Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sam & Max - Season One

It’s widely held that the last great point-and-click adventure was Grim Fandango, the final game to be produced by LucasArts using their famous SCUMM engine. Oh, sure, there were some more Monkey Island games of varying degrees of quality, and it took the Myst franchise a bit longer to die than it probably should have, and occasionally you’d see some backwoods European developer getting up to mouse-driven malarkey in the bargain bin, but really Grim Fandango was unarguably the arbitrarily designated nail in the coffin.

When LucasArts stopped making original games and went back to lame franchise cash-ins, and when the Tim Schaeffers and Ron Gilberts of the world had moved on to greener and ultimately less profitable pastures, the fans of the genre were left to make their own way in the world, much like the surviving members of a doomsday cult following the mass suicide of all their friends. Some moved on to “mainstream gaming”, some left the hobby entirely, and others banded together like junkies in a crack den to mainline obscure Russian detective games and slurringly reminisce over the good old days while cockroaches crawled unnoticed over their babies.

It’s with that pleasant image in mind that Telltale Games enters our story. They exploded onto the gaming scene with the devastating force of a poorly-made Christmas cracker, promising all and sundry that they were going to bring back the golden age with a mix of episodic PC gaming, oddball humour, and a development team that were maybe possibly related to friends of the people who lived with the cousins of the people who made the LucasArts classics.

That was a fine ambition, one not to be instantly sneered at, and it was met with some anticipation and wary optimism by the gaming public. A slow drumroll began in the collective subconscious, building in power, momentum and intensity over the months, which finally culminated in Bone: Out from Boneville, an adaptation of Jeff Smith’s comic masterpiece which completely failed to capture the spirit of either “comic” or “masterpiece”. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, very, very bad. Very, very, very bad.

So when Telltale announced that it had obtained the licence to Sam & Max and was going to make a game of it, most people interpreted “make a game of” to mean “dig up and have sex with the corpse of”. I know I did.

And that’s basically what they did. But where it became surprising was that the corpse wasn’t exactly struggling, if you know what I mean. It turned out Telltale was one fine romancer of corpses. When their first episodic Sam & Max instalment hit the streets, not only did it not smell of the grave and shamble insistently in the general direction of our brains, but it was actually injected with the life and mayhem that we expect – nay, demand – from our Freelance Police-related antics.

Over the following months, Telltale did six of these things, which they loosely referred to as Sam & Max: Season One, and you can now buy all of those episodes together on one disc as what amounts to a single full-length point and click odyssey. I’m happy to tell you it’s well worth buying.

Sam & Max, for those who don’t know, are a pair of unlicensed crimestoppers created by Steve Purcell. Sam’s a dog in a suit and fedora, and Max is a naked white rabbity-thing with a lust for mayhem. They fight crime! They’re tasked with protecting the values, decency, and collected kitsch of America from the rabid forces of unreason by using a combination of suave dialogue, improbable physics, and extreme violence.

Over the course of the six episodes contained in Season One, you’ll lock horns with embittered child stars, cheat at poker, elect Max as President, set the disembodied stone head of Abraham Lincoln up on a date, and destroy the internet, among many other unlikely acts of mayhem. The jokes are fresh and delivered in the instantly recognisable verbose style of Sam & Max, the set-ups are inherently amusing, and the puzzles generally combine just the right amount of logical cause-and-effect with ridiculously exaggerated off-the-wall consequences.

The first few episodes, it must be said, are a little slow, and the puzzles are so easy as to put small children to sleep. In addition, the first four episodes re-use a lot of the same dialogue and art assets to the point of frustration, presumably to reduce Telltale’s development costs. But both the quality and quantity picks up sharply in the back end of the season, and as a result hilarity quickly ensues.

As far as I’m concerned Telltale are so far the only developers to have really wrapped their heads around episodic gaming in a successful fashion. They’re bringing out new games very regularly, at reasonable prices, and delivering exactly the sort of results that gamers expect at that pricepoint. Upon finishing Sam & Max Season One I immediately went looking for the first episode of Season Two, and am pleased to find that they’re following up their initial success with games that are bigger, better, and more fun – and you don’t even need to stuff around with all that Gametap snake oil they were trying to sell you before.

Ultimately Sam & Max Season One shows very clearly the fingerprints of a developer finding its feet in a new marketplace with a non-standard delivery model, but if you’re one of the dispossessed generation deprived of their point-and-click satisfaction lo these long years then you’ll be absolutely tickled pink by how accurately Telltale has hit the target in this effort, and you’re likely going to come out eager for lots, lots more.


Anonymous said...

You've had a fine way with words since you started posting agin... *chuckles quietly*

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, Grim Fandango wasn't the last game to use SCUMM - that was Curse of Monkey Island, which came out just before Grim. Grim was the first game to use what's generally referred to as "GRIME" (the "Grim Engine," though who knows if that name was ever used regularly internally). The only adventure game LucasArts made after Grim was the sad, lone, fourth Monkey Island game, which was the second (and final) game to use GRIME.

Greg Tannahill said...

Jake - correction noted, with thanks. It may be that GRIME was very similar to SCUMM, though, as Grim Fandango works under my SCUMM VM emulator.

Juffles - Thank you. The best is yet to come. (I know, because I already have it typed, but don't want to saturate you with overupdating.) Very sad that my schedule got screwed with in Perth and I didn't end up catching you and cricket_k - I'll have to prioritise you for quality time when I'm down for Swancon.

Anonymous said...

...You stole my rant!

Greg Tannahill said...

I stole it and did unspeakable things to it. But it liked them and now it wants me to be its sugar daddy. That's just the way things swing around here, darlin'.

Anonymous said...

I think your schedule got screwed and we ran out of energy. Maybe by the time Swancon comes around we will have settled down a bit. (possibly in a house of our own, all going well... :) )

Anonymous said...

Yeh yeh... and you did it better than me too.
I guess I should just let go of this feeling of owning all adventure game love in the universe... but you know, I was alone for a long, long time... and it's hard.

I've taken steps towards filling the void and ordered orange box for PS3... hoping Portal is as great as everyone sayd it is...

Greg Tannahill said...

Portal is as good as everyone says it is. Possibly even better. You should pre-order its man-juices to speed up the inevitable process of having its babies. You'll thank me later.