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Second Opinion: Day of the Tentacle is Mediocre at Best

Good, But Not As Good As You Think

 

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

Happy Halloween, everybody!  I”m Doctor I Coleman, and I’ve got a PhD in Adventure!  This year I’m dressing up as the legendary Doom Slayer, which probably isn’t a surprise considering what my desk looks like.  But you know what’s even scarier than fighting demons from the depths of Hell itself?  The idea that people might have different opinions than you on videogames!  Today we’ll be talking about the sort-of spooky classic Day of the Tentacle, and even though I know you’re already writing your salty comments, I’m still gonna offer my Second Opinion.

So, here’s a thing that happens pretty often.  Critics review a thing.  Critics form an opinion on the thing.  Critics move on to the next thing and never look back to see if their opinion was justified.  This isn’t a bad thing, per se – it’s the nature of the beast.  I have to play through and write about two or three games every week in addition to my video work, podcasting, day job and studies, I don’t have time to revisit games I played last year and see if I still agree with what I wrote about them.  But it often leads to media getting put on a pedestal that absolutely nothing can knock it down from.

To use a nice, non-controversial example: the recent Ghostbusters reboot.  Now, listen – maybe you didn’t like it.  That’s fine.  That’s whatever.  Unless you’re one of the people who just didn’t like it because you hate women, that’s maybe not so cool.  But a lot of the criticism leveled against it makes you scratch your head and go, did you see the original Ghostbusters?  Oh, you think the new movie didn’t have a very well-developed villain? At least he didn’t just show up for fifteen seconds in the last ten minutes of the film.  Thought it relied too much on special effects?  So did Roger Ebert in 1984.  You thought some of the humor in the new movie was childish?  The first film had a freaking ghost blowjob.  A ghost blowjob!  Even in the 80s, how was that okay?  I love the original Ghostbusters with all my heart, but people hold it up like it was a cinematic masterpiece and not a low-budget improv comedy originally designed as a Dan Aykroyd vehicle.

This brings us to the topic at hand, Day of the Tentacle.  For those of you who haven’t heard of this game, ’cause hey, there might be a few: Day of the Tentacle is a 1993 point-and-click comedy adventure game about three horror movie stereotypes – the nerd, the stoner, and the Breakfast Club sweater girl – who get sent to different time periods and have to work together to stop the rise of an evil purple tentacle named…well, Purple Tentacle.  It was designed as a sequel to LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion, retaining a couple of the same characters and honestly not much else, and it was made by Tim Schafer of such hits as Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, and Monkey Island 1 and 2.  If all that sounds fun, well, yeah.  It is.  I wanna be clear on the fact that I think Day of the Tentacle is a good adventure game, with a unique art style, fun characters, and so, so many jokes.  Jokes in the item descriptions, jokes in the puzzles, jokes you can’t even find on the first playthrough, and one of the funniest freaking jokes in any classic LucasArts adventure.

But like that goofy, poorly-paced improv comedy about four guys harassing women and violating the National Environmental Policy Act, critics took a silly game about squid appendages and made a masterpiece out of a molehill.  But don’t worry, I’m sure all those reviews still hold up almost a quarter of a century later, right?  Like The Advocate‘s Phil LaRose and Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World talking about how good the control interface is.

Hmm.

Or a lot of critics talking about how much better it was than its predecessor in terms of graphics and sound design.

Oh, yeah.  It’s never been topped.

It wasn’t all positive, though, oh no!  The Jerusalem Post, for example, complained about the ludicrously high system requirements.  And I agree, I mean, can you believe you have to buy a Sound Blaster just to play this game?  That’s ridiculous!  What am I, made out of money?  Or, as I believe it was called in 1993, VCR repairmen?

Here’s the thing: 23 years ago, yeah, this game was pretty revolutionary.  Maniac Mansion looked like this.  To come out with a sequel that looked like that looked and felt like a friggin’ Looney Tunes cartoon?  That was incredible.  I mean, they had Chuck Jones, Chuck actual Jones advising on some of the game’s art.  And the game had real voice acting for the first time in LucasArts’ history, and it had a fully-animated opening cutscene that actually conveyed some of the story, and the gameplay had been tweaked to the point that an actual human being might be able to solve one or two of the puzzles!

Certainly, recognizing a piece of entertainment’s place in history is important.  It’s the same trick English teachers use to convince us that reading Shakespeare isn’t a colossal waste of our time.  But just because Tentacle was an impressive piece of tech in 1993 doesn’t mean that it’s, as Rock Paper Shotgun recently said, “still the smartest, most elegant, most entertaining adventure game ever made.”

What?

And they’re not alone.  Adventure Gamers likewise called it the greatest adventure game of all time, IGN put it in their “top videogames of all time” list twice, GameSpot called it one of the greatest games of all time…I’m sorry, everyone, but I really don’t think that’s the case.  The following sentence has never worked in the history of Internet, but please, just hear me out before you immediately try to tell me I’m wrong.

To show how ridiculous some of the praise for this game is, let’s go back to IGN real quick, that bastion of non-hyperbolic games criticism.  In addition to those “Top 100 games lists”, IGN listed Purple Tentacle as one of the hundred best villains of all time in 2010.  Just to be clear, here’s Purple Tentacle’s entire backstory: He drinks some sludge, grows little flipper arms, and decides he wants to take over the world.  That’s it.  That’s literally as deep as this character gets.  Oh, man, screw Walter White, huh?  Nobody does character motivations like LucasArts!

See, as I alluded to a little bit in my last video, human beings are really bad at evaluating media critically – they tend to believe that a thing can only be all good or all bad.  People think, “Day of the Tentacle is good, and Day of the Tentacle has a villain, therefore Day of the Tentacle has a good villain.”  And it doesn’t.  The villain, like everything else in the game, is basically just a setup for a gag: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if the world-dominating big boss wasn’t some horrible monster or dangerous bad guy but just a tiny tentacle hopping around with tiny flipper arms.

Likewise, people think “Day of the Tentacle is good, and Day of the Tentacle has a story, so Day of the Tentacle has a good story.”  This is also not true.  “The smartest, most elegant” adventure game, Rock Paper Shotgun?  May I remind you that the climax of the game involves the three main characters getting stuck in a sweater and thinking they’ve been Jeff Goldblum’d into a single person.  The emotional payoff of the story is Dr. Fred telling everyone to get out of his house.

And sure, at the time, maybe that was enough.  Maybe that truly was better than everything else out there, although I’d still say that either of the two Monkey Island games out at that time had it beat.  But now we have Grim Fandango, an art-deco inspired story about death, love, and the afterlife.  We have the new King’s Quest, a simultaneously laugh-out-loud humorous and poignantly heartfelt look at the life and death of a king and his entire reign, a game that’s recently been praised for dealing with the death of a loved one in a far more mature way than games’ usual “HOLY SHIT WE KILLED A CHARACTER” shock value.  Heck, if you don’t just wanna look at traditional point-and-click adventure games, how about some of the more recent Telltale offerings?  Are you really going to tell me that a game that deals with suicide, PTSD, and any number of mature themes is less “smart” than a game where you dress a mummy in a wig?  Day of the Tentacle is a stupid, stupid game – and that’s fine!  It’s okay to just be funny and goofy, to focus on being an entertaining experience over saying something about the human condition.  But let’s not confuse the two.

And I know when people call it “elegant” they’re not referring to the gameplay.  Listen, I’m a fan of adventure games.  I like nightmarishly unintuitive inventory puzzles as much as the next gamer, but nobody would ever think of creating a storm by washing a carriage.  And no, knowing the solution to that puzzle does not make you better than me, nerds.  It doesn’t make you smart.  It just means you either read the walkthrough beforehand or hated yourself enough to try every inventory item on every other inventory item.  Putting that puzzle in an entertainment product is how you tell the concept of fun to go jump off a bridge.  And if your first thought for defrosting a frozen hamster isn’t “hairdryer” or “stove” or “matches” but “put a sweater in the dryer for 400 years so it shrinks to hamster size”, that doesn’t make you smart, it makes you certifiably insane.

Is it funny?  Sure it is.  But it’s not good puzzle design.  There’s too many puzzles in the game where you don’t feel satisfied after solving them.  You don’t feel like you’ve achieved anything, which is what good videogames are trying to make you feel.  You usually feel like, “wait, seriously?”  And a lot of critics forget this, because they’ve been fans of the game for 23 years, and all the puzzles feel natural and intuitive.  The initial frustration has faded away, and all they remember is how funny it is when Laverne walks into the laundromat and the dryer finally dings.

And the only argument I ever hear to defend the puzzle design is “that’s the way games were back then”, usually with the condescending implication that if you can’t get inside Tim Schafer’s twisted mind then you just don’t deserve to be playing videogames, you stupid idiot moron.  And yeah, that is how games were back then.  In fact, one of the reasons Day of the Tentacle‘s puzzles are remembered so fondly is because with the rare terrible exception they’re actually a lot better than a lot of its competitors at the time.  It sure made more sense than some of the crap you had to do in Sam and Max Hit the Road, which came out later, or basically anything that happened in Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders.  But if you really think that that’s the best puzzles can get in 2016, you’ve either missed out on a lot of really excellent adventure games or your nostalgia goggles are thicker than Bernard’s nerd glasses.

Look, as always, opinions are subjective.  Maybe for you, no other adventure game is as fun or fulfilling as Day of the Tentacle.  Or maybe you don’t care that the story is paper-thin, the characters are stereotypes, and the gameplay is often frustrating, because you enjoy the comedy so much.  That’s totally fine!  It’s not my job to tell you what you can and cannot enjoy, and like I said, it’s a funny, funny game.  Changing the Constitution before its signing to make certain puzzles possible in the future?  That’s a stroke of absolute brilliance.  But before you write an essay about how it’s the smartest, most emotional, most well-written videogame of all time, I want you to at least stop and think about what you’re saying.  Are you talking about Day of the Tentacle, the game Tim Schafer wanted to have six playable characters but changed ’cause he could only afford three?  Or are you talking about some game you made up in your head, some game where Purple Tentacle is a tortured dictator who deserves to be on the same list as The Joker?

I think if you really look at it from as objective a standpoint as you can, you’ll see that Day of the Tentacle is an enjoyable fluffy and hilarious… 7 out of 10.  And that’s my professional opinion.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct GamerSyndrome.com with years of experience writing for and about games.
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