Holy jumping mother o’ God in a sidecar with chocolate jimmies and a lobster bib!
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.
Sam & Max occupies a strange place in pop culture. Wikipedia calls it a “media franchise,” but those feel like big words for something so small. It was a small series of excellent indie comics, a mediocre Saturday morning cartoon, an Eisner-Award-winning webcomic, and, most famously, a series of videogames, all from the brilliant mind of Steve Purcell. You might know Purcell for his work on Monkey Island and many other LucasArts adventure games, and you definitely know him for his work at Pixar, where among many other things he wrote the screenplay for a little-known movie called Brave.
Sam and Max are probably best known, especially in this industry, for 1993’s Sam & Max Hit the Road, which many would consider among the best adventure games of all time. And if you think that, you should stop it! Because its boring plot, terrible puzzle design, and stupid minigames pale in comparison to what happened when a bunch of disgruntled former LucasArts employees formed their own company, got the rights to the cancelled sequel, and released it as an episodic series under the new name “Telltale.” And was this return to form celebrated? Was its praises sung from the rooftops? No. Instead, everyone tried the first episode of the first game, decided they hated it, and just moved on, leaving the series to die in relative obscurity aside from its hardcore fans. It’s barely big enough to be a cult classic, and the company wouldn’t see real mainstream success until The Walking Dead. Now, I like the modern Telltale Games, and I like Hit the Road for what it was, but Telltale’s Sam & Max games are modern masterpieces that have never gotten so much as a smidgen of the respect they deserve, and I intend to finally rectify that grievous oversight.
(For the sake of clarity, I’ll be referring to these games by their subtitles. So season one is Sam & Max Save the World, season two is Beyond Time and Space, and season three is The Devil’s Playhouse.)
Now, I’d like to spend this article talking about all the things these games do right, so I’ll get the criticisms out of the way first. Yes, the first game in particular looks a lot like a budget project. That’s because it was a budget project – it was a new studio’s first full game. So yes, the audio quality isn’t great, and yes, the leap from Hit the Road’s gorgeous pixel art to Save the World’s low-detail polygon modeling is a bit jarring. But is that what matters? Because everyone still loves Grim Fandango and that game looks and controls like dog vomit, with the caveat that dog vomit probably has more polygons and better animations. Graphics are not what make games great, and that’s especially true of point-and-click adventures, which are first and foremost about the story and world.
Also: yes, I will be the first to admit that the Sam & Max games are not perfect. With 16 episodes spread across three seasons, how could they be? In particular, the second episode of season two, Moai Better Blues, is a boring episode with frustrating puzzles based on a dumb premise, and if it wasn’t necessary for the story I’d suggest people skip it entirely. There’s missteps, occasional episodes whose writing could be tightened up…sure, there’s issues. But what game doesn’t have a few lingering issues? Nothing these games do wrong is so egregious a sin to deserve the critical pooh-poohing they received, and everything these games do right, they do so right that I really do feel justified using the term “masterpiece.”
You see, Sam & Max is a very difficult franchise to get right. If you’re not familiar, the titular characters are a six-foot-tall dog in a suit and a hyperkinetic rabbit thing, respectively, who act as the self-styled “Freelance Police”, solving crimes armed only with the blunt end of justice and a pinball-like stream of consciousness. A big part of the series’ appeal comes from its surreal sense of humor and nonsensical quote-unquote “worldbuilding,” but when other writers try to copy Steve Purcell they often get it wrong. As those of us on the Internet learned in the dark days of the early 2000s, just being random is neither funny nor compelling. Something like Kung Fury works as a 30-minute short, but it would be torturous if you stretched it out to a feature-length film.
What makes Sam & Max truly special is that it’s based around two very likeable, well-written characters and that the cases they solve, while ridiculous, are genuinely interesting. Making a 6-foot-tall dog in an ill-fitting suit funny is easy. Making you care about him? That’s hard. Doing both? Nothing short of inspired. The best part of the comics isn’t when Sam and Max foil a fish-headed mobster’s evil plan with the help of a diaper-wearing chimp commando (as awesome as it is that I just got paid to say that sentence.) It’s when in the middle of an otherwise madcap adventure Sam thinks that Max may have died, and there’s a two-page spread where the constant dialogue is replaced by silence as he mournfully scoops up the ashes. Even though it ends up leading to more ridiculousness when Max astral projects into one of his fingers and the banter starts right back up again, that moment is powerful, and it’s actually given the room to breathe and the caliber of writing needed to make it feel like it’s a natural part of the story, rather than just another loss.jpg.
The Telltale games get this. Hit the Road is fun, but it has the same problem as Day of the Tentacle, which I covered on a previous episode: people give it credit for having a great story when it’s really little more than a silly cartoon. A fun cartoon, sure, but it’s not like you actually cared about Bruno the Bigfoot.
Conversely…well, let’s start with Save the World. There’s no denying that the first Telltale game is the weakest of the three entries, and it’s part of the reason so few people have actually played the later games, but it’s still a damn sight better than people give it credit for. Part of that’s because what Telltale used to be really good at back in the day was understanding how to work around their budget. Because the Telltale tool limited the number of side characters they could have, they made sure that the recurring cast was funny, likeable, and put to good use. Similarly, even though most of your time is spent in the same handful of locations, they use clever tricks to make the world feel much bigger than it is. For example: the fifth episode takes place in a virtual reality simulation, which lets them re-use the same city streets you’ve walked a thousand times before but with a digital coat of paint. And because the writers are able to get a lot of mileage out of that concept – with lots of jokes and new puzzle mechanics stemming from the fact that you’re in a simulation where anything is possible – it doesn’t feel like a cheap ploy.
The result is that not only does Save the World go to bigger and funnier places than Hit the Road, but it also feels more grounded. You have time to get to know the characters you’re interacting with and to feel invested in their stories. It’s not just a photo slideshow of interesting locations populated with one-joke characters you’ll never see again. Plus, unlike Hit the Road, Save the World introduces an overarching story about a mind control conspiracy that turns out to be the handiwork of one of the most compelling and hilarious villains in adventure game history, bar none.
It’s a strong first season. But Beyond Time and Space is even stronger. Telltale’s bigger budget meant that they could go to more locations, but they still kept that all-important groundedness, sticking with the core cast they established in the first game while introducing enough new characters to keep things interesting and fresh. A throwaway joke about Sybil and the severed head of the Lincoln memorial going out on a date becomes a brilliant ongoing sideplot, minor characters from the first episode of season one become the linchpin of season two’s overarching plot in a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan (good M. Night Shyamalan, not recent M. Night Shyamalan), and a weird running gag about mariachis singing at people’s birthday parties spirals into probably the most inventive time-travel plot any videogame’s ever attempted. It might sound ridiculous, but it works, in part because everything’s so well-written, but also because the previous game actually took the time to make you care about these characters enough that you’re interested in these revelations.
And then there’s the third game. The Devil’s Playhouse. It’s a game so maligned, so ignored or forgotten by games media as a whole, that the Wikipedia page for it doesn’t even have a “Reception” section. And that should be seen as nothing less than criminal, because The Devil’s Playhouse is without question or hesitation the finest point-and-click adventure game I’ve ever played. I’m not joking. I’m not exaggerating for the sake of playing devil’s advocate. Devil’s Playhouse is number one.
In many ways, it’s a departure from the previous two games. The little office complex that was the focal point of Save the World and Beyond Time and Space is largely abandoned – instead, every episode takes place in a different set of locations. What’s more, a lot of the series’ recurring characters don’t return except to play minor parts in the grand finale (though those minor parts are all amazing.) It expands the universe in ways no Sam & Max property has before or since, taking the vague undercurrent of supernatural power that’s always run through the franchise and the infrequent jokes about Max being psychically gifted and turning it all into a compelling and brilliantly-realized mythology. It’s an adventure that’s bigger and better than ever, but it also feels like the most emotionally intimate, as it focuses inwards on the relationship between our titular heroes and what, if anything, it would take to push these stalwart do-okayers to their limits. Its powerful, beautiful ending was the first time I ever cried at a videogame, and still one of very very few times that’s ever happened. It’s both a love letter to old sci-fi films and a brilliantly-told story about the human condition (yes, really) and if you take nothing else away from this video, take away that you owe it to yourself to play it (although fair warning, it won’t make as much sense and probably won’t hit as hard if you haven’t played the other two first.)
Okay, let’s take a step back. I’m a critic. I overanalyze things – it’s quite literally what I’m paid to do. And I really, really love The Devil’s Playhouse. But there’s something important that we’re overlooking here, and that’s that the Sam & Max games do all this while still being goofy, lighthearted fun. I know some people don’t like the puzzle-solving in these games because they’re a lot more simplistic than the LucasArts classics – the last episode of the third game, in particular, feels very much like a precursor to the limited interaction of Telltale’s recent output. But I really don’t think that’s a bad thing. I mean, Hit the Road may have had harder puzzles, but they were only “harder” in the sense that no human being could reasonably be expected to solve them. I mean, really, that magnet hand thing was just Not On.
If you want challenging puzzles, go play The Witness or something. Sam & Max isn’t about puzzles, not really – it’s about comedic storytelling. Frustrating, poorly-designed puzzles get in the way of that. Lightweight puzzles, on the other hand, enhance that – even if the puzzle isn’t particularly fun, at least it’s over quickly. And the Telltale games actually have some really imaginative puzzle design when they’re at their best – stuff like trying to act out a scene in a sitcom with room for the advertising break, or A Christmas Carol-ing Santa Claus himself, or the brilliant time-jumping mystery on the Disorient Express, where you have to play the story out of order in order to get clues for the present from the past and future.
The Telltale Sam & Max games are everything traditional point-and-clicks should be, and so seldom are. They tell serious, engaging stories that also manage to be laugh-til-your-sides-hurt funny. Their storytelling enhances their puzzles and vice versa. They’re never frustrating, or confusing, and while they occasionally sacrifice their challenge for that fact, it’s the better side to err on. Sure, they’ve made a few missteps along the way, but there’s absolutely no reason for them to be as looked-down-upon as they are.
At the end of the day, they’re just plain fun. Fun to play, fun to watch, fun to think about. Isn’t that what games are supposed to be about? Or are they just about smugly trying to prove that you’re smarter than everyone else. Because if that’s the case, then considering the fact that I just practically gave a dissertation about Sam and Freaking Max, I think I’ve probably won.