, the game’s story is a mash up of genres with protagonists reminiscent of characters from films from the Golden Age of Hollywood (a roguish, hard nosed, wise cracking sports reporter named Dan Murray and a rookie, but feisty society columnist named Liz Allaire), a supporting cast of monsters and freaks more at home in a horror flick than in film noir, and a mixture of retro and steampunk technology, like some old-school-looking robots and a zeppelin, making the game seem an off kilter mixture of mismatching styles and tones.


Strangely all of this mixture is what makes the game work so well, coalescing into a strange and whimsical charm.  The plot involves Dan and Liz (who, of course, hate one another so much that the player can’t ignore the pure sexual chemistry that such antagonism provokes between them) as they stumble into a bit of corporate and political intrigue as a result of accidentally witnessing a minor break-in at the home of a movie studio owner.  Oh, and the studio owner just happens to be a fish monster running for public office and the man breaking into his office is a genius whose brain has been transplanted into the body of the strongest man alive.


If all of this sounds pretty weird, it is.  But the game never lets on that it is.  Somewhat reminiscent of magical realism (not because the game has any heady, literary pretensions—it really doesn’t), there is a level of weirdness and the otherworldly that sits right alongside familiar, mundane matters in a seemingly natural (at least to those who inhabit the world) manner.  In other words, no one in the game ever treats any of the absurd qualities of their world as anything especially extraordinary, which makes things seem both authentic (in that the characters are comfortable in this weird alternate universe) and yet so obviously bizarre (to the player).  Sure, there is a doghouse inhabited by a venus flytrap and there is a popular magic show in town run a thousands-of-years-old mummy princess, but Dan and Liz never bat an eye, nor does the game attempt to justify or explain the weirdness of the world that they inhabit, which actually suits the style of gameplay that Pendulo Studios is emulating rather well.


The thing about the point-and-click adventure is that as far as the way that the genre normally provides puzzling situations (the adventure player has to work things out by gathering useful items around the world and then figuring out how to use them in some way in that world’s environment) is that most of these types of games tend to defy logic in order to offer the player a challenge.  If objects were used in expected ways as they were in the real world (say, starting a car by using a key on its ignition), such “puzzles” would be dull indeed.  Instead, both Sierra and Lucas Arts more frequently resorted to twisted logic as a way of obscuring puzzles during the decades that those studios dominated the genre, generally forcing the player into a cycle of trial-and-error gameplay, in which attempting to use an item from an inventory may make no clear sense initially or ever at all (why would I use baling wire on a chicken in order to start a car?).


The Next Big Thing presents a simlar madcap approach to puzzle solving, where often enough you are attempting to use something with something else contrary to all common sense, but what tends to make this kind of counterintuitive activity seem reasonable enough is that the whole world of the game is so equally strange and absurd.  This is something that classic LucasArts games do very well.  Full Throttle comes to mind, for example.  Though games like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango may be even more familiar in these terms to fans of the genre.


Most of the puzzles are not especially hard to solve despite such general nuttiness—though admittedly I got especially stuck on a musical puzzle that involved teaching a bouquet of flowers how to play a tango (don’t ask).  However, puzzles involving distinguishing sounds from one another are my own personal kryptonite.  Those adventure game fans who are not tone deaf may not stumble around quite so much to figure this one out.


Thus, by coupling wanton absurdity with some thoroughly likeable characters, The Next Big Thing does a nice job of recapturing the spirit of classic point-and-click adventures and telling an odd, but compelling little tale.  Its art style is also compelling, having the polished look and exaggeration of something like a modern comic book with much more depth than the standard, “flat” 2D look of older point-and-clicks.  Seeing screenshots in this style was the first thing that drew me to the game, but it was the aforementioned likeability of the characters that kept me clicking throughout.


Dan is an enjoyable, if stereotypical, gruff and supposedly self absorbed scoundrel, but the real star of the show is Liz, who is—for whatever reason—a rather giddily unbalanced woman.  Her charming madness and ability to get into trouble without any real effort on her part makes her a kind of Lucille Ball, but this Lucy probably isn’t simply mischievous; she probably really could use a good therapist.  Again, it is familiar enough for characters in adventure games to talk to themselves (as they are simply informing the player of what he or she is clicking on), but Liz’s chatter is quite mad and quite funny and doesn’t seem out of place given her borderline craziness.  Whether she is explaining the origin of her fear of crocodiles as a result of getting her head caught in the hood of her father’s car as a child or explaining why one of her sisters—the pretty one—has accomplished so much more than she has, whatever Liz says tends to surprise and then evoke a bemused chuckle.


For the most part this tone of absurd comedy keeps the game fresh and lively throughout.  Admittedly, some jokes fall flat and occasionally a gag gets dragged out too a little long, but if the tone of the opening few scenes grabs you, you’re likely to find more chuckles than grimaces here.  Pendulo also is able to use some standard point-and-click mechanics to add depth to gags, things like characters refusing to comment on objects in the environment that they are intimated by (as Liz does if the player clicks on a sculpture of a busty woman too often) or by creating circular conversations through point-and-click dialogue trees (a specific example of which would probably take too long to describe).  I kind of admire the ability to use the uniqueness of the medium in the service of the tone of a story, be that comedic or otherwise, and Pendulo accomplishes this in clever ways several times here.


This is the first title that I have played by Pendulo Games, and while I was aware of the Runaway series, I had gotten the impression that this was a smaller studio putting out point-and-click comedies with a kind of fratboy, road movie style of comedy (trailers of those games games had given me that impression for some reason).  While it is somewhat difficult to describe the kind of humor that is present here, I hope that I’m not giving the impression that it is all zaniness and highjinks.  This isn’t Sam & Max.  This is something a little stranger, a little less darkly comic, maybe even a little smarter (for lack of a better descriptor) than that.  It is kitschy, and it is self aware, taking advantage of both to pretty good effect.


Basically, I was pleasantly surprised by the weird wit of The Next Big Thing, which makes me want to take a look through Pendulo’s back catalog when I next get that itch for some traditional point-and-click adventuring with a very odd twist.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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