Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is I just finished a game! Bad news is that I’m adding three to the list, firstly by splitting up the whole Sam and Max into three seasons, and secondly I may have bought Flatout 2 in the sale. But I’m making good progress with them!
This is in some ways a relic of a fad in game development, when episodic gaming first reared its strange-looking head. We had Half Life Episodes 1 and 2, SiN episode 1, probably some others that nobody cares about, and then there’s Telltale. Alone amongst the gaming developers they stumbled on some kind of sustainable model, producing cheap and cheerful adventure games which I suspect was to do with the fact that adventure games generate new content much more through writing than coding. I’ve previously played through the episodes of Monkey Island and Strongbad and both of those were very strong games which used the episodic structure well, though in different ways. This is different again, as practically their earliest attempt.
Essentially, it’s the closest a game has got to being a sitcom, even compared to Telltale’s other output. The locations do not change much and are reused with depressing regularity. Each episode will use the office, Bosco’s convenience store, Sybil’s shop, the street outside, and a couple of new sets produced specially for the episode. This causes one big problem, repetition. You’ll see more or less the same items in these reused locations, with more or less the same descriptions. I’ve said in the last review that adventures can boil down to clicking everything on everything, a thankless, drudge-filled task at the best of times but now imagine you’ve heard all those things in previous episodes as well? Very annoying. It’s not just locations, either, the same base of around ten characters fill more or less every role on the show, with a couple of one-off villains thrown in. This has the effect of again making you feel you’re playing in TV land, with a limited set of actors.
But it’s not just the locations and the characters, the plots follow a sort of pattern, too. Every episode, you will have to buy something ridiculously pricey from Bosco that will help you solve a puzzle. Every episode, Sybil will start a new bizarre career path that will help you solve a puzzle. Every episode, the goddamn Soda Poppers (3 celebrity midgets) will show up filling a role that needs to be filled. Every episode, you’ll shuttle between your office and the first new location for a while, then break through to the second new location, and then have a boss confrontation. This sameyness is comforting in a way, giving you an idea of what to do, but it’s also tedious.
The writers do have some good ideas, I will give them credit where it is due, though it’s generally reusing locations creatively. In one episode, you go into a dream, and alter the items in it to change someone’s psychoanalysis of it. In another, you’re able to flip between real and virtual versions of the same space, knocking people between each plane of reality. In another, you contest an election with a giant robotic Abraham Lincoln. These are all good, solid adventuring ideas, and the only problem is that they’re implemented pretty badly. Puzzles are either incredibly easy or obscure, there’s no particularly happy middle ground.
The dialogue is decent though again it suffers from overuse and repetition. I was actually quite warming to the partnership by the end despite hating them in the original game. The writers do suffer from a compulsion to continually raise the stakes, though, and that’s because the world has no grounding. Because of all the reused locations and actors and situations, they find themselves in the same place as a sketch show trying to record an end of season finale. They’ve done all the variations on the joke they can think of so they just make it bigger and flashier. In the first episode, you have to solve a case of videos getting delivered to a store. By the end, you’re on the moon, Max is president of the USA, Sybil is Queen of Canada, and you give Bosco a hundred trillion dollars in cash for an earthquake generator. You have to save everyone on the planet from hypnosis. That change happened in twelve hours. The world just isn’t consistent enough so I don’t care about it, it’s just a medium upon which puzzles appear to annoy me. One last note of praise though: they created a genuinely unnerving villain and here’s his moon base.
Anyway, an interesting look back at the first steps towards viable episodic gaming, but having played later iterations of this process, you can see they were still finding their feet. Good ideas, crummy implementation.
2 stars, 11 hours played. Two seasons to go, oh god.