We started digging into this episodic adventure series a few weeks back, and this week we're tackling Season 1, Episode 2 -- or as Telltale Games' official numbering has it, Sam & Max 102: Situation: Comedy. These early stories weren't nearly as intertwined as they would become later on, but they were coming out on schedule, and Steve Purcell's crime-fighting dog and rabbit duo and Telltale Games were on a roll as this second game arrived in 2006.
Telltale's business model was based in large part on the episodic concept -- the development investment made in Episode 1 was expected to reduce costs for subsequent episodes, as most sets and character models were already built. This episode solidified the voice casting, with William Kasten taking over as Max for the first time and David Nowlin continuing as Sam, and the writing is stronger than in the first episode; it sounds more like Purcell's Sam & Max, and the story and gags work well together.
As always, I encourage interested readers to sample Sam & Max 102 before proceeding here. The game is great fun and not really difficult, and the humor should really be experienced firsthand. It's still commercially available from Telltale Games, so I'll try to avoid giving away the best lines and focus on the plot and puzzles here, but be forewarned that there are indubitably...
***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
The opening office scene reuses incidental object descriptions from the first game, though Max's lines are re-voiced by the new actor. The only significant new item in the office closet is Brady Culture's hair, the blonde afro wig (scalp?) being the first in what will be a growing collection of mementos from the Season 1 cases.
The plot is mentioned at the beginning of the game -- foreshadowed by the conclusion of the previous episode, something bears investigation at a local TV station -- but we don't necessarily have to get the story underway right away. Sam and Max are free to wander around and see what's going on in the neighborhood.
Down the street, we discover that Sybil has given up psychoanalysis, and is now publisher of the tabloid "Alien Love Triangle Times." She will change jobs every episode for the first two seasons; this one is very much in keeping with Steve Purcell's original comics, and the episode benefits from good, funny dialogue. It feels like Telltale's series is starting to find its footing as Sybil and Sam talk about her new project, and Max jokes about the Indie-Angst Film Festival advertised on a poster outside. We learn that Sybil is looking for a front-page, local-interest photo of an alien for her next issue.
Up the street, we find Bosco, of Bosco's Inconvenience store, dressed up as a British gentleman, sporting a tiny derby hat and monocle.
Why the disguise? It seems the local gang of skinbodies (undoubtedly worse than skinheads) are stealing his shaving cream, so he's trying to throw them off his scent. It's Bosco-brand paranoid conspiracy theorizing at its best. And in this game, the Lucasarts in-joke as Sam attempts to shop is: "Do you have any fine leather jackets?"
The skinheads, we soon discover, are shaven-bodied rats with Jimmy Two-Teeth in a leadership role -- as Sam tries to grab Bosco's last can of shaving cream, they steal it and drive off, firing a gun from their toy car. We can try to chase them down with the DeSoto, but we can't easily shoot them or run them off the road. But we can shoot them at the right time to get them to fall into an open manhole. Max snatches the shaving cream out of the air; as a reward for returning it to Bosco, he gives us... the shaving cream. Which is what we wanted in the first place, of course, but it somehow seems like a letdown after all of the gunplay. We do learn that Bosco has a chemically-based voice modulator available... for sale, that is... for one million dollars. Our dog-and-bunny team are usually broke, so we'll have to come back to this later.
So it's off to the TV station where the trouble reportedly lies; there's a little in-joke here poking fun at the economics of asset reuse -- the Barrelhaven set from Telltale's Bone games is stored here (and Fone Bone himself shows up in the official blooper reel.)
We find a TV director standing backstage -- she has a beef with talk show host Myra, and needs new actors for the sitcom "Midtown Cowboys" -- it seems the program's stars appeared on Myra's show and haven't been seen since. Sam and Max need to spend some time poking around the studio, so they audition for the roles, leading into a couple of funny and entertaining puzzles.
The audition is a scene from Old Yeller, so Sam needs to play a rabid dog; the shaving cream should be handy for creating that certain frothiness, it seems... yep. And the tear gas grenade gun, still in inventory from episode 101, lets Max weep convincingly. And Max is completely comfortable with shooting Sam (not fatally) to put him down. That's that -- Sam and Max are the new stars of "Midtown Cowboys." We soon learn that it's a show about two cowboys trying to raise a herd -- actually just a single cow -- in a Manhattan apartment, while hiding the fact from their landlord, Mr. Featherly, played by a chicken. (We note here that the cow model is also reused from the Bone games, and that the poker table from Telltale Texas Hold'em is seen leaning against a wall behind the Midnight Cowboys set.)
The TV show's taping provides for a really fun puzzle -- we have to find appropriate dialogue options and use available props to "ad-lib" a situation comedy, meeting certain parameters. It's the type of puzzle that could really only be rendered in the modern animated adventure; doing this in a text adventure would have seemed cumbersome, but with quality voice acting and animation it makes for a very entertaining sequence. We're permitted to explore the set and discover the available props, by way of preparation, but we can't actually touch anything until taping starts.
If we need some time to ready our improv skills, we're free to visit the set next door, where a talent contest show called "Embarrassing Idol" is in production. The Soda Poppers (aging child stars from Episode 101) return as the show's judges, but big-eyed Peepers wants to compete, so Max agrees to step in as a judge. There are no other contestants, so it seems like we should see if we can arrange for Sam to win the contest. Specs likes to hear singers hit high notes, and Whizzer is voting for his brother Peepers no matter what; but we learn he has certain, um, digestive vulnerabilities to tomatoes, so we should look for a way to remove him from the judging lineup.
We can also visit the local Cooking Show, "Cooking Without Looking," and take to the airwaves, assembling random dishes into casserole or cake form, and taking the results with us. The ingredients on the rack -- Red Dye #2, MSG, Uranium Pellets and many more -- definitely call Steve Purcell's original comics to mind, where the backgrounds are always full of bizarre and funny breakfast cereals and such.
And there's also a game show, "Who's Never Going to Be a Millionaire," which is not currently taping. But we do run into one Hugh Bliss, a Doug Henning-style magician and New Age guru currently scamming people with his Prismatology belief system; he's waiting to appear on Myra's show to promote his new book, Emetics. Bliss demonstrates that he can actually read Sam's mind, unlike these kinds of people in the real world, and will turn himself any color Sam thinks of as a fairly impressive magic trick.
We can take advantage of this to get Hugh Bliss to turn himself green, and get our picture taken with him, for Sybil's tabloid. The Director returns to say that the game show's host is stuck in Myra's studio, and asks Hugh Bliss to host in his place; Hugh will have to read insults from the cue cards, which he doesn't like, but that's show biz. The questions are incredibly hard, but we only have to answer one successfully, and while that's pretty much impossible, the questions are not guarded or anything. We can switch in Peeper's lyrics cards from the "Embarrassing Idol" set, making the million-dollar question "Am I blue?" This is not hard to answer, based on whatever Hugh Bliss' current coloration happens to be, leaving our detectives one million dollars richer.
We've explored most of the TV station now, but while we can try to enter Myra's studio, Myra herself tells us the studio is full and only famous people appearing ON the show are getting in now. She demands we establish an appropriate degree of fame by providing evidence of a recording contract, a clip from our hit TV show, and a scandal.
So: Sybil can go to print with the picture of Sam, Max and a green Hugh Bliss; this gives us the scandal evidence we need for Myra. (I live in Michigan, USA, so I got an extra kick out of the certificate on Sybil's wall -- Max: "Where's Diploma Mill College?" Sybil: "It's in Battle Creek.") And with our game show winnings we can buy Bosco's million-dollar voice modulator -- which turns out be a helium-filled balloon.
Back on "Embarrassing Idol", we can converse with Specs to learn that he will vote for us if we use the helium to hit a high note. We can give Whizzer a cake for his birthday, but even then he still votes for Peepers. Hmmmm. Something's missing here. We need to take him out of commission as a judge, it seems. So where can we get a tomato? Bosco's condiment dispenser has some ketchup, we just need to bring the cake there to dispense it. Eliminating Whizzer as a judge allows Sam to win the recording contract, as Peepers vows revenge on his turncoat sibling.
Now we need to wrap up the improv on "Midtown Cowboys" so we can get into Myra's studio. This sequence is a lot of fun because the options are non-obvious... most players will have to try some different things, most of which are funny if not completely successful, before hitting on the right bit of "improv." And Mr. Featherly is a great character -- I should say, Philo Pennyworth, the chicken actor playing him. Pennyworth clearly has Shakespearean training, a fine sense of comic timing, and little patience with our amateur dog and rabbit heroes.
Max has to find a logical reason to insert the sponsor's line, "Better get the serious toothpaste!", and of course we must stick with the show's premise by keeping the landlord from discovering a cow on the premises. Accordingly, as Mr. Featherly enters, we have to find some way to disguise the cow. We can put the lampshade on the cow's head to pass her off as a french chef, and put the plate under the cowpie she's deposited on the floor. But Featherly gets distracted by the cow's tail, and she moos when he pulls it. We then have to tell him that she said "Moo Goo Gai Pan," and convince him to sample the plate of cow dung, giving the audience some good old-fashioned gross-out humor (yes, I know birds do this sort of thing in real life, but still!) Max delivers the key sponsorship line as the capper to this segment, and we have our TV clip.
Now we can get into Myra's studio and onto her show -- once we're here, we won't be able to leave, but Telltale's design adopts the Lucasarts approach and we can't really get ourselves into a dead-end situation. So we will just have to work with whatever's available. It soon becames apparent that Myra herself is being held captive, by a little toy teddy bear with weird hypnotic powers.
Sam can't shoot the bear, as Myra orders him to put his gun away. Nor can we do anything with the shaving cream, so we will have to rely mostly on dialogue to find a solution. We can try to convince Myra that someone else was involved in the "Alien Love Triangle Times" scandal -- if we accuse one of the Soda Poppers, she brings each of them out to deny any involvement. Peepers is no help, and neither are Whizzer and Specs. We can summon Bessy the Cow, and Philo Pennyworth advertises his other... predilections... to no major audience reaction. But we might notice that Myra moves the microphone to different spots on her desk, depending on who's onstage.
Further experimentation establishes that what we have to do is use the vocal modulator to let Sam sing at a high pitch, shattering the water glass on Myra's desk, and then call Bessy the Cow in to address the scandal topic. Myra places the microphone, sparking from overuse, in the puddle on her desk, zapping herself and the teddy bear. Myra's okay and her audience is freed at last -- again, we see some reuse of character models from the Bone games in the crowd.
I'm a big fan of Sam & Max, and the adventure games (both the 1990s Lucasarts title and the Telltale series, with 3 seasons under its belt) have been consistently entertaining. As this episode concludes, the camera cranes down behind Myra's desk, and we learn that the teddy bear came from the Toy Mafia... and isn't it suspicious that Sam and Max's last two cases have involved hypnotic mind control? The plot thickens in Sam & Max 103: The Mole, The Mob and The Meatball... which we'll get around to playing sometime soon, I'm sure.