Hitting the Punchline Over and Over Again
I have been a fan of adventure games for about as long as personal computing has existed. I have fond memories of trying to figure out the proper two-word commands to unravel the mysteries of text-only classics like Pirate’s Cove on my Commodore Vic 20. I watched the genre evolve into full graphical adventures like King’s Quest, and especially enjoyed the sort of zenith of the genre represented by LucasArts’ more sophisticated adventures like the well plotted The Dig or—one of my votes for funniest games ever—the brilliantly satirical Full Throttle.
Despite the excellence of LucasArts’ efforts during the ‘90s, the adventure genre has seen a significant decline in recent years (despite some really stunning entries in the genre like Funcom’s The Longest Journey, though I can’t say much for its disappointing sequel Dreamfall), so I was pleased to see some adventure gaming favorites, Sam & Max, receive a reprieve from oblivion with a new episodic run of adventures by Telltale Games.
Sam & Max are the heroes of 1993’s LucasArts classic Sam & Max Hit the Road. The two characters were based on an independent comic that followed the adventures of straight man (well, straight dog) Sam and his manic and somewhat psychotic funny man (well, funny rabbit) sidekick, Max. The two pals were a pair of freelance police, fighting crime in often unconventional ways while dropping a plethora of overcooked noir metaphors along the way.
This new incarnation of Sam & Max features stories in an episodic and serial model with each short downloadable game comprising a case that the dog and rabbit pair need to solve. The episodes initially seem only loosely serial in that they often contain references to prior episodes, and you will see “trophies” appear in Sam & Max’s office closet representing the prior cases. However, each episode constitutes a resolvable “case.” Though, an overall story arc seems hinted at through some of the similar features of the cases (specifically, mind control as one of the weapons of the criminals that Sam & Max seek to bring down in the early episodes).
This structure is appealing in that it allows users to feel fulfilled by playing only a single episode (since in doing so you do get the satisfaction of having wrapped up a case) but it also encourages further downloads as this seeming overall story arc is teased at.
In this manner, the episodic style seems derived from the pre-Lost era of network television. Television shows now seem to rely so heavily on serial storytelling to keep viewers hooked that it proves nearly impossible to watch them if you jump in midseason. With the more self-contained storytelling model, Sam & Max escapes the potential confusion of players who might want to jump in midstream.
Though, given that all the episodes are available for download in one place, one wonders if such a concern is really necessary. Given that the networks have taken to providing runs of episodes of shows for free online in order to offset midseason confusion, current downloadable content on the Internet seems unlikely to run afoul of such a problem. It may simply be that Telltale Games wishes to represent these cases in bite-size and self contained chunks, though, to give a sense of these characters as “detectives” in the kind of traditional way that Sherlock Holmes or even Nancy Drew stories are told—a series of cases representing their continued adventures and successes. The short form is certainly conducive to telling a smart, sharp riddle of a story without a great deal of confusion being generated by hyper-extended plotting.
In any case, the first such episode of Sam & Max, Culture Shock, begins with a classic adventure gaming problem, getting our heroes out of the first room in the game (old school gamers know what I mean—getting out to get a lay of the land was often the most challenging step in old school adventures and sometimes where they ended in frustration). In this case, the first room is the two freelancers’ office, and getting out to experience more of Sam & Max’s world is accomplished through a series of puzzles and discussions with the rodents infesting that office. Doing so gets the pair on to the trail of a hypnotist whose subversive “Eye-Bo” videos (ostensibly an exercise system for gaining ocular acuity) have begun saturating the streets and minds of the city.
These opening moments are quite charming, and resolving the rodent problem seems less a matter of rational problem solving as immersing yourself in the game’s absurdly comic world. Solving problems in this sense is more like making yourself complicit with a gag. For example, knowing that the rats demand a hunk of swiss cheese but that all of the cheese on hand in the office lacks holes, you quickly swing out Sam’s enormously exaggerated revolver to “make” swiss cheese out of the solid blocks of American or cheddar. This faux cheese absurdly fools the rats, but, again, the puzzle was less a test of rationality than it is a test of how clear the player is about the irrationality of comedic moments.
It is in these same moments that these new episodes of Sam & Max work best, mirroring the mood and tone of the story being told with the conflicts that an adventurer seeks to resolve.
Unfortunately, while comedy is the big draw here both in terms of listening to Sam & Max trading one liners and as it drives some of the farcical gameplay, comedy is at times undermined by the traditional structure of adventure games.
Adventure games have always been and continue to be fairly linear affairs. They present certain problems, like “how do I escape this room?” and then require certain manipulations of objects and/or the environment to overcome those problems. As a result, adventure gaming is more often than not a trial and error affair as you attempt to try out various objects that you have collected on various characters and things in your environment to see how they will work.
In a game that treats every click of the mouse as a potential opportunity for a clever line, once you try something new for the 44th time on the same old object, the joke triggered by that object is told over and over again. Hitting the same punchline over and over gets pretty old, pretty fast. Not the height of comedy.
A similar problem emerges within dialogue trees, that most trusted illusion of “freedom” within a linear game and story design. While interacting with characters allows you “choices” about what to say to characters, most of these “choices” simply allow the ability to choose to hear a long winded script in 3 or 4 or 18 different ways. You can always ask a question in another tree after you have exhausted all the options in one such segment. If some of the jokes within these trees get beaten like dead horses, the player still feels compelled to hear every line, since occasionally these lines are relevant to either understanding the story (which is paramount in the adventure genre) or more rarely, but more importantly are required to advance the solution to some specific plot point.
At times, I felt a great desire to get moving on with the story but felt imprisoned by these dialogue trees given that in some instances avoiding them could mean that I could not advance through a puzzle necessary to complete the game. At that point, a lot of the humor becomes downright tedious and overbearing as it is a chore to slog through all the banter that characterizes our fuzzy animal pair.
The game does break free from such restricted and linear thinking at times. Notably, in Episode 2: Situation: Comedy in which Sam & Max find themselves performing in a number of television show parodies in order to advance their mission, there are some thoroughly enjoyable and less linear options. On an American Idol parody, Sam performs a song on a banjo to win a record contract. Various dialogue tree options allow you to construct some silly and nonsensical rhyming lines to comprise the song, and which ones you choose is unimportant to completing the challenge, allowing you the fun of simply seeing what goofy combinations that you can come up with without fretting over creating every possible permutation of those lines.
However, some of this fun is squelched in the same episode when you perform on a sight-gag-driven sitcom parody. As you tape the episode, you attempt to improvise sight gags by manipulating various props on the set. Each failure leads to the player starting the whole process over again, and, if the joke at the sitcom’s expense is how cheap its laughs are, hearing them for the umpteenth time as you try to get the performance right “this time” does nothing more than destroy any sense of “funny” in these moments.
While Sam & Max succeeds in renewing an old school genre in an innovative new distribution model (episodic content), some of that renewal does at times remind you that old school can become very simply old after awhile.