Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: "Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse"

Idle Hands are the Devil's Playthings
review for Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse, 1 player point-and-click adventure, available now
Adventure Games. Bah! Who needs them. They're as outdated as fighting games, aren't they? A relic of yesteryear. Who needs 'em. Who needs their wacky, irreverent humour. Who needs their likable characters! Who needs their imaginative, contrived, yet oh-so-charming plots and dialogue. Who needs them, I say. Wait. Halo: Reach? What are you doing? No! Get away from me! Don't brush up on me with your awful character progression and careless writing! And Modern Warfare 2?! What is this??! NOOO!!!!!!

...Sam & Max? What are you doing? Get out of here! You'll be gutted alive! ...oh my! A whole Episode of your first season, free? So enticing! The plot is about Max, the rabbity thing, becoming President of USA? That's insanity! Huh? It has a musical number in it? Oh, I don't know. I'm not sold yet. WHAT? IT'S NOT HALO or MODERN WARFARE?? It's actually imaginative and, dare I say it... fun? In today's game industry? GOD BLESS YOU, SAM & MAX.

Days have passed since playing Sam & Max 104, and needless to say their free episode wasn't enough to sate my thirst for this wacky, incomprehensible, yet endlessly endearing canine and lagomorph duo.
Using my magical search-the-internet skills, I dug up old episodes of the 2004 cartoon show, Sam & Max: Freelance Police. Alas, it was a show by FOX Kids Animation - and while certainly still irreverent and hilarious, there was a lurking sense of... immaturity about it. It was tongue in cheek, but 104 had political satire, gun violence, and social commentary - something the cartoon series lacked. It felt like Sam & Max with its legs cut off, and I wasn't satisfied. So I loaded my Steam Wallet and took the plunge, purchasing and downloading Telltale's latest in the ever-expanding Sam & Max catalog, The Devil's Playhouse. And hoo-boy, was it worth it.

There's something about the way Telltale treats plot and stories of their games that comes across as polarizing. No, not for the audience - but polarizing for gaming as it stands today. Most big-name, large-budget titles claim to have "epic" stories, and while often grand in scale, the plot is very rarely more than a vehicle for the gameplay. Sam & Max takes the opposite - the gameplay is a vehicle for the plot. And goddamnit, that's how it should be. There's a reason Half-Life 2 is still my favourite first-person shooter of all time; it's because story is a first priority. It sets up characters, it gives them arcs, it follows a journey of people. Not stereotypes or blank slates, but genuine, real people. Dare I say it, it gives these NPCs a soul. So many other contemporary games should follow this sort of example.

So Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse has soul. Underneath the point-and-click adventure game guise, is a story of a dog and rabbity-thing. And underneath the story of dog and rabbity-thing is some of the most intuitive and inventive advents in the evolution of storytelling I have ever seen, in any medium. There's a great issue of Futurama Comics in which following the plot one panel on each page at a time tells an individual story - or you could read it on order - or you could read the thing backwards - and it makes a different plot each time. Likewise, there's an issue of Simpsons Comics that can be read either backwards or forwards, and makes sense either way. Well The Devil's Playhouse is a bit like that. Rather than include time-travel as a token gimmick, Singularity or TimeShift style, The Devil's Playhouse uses it as a key plot device. The first part of Episode 1, The Penal Zone, has Max (the rabbit) using a 3D viewfinder to look into the future. A playable future, mind you, which acts as a tutorial. The Twilight Zone-esque Narrator then cuts in, telling us "you're in the future y'know," skyrocketing us to the present, letting us set in motion the turn of events that lead to the fate we know is set in stone. But the pay-off to this is endlessly rewarding, and more than a little unnerving.

Oh right, that plot I've been hammering on about. Sam (the dog) and Max (the psychopathic rabbit) are Freelance Police, operating outside the law. A plague of goodwill and lawfulness has spread across New York, but before you can say "jumping jeepers on a jogging Jewdite in a Johannesburg jeans jit!" (Sam talks like that, he's very Dick Tracy, in a way), an alien named General Skunk'ape has landed in New York, with a view to spread peace and love. Of course. Sam and Max see through it and they use Max's newfound psychic abilities to look for The Devil's Toybox, which lets him use the toys wherin to use other psychic abilities. Y'know, to solve puzzles and stuff. But really, the plot could be about a giant robotic Abe Lincoln statue coming to life and running for President; this is a plot well told. Well-written. It's hilarious through and through, it's paced better than a good novel, and it's just... fun. Remember when stories were fun? Do you? When you could play a story about a dog and rabbit detective and be as interested in the plot as you would a good cinematic thriller? I doubt you do. It was before my time, adventure games - the original Sam & Max Lucasarts game is about as old as I am - but I'm disappointed they faded away before I could get my hands on them as a "gamer". I suppose technology evolved in a way that didn't benefit the genre. But hey, they're back now, ain't they? Telltale has proved, with this Sam & Max series, that spastic, genius humour, likable characters, and inconceivable plots, well told, can make for as a good a time as shooting aliens or terrorists, or Zerg rushing your LAN mate. It's the epitome of story and gameplay, in a way the polar opposite of Final Fantasy XIII, the unmitigated piece of crap.

So. Recommendation. If you appreciate genius when you see it, comedic or otherwise, pick up Sam & Max. Season 1, Episode 4 is free, so go download it now. And then go buy the other episodes and seasons. But if you're a twitchy action gamer, who hates "boring slow PC games" and can't go a minute without gunning down an oppressed foreign soldier with your massive penis extension device... you know what? You too. You need to be taught what a real gaming experience should be. First-person shooters and action games have their place, sure. But you people have been forsaking genuinely brain-churning games like Sam & Max for too long, and it's a crime. All of you. Especially me.


Andrew Deavin is a gun-toting, cigar-chomping anti-hero, who lets bullets talk for him, and they very often say "die now infidel". Of course. At all other times he is drinking down a glass of red wine and appreciating the finer sides of our gaming culture, with smart design philosophy and intuitive game principles. Games like LIMBO. And now, with this chronological step backwards, adventure games like Monkey Island and Sam & Max. It won't be long before he discovers books, of all things. Pfft, what is the world coming to?

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