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PAX 2007: Sam and Max Season Two impressions

9:45 AM on 08.31.2007 // Topher Cantler

Admittedly, I've never been part of the PC adventure game crowd. Now before you browse through your inventory for a torch and lighter, or enter things like "/pitchfork", let me explain what I mean. It's not that I don't love adventure games, because I do. Ask for my top ten favorite DS titles and you'll find that Touch Detective and Hotel Dusk make the cut every time. The simple truth is, I've never been a PC gamer. My preference for Mac OSX notwithstanding, (game developers -- are we invisible to you?) I've just never considered my computer to be anything other than just that. I own 14 video game consoles and half a dozen or more handheld systems, why would I want to clickity-clack on arrow keys when God gave us D-pads and X buttons?

Ironically enough, however, I've been a fan of Sam and Max for quite a number of years. I discovered these fuzzy detectives in comic book form back when I started reading things like Bone and the works of Evan Dorkin. It wasn't until we recorded a special adventure game episode of RetroforceGO that I thought to play the game. After some digging, I came across a NOT emulator for my DS and some NOT ROMs, and was eager to catch up on everything I'd missed. The verdict? An old classic has become a new favorite.

Telltale Games was at PAX this year to show off some of their games, so Orcist and I made an appointment to spend a little time with Sam and Max: Season Two on DVD. What we saw was not only impressive and exciting, it also managed to somehow instill in me a new hope for the future of gaming. Read on after the jump and that statement might not sound quite as silly as you think it does.


By the time we met with Telltale's Emily Morganti on Sunday morning, I had already played enough Sam and Max to know that I wanted more. My worry, however, was that some of the things I loved about Hit the Road would be lost in the transition to 3-D. I had heard Rev Anthony rave about how great Season One was, but as much as I trust his judgement and his taste for great games, I hadn't yet played any of these new episodes for myself, and still harbored a bit of fear about what I was going to be shown. Much to my delight, these feelings turned out to be completely unfounded. Allow me to present to you our impressions of Sam and Max: Season Two.
 I don't really look like this.
Topher Cantler:

I could tell from the moment I watched the duo walk through the door of Bosco's convenience store that this was the same Sam and Max I'd become so endeared with. As I've yet to play Season One, this was the first time I'd really seen my little friends in 3-D. If you're in the same boat, then I'm happy to report that, regardless of the extra dimension, this is possibly one of the best examples of a "true sequel" anyone could give you. All of the wit and charm, all the gags, the visual stylings, everything I loved about the first game was completely intact, and shining brightly.

While the game will of course look better on a better PC, it is by no means a resource-hungry monster like a lot of other PC games, and there's nothing stopping anyone with a relatively modest machine from running it. The controls have been simplified, and you can now make Sam run by double-clicking, or simply drag the cursor to make him follow it, as opposed to the old "click ... walk ... click ... walk ..." adventure game standard. Everything from character conversation to interacting with objects on the screen is now easier and more user-friendly. The voice acting is nothing short of fantastic, and the character animations and facial expressions are true enough to make losing yourself in the game a very easy thing to do.

I mean that in the sense of feeling like you're a part of the game; something Telltale has pulled off wonderfully. Should you find yourself literally lost, however, your buddy Max is always at hand with a bit of advice or a hint to help point you in the right direction and save you the needless frustration of wondering what your next step is. This is a feature that can be turned off in the game's settings, but i can't imagine why you'd want to such a thing. Not because the game is impossibly difficult, but rather because you'd be missing out on bits of dialogue that are rich with that same clever brand of wit that so many other titles lack. Indeed, the characters in this game are strong and well-developed, something that is due in no small part to Telltale's commitment to its fans and their close attention to player feedback, which Orcist will mention as well. As impressive as the game was in its own right, it was the company's approach to the development process that we were most impressed with, which brings me to that glimmer of hope I mentioned earlier.

Of all the benefits that could arise from episodic gaming, there is one that Telltale takes full advantage of, and that is player feedback. They pay close attention to their own forums, to their inboxes, and to what blogs and web sites are saying about their games, and take it all to the kitchen with them when it's time to bake their next batch of awesome. Many of the improvements you're seeing as the episodes go on have come straight from the suggestion box, so if there's something a lot of players didn't like in the last episode, chances are it'll be gone when the next one drops. Something people loved and raved about? You'll see even more of it in the future.  

It's this kind of appreciation for what fans want that really builds a great case for episodic gaming and promises a future for the adventure genre. I can't recommend this series enough, and if you're a PC gamer who doesn't at least give it a shot, you're doing yourself and the industry as a whole a great disservice. This is the sort of thing we should be supporting and rewarding. Telltale is the poster child for game developers "doing it right".

They need to make an action figure with Max in that same pose. I'd pay good money for that.

He doesn't really look like that either.

After my (very limited) time with Sam & Max: Season Two, I don't see any reason why it won't share the critical and commercial successes of it's forebears. The classic art style, humor, gameplay, and dialogue all carry over perfectly. In addition to making Sam & Max more user friendly, a response to a presumably massive outcry from the community, Telltale have added a few new locales and, most importantly, a variety of gameplay styles to punctuate the traditional point-and-click adventure.

One of the new places to explore is Stinky's, a diner in which the decapitated head of the Lincoln Monument participates in a trivia game, while making subtle, snarky statements about present-day society today. The writing is just as clever as it ever was, and, somehow, the absurdity of disembodied Honest Abe fits in seamlessly. The jokes are funny without being over the top, clever without being pedantic, and the slapstick is endearing, but not stupid.

Other additions include some new mini-games designed to break up what Emily described as "formulaic" gameplay. Adventure fans may be loyal, but they also happen to be outspoken, and one of the complaints was that the different episodes seemed to run together. Thankfully, Telltale heeded their call.

The mini-game we saw was a throwback to Punch Out!!, with the leader of the rat gang facing off against a horribly deformed, but cute, doll. The gameplay mechanic was pretty rudimentary -- arrow keys dodge, and a left click punches. Sure, it's a mini-game, but it looks great, and serves as a great way to break-up the narrative and add a little variation. I would imagine that the mini-games also add a bit of length, something that most fans said was missing from the first game.

What struck me the most about Sam & Max: Season Two wasn't the traditional gameplay, or new mini-games, or even the smart writing. Season Two excites me because of what it represents in terms of Telltale's commitment to its fans. The episodic format allows them to make changes and additions on the fly, resulting in an organic development process which, hopefully, will lead to a game that adventure fans actually want to play.

Did anybody get the joke from the first picture? Remember how they'd always say that in the first game? You know, you'd click on the exclamation point and that's what they'd say? C'MON, SOMEBODY REMEMBERS, DAMMIT. Well, screw you, I thought it was funny.

Sam and Max: Season Two will be available in monthly episodes this fall; first on Gametap, then on Telltale's web site shortly thereafter. There's a new video from the game you can watch there now. You should do this. It's good for the soul.

Topher Cantler,
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