49: Sam and Max: Series 2

Galloping gladrags on a nitro-boosted motorboat, they’re back!

Despite some of their games being, uh, less than stellar, I’m always heartened to see Telltale Games are doing well, and in their own unique style. For PC gaming to be successful, for it to continue to grow and thrive, it needs these companies determinedly hollowing out and reinforcing their various niches, rather than letting them collapse to a soupy mess of ground-down ideas and franchises. Telltale do episodic gaming better than anybody who has tried to do it – they make a profit, they stick to a tight schedule, and they are apparently continuing to improve, so good work chaps.

It’s like a unique genre of its own at this point. I can’t really class it as a point-and-click as while that is how you control the game, it’s really not about solving puzzles. I’ve read complaints about how childishly simple the puzzles of Sam and Max are but fortunately I am childishly simple, and I appreciated that they didn’t get in the way of the story. It’s a story, delivered episodically, with a comedy bent…yep, this is the first game sitcom.

Let’s talk characters. Throughout the first two series they have produced exactly one interesting new character, the gleeful, evil Hugh Bliss, who is the antagonist of series 1 and makes a few appearances in series 2.  Yes, a decent job was done in realising and executing Sam and Max themselves, but the work for that had long ago been done in the original game and indeed in the comic upon which it is based. The first part of this is the game engine – every single character has a face like a swollen potato, a mishmash of nearly-fitting teeth and plasticine features. I’m not asking for incredible visuals but make them distinctive, make them look like they’re actually talking. They lack, for want of a better word, style.

But the main problem is that of all sitcom supporting characters – they’re a single joke that is stretched out too thin. After a while, once all the comedy is wrung out of that particular sponge, there’s nowhere to go other than making them do something ridiculously out-of-character and latch onto a new joke. When you’re talking to these guys in-game every single episode, this becomes obvious in a way that a shorter one-storyline game wouldn’t. Worse, the writing was often uninspiring, overwrought, and just not that funny, further shortening their shelf life.

A couple of examples, then. Bosco is the guy who owns the shop next to Sam and Max’s office, and his joke is that he is a conspiracy nut. Throughout the first series he is pursuing bigger and bigger conspiracies, and selling more and more expensive items, until there’s nowhere to go. Come the start of the second series, it’s just more conspiracies. You have no particular reason to like Bosco as his only purpose is to delivered hackneyed lines, explain the current plot and sell you the item that’ll solve it. Or take the Soda Poppers, a trio of ex-child stars whose joke is that they are annoying. Unforgiveably, the game made you listen to them and help them to achieve their goals. Their only purpose was to be a sort of extra, filling in for whatever role was needed in a different funny hat, and annoying you. You don’t move away from them because they’re always back next episode.

After three episodes of this new series, with this seeming to continue, I was ready to give Telltale a right lambasting, sucking hours out of my day for no reward. Overplayed stereotypes, dull characters, novelty extras and seemingly random plots conspired together to make me hurt. Behind the scenes, though, an improvement was brewing. The writing is definitely the most obvious improvement. There’s a growing confidence in what people would say, and how they would say it, and so conversations, though still overlong, are much more tightly composed. Incidental dialogue, those mini-punchlines that litter a dialogue, is much much better, and it really improves the experience. The voice actors were already pretty decent but now have a greater range of inflexions, Sam is less incredibly boring and Max is more amusingly homicidal.

A lot of old characters are reused but in new ways, they’re now less of a cast and more of an acting troupe. New characters are few and mostly potato-headed idiots but I particularly enjoyed Little Timmy Two-Teeth and his terminal tourettes. The comedy is somewhat closer to the wire, less broad and bland, moving away from Michael McIntyre and towards Frankie Boyle. Admittedly I don’t like either of those but it is pleasingly in the middle. Going back to those two characters I mentioned: there is now an awareness of what makes those guys tick. Bosco finally goes for his conspiracies, getting himself abducted, becoming interweaved with the timestream, driving rather than stalling plots. The Soda Poppers undergo the same transformation as Poochie, turning to hated villains who are disposed of violently.

Slowly, grudgingly, the game peels away from its well-worn formula. You spend more and more time away from that street that dominates series 1. The number of locations is still low – it has to be given the month they have – but they are presented in a far more interesting way. Episode 4 makes impressive use of time travel puzzles, and more gloriously they start tying episodes together into more of a recognisable arc. Puzzles solved in previous episodes show up in future ones and vice versa – one of the last things you do in the episode 5 is rescue yourself back in episode 1. The seemingly random plot is funnelled towards a conclusion that incorporates it all together.

Most important though, is that feeling that the structure has finally been softened enough to allow Telltale a little more freedom in how they tell their story. Episodes are longer and don’t all follow the three-act-play that was a staple of series 1. They have recognised the impossible wackiness arms race of the first series and it has been embraced rather than curtailed. Stupid elements are placed one on top of the other without that backwards look at reality that the first series suffered from, and so the game finally begins to hit a pleasant and amusing stride, it can finally be funny in its own right.

I’ve got to look to a future that contains a playthrough of series 3, and wonder what another few years of development will do. Will it continue to improve, gaining new confidence in its characters? Will we see the “concept” episode, one from a different point of view, new characters, more scope? Or will it lapse back into a complacent position, afraid to experiment. The first two episodes were awful, but the last two give me hope: Sam and Max is headed in the right direction.

3 stars, 12 hours played.

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