Games

Sam & Max: Season 2

L.B. Jeffries

The comedy routines between Sam and Max run a bit like Calvin & Hobbes humor taken to a freakish extreme.

Publisher: GameTap
Genres: Action/adventure
Price: $8.95 per episode, $34.95 for the whole season
Multimedia: Sam & Max: Season 2
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Not Rated
Developer: Telltale
US release date: 2007-11-08
Developer website

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.

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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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