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Sam & Max: Culture Shock

The ads have been all over DC’s comics (at least) this week, so I’m sure you’ve heard there’s a new Sam & Max game out. You know Sam & Max: the detective dog in a suit and the violent white rabbit thingy? And I’ve always got to hand it to creator Steve Purcell; Sam & Max are one of the few semi-contemporary creator-owned comics creations I can think of that have built up enough of a multimedia fan base over the years that a goodly portion of the people who remember them fondly might not even be aware of the comics they’ve appeared in since 1987. And it’s not like they were inescapable, even in their prime; most of their comics got collected into the single, out-of-print trade paperback The Collected Sam & Max: Surfin’ the Highway (1995), they starred in a single graphic adventure game for the home computer, LucasArts’ Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993), and there was a 24-episode cartoon show titled The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police (1997-98). A second LucasArts computer game was cancelled toward the end of development in 2004. And yet, their fanbase is a vocal and enthusiastic one, a bunch that stretches past the borders of any one medium’s devotees.

So anyway, Telltale Games is now intent on bringing the characters back into seemingly every form they’ve ever known. Purcell himself is doing a new online comic (Telltale also has a Graham Annable series going, and a print-format Purcell sketchbook for sale). Some computer-animated non-interactive shorts are supposed to be in the pipeline. And, most pertinently, a second, completely new and non-LucasArts Sam & Max computer game is finally out, despite the once-mighty graphic adventure genre being but a shadow of its former self. No matter: the game is ready now, taking advantage of the easily-grasped, challengingly-implemented 'episodic' system of release, also employed by Telltale’s ongoing adaptation of Bone.

Basically, that means the game’s really short. Which is ok (so the argument goes), since it’s also really cheap, and there’s already five additional games/episodes scheduled for release over the first half of 2007, so eventually it’ll all add up to a full-sized game, if everything gets done. That’s also not to say it’s a serial, though the form perhaps encourages it; this first episode of Sam & Max is entirely self-contained in the manner of a pleasant comics short, and maybe it'll connect to future episodes or maybe not.

It’s also very, very easy. Very easy. As in, ‘welcome to your first adventure game!’ easy. In a way that makes some sense, if Telltale is planning to ramp up the difficulty level in subsequent episodes; the graphic adventure genre is no longer prevalent (or arguably even remotely popular), and it may take time to teach a curious audience the ins and outs of the gaming style, what with its wandering around and picking up items and having conversations with characters and using items on things. It’s a remarkably difficult genre to master, in terms of both playing and designing, so maybe Telltale is somewhat warranted in holding the player’s hand as they walk though Episode 1.

On the other hand (the one that’s not being held), I’m not convinced very many of the folks who’ve been salivating over the prospect of a new Sam & Max game weren’t thoroughly immersed in the LucasArts line of graphic adventures over the late ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s, and I can’t imagine any of them not absolutely breezing through this game. I took the time to talk to nearly every character I could, and play with as many items as possible, and it took me maybe three hours to make my way to the end. And I assure you, we’re not just talking about beginner-level puzzles that are simple enough to send the player careening though scene after fresh scene; this is a game that definitely rubs up against its own limitations at times. It only has six interactive screens (plus a recurring minigame), and maybe ten or so total items to collect. Given that, there’s pretty much going to have to be backtracking through stuff you’ve already seen, just to get a single new item or accomplish some objective that you know is going to work since the game generally cannot be more obvious about how to solve its little challenges.

It's a bit of a shame; I hear a lot that graphic adventure games are supposed to be dedicated to storytelling, and that’s certainly true, but telling a story through the medium of an interactive game is fundamentally different from drawing a comic or animating a cartoon - there has to be a give and take between player engagement with the game and the doling out of the plot and character bits, and I really do think that an uninspiring level of challenge and a limited playfield detracts from the story in the manner of a campfire narrator who rushes though everything or can’t quite find the words to put together. Sam & Max: Culture Shock does have a fairly pleasant story (short version: Sam & Max have a case to crack, and they do it), and the incidental dialogues between Sam & Max remain funny as ever, though some of the plot-centric humor is sort of moldy (former child stars? self-help gurus?), and you can never really escape the feeling you're being jostled though a somewhat abridged version of a world.

Ah, but there’s stronger forces at work. Nostalgia, for one. Also: the pinching clarity that Telltale is probably doing their best with rather limited resources. The days of the latest graphic adventure breaking the industry bank are long over, and genre belts must be tightened. The graphics are quite lovely, capturing in 3D much of the charm of the heretofore 2D universe of S&M (ahhhh…), and the animation is fluid and often funny on its own. Fine jazz-fueled soundtrack too, and solid voice work. The polish is really a lot higher than I’d expected. Some of the puzzles are quite cleverly conceived, even if you can only admire them in retrospect having blasted through them.

And again - it’s inexpensive. Only nine bucks, and less than six if you pre-order the entire season at once. It’s enough that everyone interested will at least want to take a gander, and there’s probably enough promise that future episodes will prove a bit tougher that you’ll be waiting for January’s release of Episode 2.