The furry blue line

Sam and Max are back on the streets
By MITCH KRPATA  |  August 14, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: A Sam and Max short

Of the many evolutionary dead ends in the history of video games, no demise is more lamented than that of the point-and-click adventure. Oh sure, developers still make them, but these days they’re niche products at best. Fringe.

The watchword for modern interactive experiences is “cinematic.” Action games hurtle you from one histrionic set piece to the next, sprinting toward the finish line with single-minded determination. Those PC adventure games, by contrast, were almost literary. They encouraged you to explore and interact with other characters. Entire conversations did nothing to advance the plot, instead fleshing out enormous casts of characters and imaginative locales. It’s not hard to see why adventure games died out. But from the late 1980s through the advent of first-person shooters, they were the vanguard of the industry.

Nobody did it better than LucasArts (at the time, “LucasFilm Games”). It brought PC gamers such spectacles as The Secret of Monkey Island, whose vision of comic buccaneers was later appropriated by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Day of the Tentacle, a time-traveling caper with mutant tentacle creatures and prima donna Founding Fathers. And then there was 1993’s Sam & Max Hit the Road, a bizarre tour of American kitsch featuring a pair of “freelance police”: a loquacious dog named Sam and his slightly sociopathic rabbit-like sidekick, Max. Sam & Max was the zenith of the form, packed with absurdist humor and brain-bending puzzles that just barely made sense. Fans clamored for a sequel, but when LucasArts aborted one attempt in 2004, it seemed as if time had run out for Sam and Max.

Then, in 2006, a company called Telltale Games announced the upcoming launch of a new Sam & Max enterprise, to be released in a half-dozen digitally distributed episodes. They trickled out over the course of six months and now have been collected in a single retail release. Convenient though the episodic model may be, the complete Season One package gives the stories a shape and a sense of cohesion the discrete pieces lacked. Watching an overarching narrative emerge from the parade of gags and wacky characters gives the proceedings more heft.

But make no mistake, the comedy is the show here. The gleeful and unironic way Sam & Max plows headlong into one goof after another is a throwback to the LucasArts games of old. It’s also refreshing. Comedic games are rare enough these days, and usually what passes for humor is a mean-spirited mix of sarcasm and locker-room jabs. Sam & Max opts for a potent stew of sight gags, non sequiturs, and sly satire. Not every joke works — some of the punch lines seem calculated to elicit groans rather than guffaws — but there are so many that you never have to wait long for a good one.

In their travels to such exotic locales as Washington, DC, the moon, and, uh, the corner store, Sam and Max encounter a menagerie of loony characters. Convenience-store clerk Bosco is proof that being paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not actually after you. The Soda Poppers are former child stars who’ve never grown up. Hugh Bliss is a beatific mystic who seems just a little too serene.

What’s different here is not just that the characters look and sound funny — it’s the idea that to get the information you need to advance, you’ve got to talk. Wheel and deal. Find out what people want, what they need, what they’re afraid of. A decade ago, these play mechanics were commonplace. Today, they’re revolutionary.

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