Reviews

Sam & Max: Season One

For a player wanting a good laugh, Sam & Max delivers.


Publisher: Telltale
Genres: Action/adventure
Price: $29.99
Multimedia: Sam & Max: Season One
Platforms: Wii (Reviewed), PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Telltale
US release date: 2008-10-15
Website
Amazon
Developer website

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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