Friday, July 9, 2010

Diving into the Devil’s Toybox with Sam & Max

The best of friends. Allow me this confession: I never played Sam & Max growing up.

After some shallow Internet research, I can tell you that Steve Purcell created the crime-fighting duo in 1987.  The freelance police force consists of Sam, a six-foot-tall dog, and Max, a “hyperkinetic rabbity thing.”  They work in an anthropomorphized New York City, interacting with everything from normal humans to fidgety molemen. 

But I was particularly surprised to discover that, prior to the recent episodic releases by Telltale Games, the franchise only had one game: Sam & Max Hit the Road.  And as the story goes, it ruled.  If you get an adventure game fan talking about Hit the Road, their eyes will light up and muscle memory will instantly get their hand curling into the perfect cradle for a mouse.  Sure, there were comics and a short-lived television series on Fox, but you’d expect, given the franchise’s recent renaissance, that it’d had a long run of successful games. 

When I stepped into Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, I tread carefully, worried my ignorance might sully some sacred temple of point-and-click adventuring.  Not only had I missed Hit the Road, I hadn’t played any of Telltale’s Sam & Max titles.  Telltale’s gotten only positive press both for doing well by the creator and for acing the episodic business model, so I was doubly concerned that I’d skipped their previous two seasons (Telltale wants us to drop the “season” moniker, but it just feels so apt).

I needn’t have fretted.  Playing the first two episodes of The Devil’s Playhouse, I immediately felt comfortable in Sam and Max’s parodic world centered at the corner of Straight and Narrow.  Molemen, vampires, intergalactic generals, and elder gods: I can handle it all.

The Devil’s Playhouse kicks off with “The Penal Zone,” which in turn kicks off with a thorough sci-fi-tinged Tarantinoing.  Imprisoned by a giant space gorilla, Sam and Max use Max’s new psychic powers to send the rampaging alien into an interdimensional prison known as the Penal Zone.

The psychic power says,

“Are psychic powers a big part of Sam & Max?” the neophyte might ask.  They are now.  Max’s latent psychic ability has been awakened through contact with the contents of the ancient Devil’s Toybox – the aptly named Toys of Power.  A toy phone allows Max to travel to any phone whose number he knows.  The Eyes of Yog Soggoth (which cleverly resemble a View-Master) can be used to see into the future.  The only word appropriate for the game design here: whimsy.

But let’s get back to the space gorilla and the non-linear narrative (a good children’s book title, I might add).  General Skun-ka’pe (get it?) has flown his incredibly egotistical spaceship – it looks like his face – to Earth in search of the toys of power.  Skun-ka’pe is a constant font of the excellent writing and pitch-perfect character animation associated with the series.  His voice, a drunken mix of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Earl Jones, adds extra layers of comedy to a story about a land filled with ““the mewling of infants and the drunken revelries of toothless secessionists.  My people know it as Pensacola.”  Oh, and the face he makes after texting his girlfriend “I am your love monkey.”  It’s one of the funniest stupid things I’ve seen in a while – or maybe one of the stupidest funny things I’ve seen in a while.

While fans of the series surely expected the humor, I don’t imagine they expected the atypical structure of “The Penal Zone.”  Not only does it start where it ends, much of the puzzle-solving involves Max donning the Eyes of Yog Soggoth and examining characters and objects whose future fates provide clues on how to proceed.  Yes, it’s a break from tradition, but you can control Max – in a limited capacity, of course.  At anytime, you can pick from his slim inventory of psychic abilities to solve the next puzzle.

Max’s Future Vision actually solves one of the most common adventure game pitfalls: getting from Point A to Point B.  This is generally a problem because Point B often requires a forehead-slapping, pun-derived combination of items you forgot you had.  Max’s psychic powers reveal Point B, revealing just a bit of the fog previously impeding your progress.  It’s simultaneously a hint system and a storytelling device.  Color me impressed.

Whereas “The Penal Zone” is four to five hours of sci-fi tropes, “The Tomb of Sammun-Mak” focuses specifically on the pulp fiction adventure genre.  After (spoiler) recovering the Devil’s Toybox from General Skun-ka’pe, the duo discover a psychic reel-to-reel film projector, along with four reels of a movie about their grandparents Sameth and Maximus.  You’re essentially still playing as Sam and Max, but Sameth has a cool moustache.

Look into the FUTURE Continuing down their non-linear path, Telltale lets you choose to play any of the reels in any order, at any time.  The twist: Reel 3 might hold a clue to a puzzle in Reel 1.  Skipping around in the story adds a minor sandbox-y element to a traditionally uber-linear genre.  I know for a fact that I solved some puzzles out of order, and I love it.  Games of all genres struggling to cope with increased demand for player agency.  If you’re going to steer me down the path of a particular plot, I welcome any opportunity to be fooled into believing I made an impact.

Maximus also has psychic powers, but he doesn’t possess the same toys as Present Day Max.  A creepy ventriloquist dummy lets him choose dialogue options for non-player characters, and a Can O’ Nuts functions as an interdimensional hiding spot.  I’m looking forward to future episodes in The Devil’s Playhouse to see how they mix up the psychic toys.

“The Tomb of Sammun-Mak” continues doling out the series’ trademark teen-and-up humor, though some of it is not without kid appeal.  A featured villain is basically an evil midget Santa Claus whose army of elves talk like newsies.  Much time is spent with Baby Amelia Earhart who might just have the best character name ever; I never stopped finding Sam’s use of her full name hilarious.  I’d go into detail about actual lines that made me guffaw, but I’d do none of them justice.  Don’t just rush through conversations.  The humor’s worth the time investment.

I didn’t notice it as much in “The Penal Zone,” but “The Tomb of Sammunk-Mak” did stumble at times in typical adventure game fashion.  Some conversation-related puzzles had timed elements, which became incredibly frustrating after the first failure.  A lot of the humor comes from context and dry delivery.  That all wears off the third time through a dialogue tree.  And in something reminiscent of the SCUMM days, a cockamamie item combination is the tipping point to solving the game’s final puzzle.  I had to resort to a guide for the answer.  To save you that embarrassment, let me just inform you that you’ll use one of the first items you acquired.

I’m a Sam & Max convert now.  Its slower pace is refreshing when most games offer countless hours of frantic multiplayer shooting.  Its quality voice-acting and humor make digging through conversations a blast.  The stories are over the top and only plan on climbing –  I hear Cthulu monsters are on the way.  I’m happy I started The Devil’s Playhouse, and I’m anxious the play the upcoming episodesNow there’s finally an adventure to challenge Full Throttle as my favorite point-and-click of all time.

Telltale’s Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse is available via digital distribution on computers, consoles, and the iPad.  Though only three episodes are out now (I reviewed the first two on PC), the whole five-episode season runs #34.95 on Telltale’s site.  Charge Shot!!! was provided with a free copy for this review.