[20 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
A lot of reviewers today have trouble dealing with Telltale’s Sam & Max: Season One for the Wii. Whether it’s Nintendo Magazine’s resounding, “We loved it, but we understand some people might not,” or Gamespot’s 70 for “a few technical issues”, there is a basic agreement that the game is a lot of fun but that it doesn’t quite compete by today’s standards. Indeed, the game’s interactive fiction roots are based on a game design that has been abandoned thanks to the merger between console sensibilities and attention spans. There is no better weapon to grab or leveling up here, the sensation of accomplishment will not occur until 3 to 5 hours have gone by and you’ve beaten the episode. It is, as 1Up aptly described it, “an interactive sitcom”. The challenge is barely palpable, the gameplay is mostly linear, and the only reward for play is funny content. All of these reviews make accurate points, but Sam & Max for the Wii is still a triumph of an underground genre that will delight anyone who approaches it with the right expectations.
The way interactive fiction works is to think of it like a chopped up movie or book. The player unlocks sequences or plot by observing their surroundings and performing the proper action to make the story progress. The flaw is that unlike a first-person shooter or platformer, the player input will often halt for long periods of time while you figure out what the next step is to keep the game’s flow going. There is only the one solution to be deduced that serves as player input, which is the only thing that differentiates the game from a film or book.
The strength of the game design is that players pay attention to the plot and characters much more closely. Typically the model works well for comedies or mysteries, badly for anything involving action, and has its ups and down when it comes to fantasy. For a player wanting a good laugh, Sam & Max delivers; the player wanting the typical action romp or OCD reward structure of an RPG will be left high and dry. Given that the game never presents itself as anything but a comedy, I’m not really sure why anyone would dock it points for failing to do what it never tries to offer. You can’t really have a comedy that doesn’t induce massive linearity in the player unless you intend for the player to be both actor and audience. Sometimes when you read people knocking this game’s score for not appealing to modern sensibilities, you feel like they’re suggesting Romeo & Juliet should have had more explosions.
Judged by the merits of its own genre, the game streamlines the element of interactive ficiton so that the flow goes fairly smoothly. There are typically three to five screens, several of which repeat every episode, that you can explore. Puzzles are usually thown at you in twos and threes, and your inventory cannot be mixed. You can only use items on puzzles and the cursor is a one-click-does-it-all interface. The point of all this is to keep the game flow from ever getting bogged down for more than a few minutes. Whenever you get stuck, you have so few items and areas to backtrack that it takes little time to figure out what you missed. Should a puzzle hang you up, the game’s website offers a complete walkthrough to every episode they provide. Most of the game is clicking through dialogue trees to see various gags and one-liners, all of which fall into the realm of incredibly sarcastic E for Everyone type humor. These can be skipped by tapping the B trigger at any time until the character starts repeating a line, which is usually what they want you to do to progress in the game. The result is, as I pointed out in my review of Season 2, a sitcom where you control the flow of jokes and skip around to what you want to hear. The point is not to provide player accomplishment or thrills, it’s to let you enjoy the comedic content on an even more finite scale than Tivo.
The game’s delivery of this concept has mixed results for the first Season. This is a radical overhaul of interactive fiction by abandoning the puzzle-solution-reward structure and the first few episodes show the bumps along the way. Telltale builds each episode independently and studies the audience reaction to the prior episode when making the next installment. As a result, the first and second episode are fairly rough around the edges. You have trouble understanding what you’re supposed to be doing, puzzles are often disjointed, and the comedic timing is still being felt out. By the fourth episode though, the series hits its stride and rises up to the quality experience they have down to a pefect formula in their subsequent Sam & Max episodes and Strong Bad games. There are a few technical glitches that will require waving the Wii remote until it gets its bearings back and navigating Sam may require more than one click. These are all useful details if you’re straining to explain why the game falls short of the victory porn that constitutes almost all of today’s games, but for the average Wii owner looking for something new to play you’re not going to care or notice.
Viewing the entire season, the overarching theme of villains using their hypnotizing abilities to take over the world is a sharp satire of societies dependence on sources of distraction and happiness. The manipulative self-help guru, insane T.V. host, deranged toy company, or enraged Abraham Lincoln statue all poke fun at our sources of entertainment and how we derive happiness from them. The fact that Sam & Max, through their bizarre outlook on life and love for destruction, are totally immune to these effects makes the joke all the more hilarious. When one villain hypnotizes the entire planet to be permanently happy by worshipping him, Sam declares over a planetary loudspeaker, “Do not be alarmed Citzens! I will get you back to your miserable outlook on life as soon as I can.” The bizarre places other people find their happiness is shown in a variety of weird ways. When war finally breaks out while you’re inside the White House, a Secret Service agent begins to weep with joy before breaking out into a massive musical song and dance to celebrate. The constantly job changing Sybil ‘s addiction to feeling accomplishment without sticking to any one source pokes fun at our own cultural ADD with careers. Bosco, the paranoid store clerk, finds his own happiness at constantly beating a conspiracy that mostly exists in his own mind.
During the ‘90s there was brief spurt where Sam & Max starred in a misguided cartoon series. The show ultimately fell flat because Steve Purcell (their creator) has a bizarre enough sense of humor that the gags tend to cause an information overload. Each one liner is teeming with cultural references, bizarre vocabulary, and ridiculous nuance. It’s a by-product of his writing comics, where the reader can dwell on each line, instead of just having it roll by and missing the joke. As a videogame these jokes become a weird hybrid of the two mediums. Because each line is singularly delivered and selected by the player, they get more attention because the player sits and thinks until they get the joke. How you feel about a game design whose primary funciton is a sophisticated method for delivering bizarre jokes is ultimately how you’re going to respond to this game. If you want Sam & Max: Season One to make you laugh, rest assured it will deliver.