Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Sam & Max Episode 101: Culture Shock (2006)

When Telltale Games decided to revive the adventure genre on a commercial basis, fans of the Lucasarts point-and-click era were thrilled to hear that new Sam & Max adventures were on the way.  The first episodic series (of three to date) started coming out five years ago, and Telltale has always published its own official walkthroughs, so I'm comfortable starting to cover these still-commercially-available games with my usual spoiler-heavy approach.

The first season (now known collectively as Sam & Max Save The World), and especially this first game, seems a little bit formative, compared to the sophisticated cinematography and now-established voices of Sam and Max.  Sam is voiced by the same actor (David Nowlin) who handles him today, but the grittiness isn't quite there, the film noir rhythms still taking shape.  And Max was recast after this initial episode -- Andrew Chaikin's voice fits him fine, but is audibly different from his current sound.  (Some fans prefer the voice cast from Lucasarts' Sam & Max Hit the Road, but as the Telltale series has matured, I can't imagine anyone else playing these roles.)

The writing in episode 101 isn't as sharp as it would become later, either -- there are lots of objects to click on, with appropriate commentary, but many of the incidental jokes fall slightly flat.  Telltale's team would learn to focus and edit the experience more effectively later on, and by the third season would adopt an art style more in tune with Steve Purcell's cult-classic comics.  But the best lines sound like classic Purcell, and the bright cartoon style works given the state of the Telltale Tool at the time.  I played the first series originally on the Nintendo Wii, and was expecting to see a little bit of graphical improvement on the PC -- but while the framerate is visibly better on my aging laptop, some of the textures are still visibly low-res.

As always, I encourage interested readers to buy and tackle Culture Shock independently before proceeding here.  It's not a difficult game, it should only take a handful of hours to play, and it's a lot of fun -- I won't be giving away all of the jokes as I focus on the plot and puzzles here, but it's still more entertaining to discover these things for oneself.  But my goal here is to document the development of the adventure genre, so beyond this point, be advised that there will be significant...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The player plays as Sam (the dog) most of the time, who provides a measure of stability in comparison to the unpredictable, id-driven rabbit Max, although Max does occasionally step into action in this game.  (Later games tend to keep Max independent for the sake of structure and freedom of writing.)

The first puzzle is introductory in nature, giving players a chance to familiarize themselves with the interface, as we discover that resident office rat Jimmy Two-Teeth is holding Sam and Max's phone for ransom, preventing any calls from the commissioner that might set the story in motion.  He demands swiss cheese -- fortunately, our Freelance Police have a closet full of some other sort of cheese, and plenty of ammo.  With the post-gunplay "swiss cheese" delivered, Jimmy ups his demands, and Max takes matters into his own slippery little hands.

With the phone back in working order, Sam learns from the commissioner that something is amiss down at Bosco's convenience store.  This is our first encounter with Bosco, the paranoid conspiracy theorist who runs the place and plays a significant role in the first two seasons.  He's concerned about a "terrorist" who's been stocking his store with unwanted, unauthorized Eye-Bo videos by a pop guru named Brady Culture.  The "terrorist" is a former child actor who played the character known as "Whizzer" on a 1970s TV show, known as such for his speed of movement as well as his bladder control difficulties.  There's some nice animation here as Whizzer zips in and out, with very cartoonish motion blur.

We can see Stinky's diner across the street, which will outlast Bosco's store as the series progresses, but we can't actually walk over there this time around.  Another of the Soda Poppers, "Specs", is outside spray-painting graffiti of Brady Culture and his hypnotic stare on a vacant building's window shutters.  He's rather obsessive about his work, and can be easily distracted and made to mess up, but we'll have to figure out what to do with him later as well.

West of Sam & Max's (well, to the left onscreen anyway) is the establishment of Sybil, who in keeping with her namesake changes jobs every episode these first few seasons.  She's currently operating as a licensed psychotherapist, after a recent stint as a tattoo artist.  But the third Soda Popper, "Peepers," has locked her in the closet and is claiming to be her, using her position of supposed authority to promote Brady Culture's Eye-Bo videos.  A trend seems to be emerging here.

After Sybil is rescued from the closet, which isn't really a puzzle, she suggests that maybe Peepers has been hypnotized.  And that knocking him unconscious might bring him out of it.  But we can't just drop a bowling ball on his head, as much as Sam and Max would like to; at least, we can't do this onsite.

Back at the office, Sam and Max almost watch the Eye-Bo video before getting distracted and leaving -- but they leave the tape running, and Jimmy Two-Teeth gets hypnotized, so now we know something about Brady Culture's nefarious plot.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Sam & Max game if we couldn't cruise around in the open-top DeSoto, firing our guns at random and pulling over random motorists.  We have to rear-end someone to slow them down enough so we can intercept them, then shoot out a taillight, pull 'em over and demand a $10,000 fine be paid.  The first person we do this to, fortunately, decides to just pay up, which will come in handy later on.

Back at the convenience store, Sam can engage Bosco in a funny, extended series of "Do you have any..." conversations, with in-joke references to other point-and-click adventure games, such as "Do you have any vegetables in the shape of famous naturalists?" alluding to Sam & Max Hit the Road.  With the $10,000 confiscated earlier, we can buy Bosco's Tear Gas Grenade Launcher, which (also establishing a trend for the series) turns out to be a salad shooter filled with onions.  But it'll work -- at least, it's sufficient to blind the wide-eyed Peepers long enough to hit him with the boxing glove from Sam & Max's office. He wakes up and remembers going to Brady Culture's Home for Former Child Stars, but he can't remember where it's located.

As a reward for her rescue, Sybil agrees to psychoanalyze Sam.  We can select various psychological tests for our canine hero to take, but there's no immediate reason to do so, so we will come back to this later.

We can knock Whizzer out by putting some of Bosco's cheese in his video crate, so that when he tries to leave the store to restock he gets knocked out by Bosco's B-TADS automated anti-shoplifting defense system.  We learn from the semi-coherent Whizzer that Culture's operation is at  number 227... on some as-yet-unknown street.

Now we have to work on Specs.  If we can deface the Brady Culture painting right below Sam and Max's office window, we can probably drop a bowling ball on his head while he's fixing it.  How can we do that?

Visiting Sybil again, we can do some free association and explore an odd dream Sam has, set in the office.  This is a funny sequence, with Sam's choices causing the dream world to take shape around him.  There's quite a bit of humor here, but is there a reason to do it?  (I'll note here a bit of economy-minded reuse on Telltale's part -- an undefined character in Sam's dream appears to be a black silhouette version of one of the midway brothers from Bone: The Great Cow Race!)

We can watch the TV in the office to see four segments of a show called "Oh, Is He Still Alive?" that provides background on the Soda Poppers and Brady Culture.  Most importantly, we learn that Culture's Clubhouse used to air in the same time slot taken over by the Soda Poppers, so Brady is working with his old rivals.

Exploring again, we encounter the only bit of obscure pixel-hunting in Sam & Max 101 -- we have to notice a can of spray paint sitting on the fender of a car parked behind the DeSoto.  I was trying to distract Specs so I could steal his spray paint, or shoot the Brady Culture graffiti conveniently placed below our office window to damage it, but this item is what we actually need.

With the painting defaced and the repair-focused Specs knocked out with the bowling ball, a brief chase sequence through the streets ensues, where Sam and Max shoot wildly at the Eye-Bo van until it's out of commission, conveniently ending up right at Brady Culture's Home for Former Child Stars, an abandoned movie theatre.  (Incidentally, a movie poster on the wall outside features Harry Moleman, who we haven't met yet but will become a significant character later in the series.)

To gain admittance to Culture's domain, we must suffer from "Artificial Personality Disorder," which according to the admittance forms outside includes: Obsession with Fame, Violent Reactions to Dentistry, and an unconscious desire to marry one's mother.  Now we have some goals to pursue with Sybil!  This is a really well-written conversation puzzle -- we can work our way through it and have fun when we DON'T know what the goal is, and suddenly the pattern reveals itself once we do.  We need to satisfy the three symptoms using ink blots (seeing images associated with fame), free association (shooting at Sybil when she mentions "drill"), and dream analysis (seeing Sybil, representing Mom, in the room with a wedding cake), as Sybil notes them on Sam's admittance form.  (These puzzles are slightly randomized from game to game, so your experience may vary from mine here.)

Now we can enter Brady Culture's domain.  He appears playing a theatre organ, ranting about his evil scheme, and hypnotizes Sam into becoming his new video delivery man.  In the role of Max now, we clearly need to snap him out of it, but his weapons are gone and he's on auto-pilot, delivering videotapes indefinitely.  Snagging a piece of cheese from Bosco's sale table triggers the B-TADS system, knocking Sam unconscious for a bit and sending us into a dream version of his office, where Brady Culture (the "intruder in your dreams") holds sway and has taken over Max's body.

Back in control of the dream Sam, we must turn off the light switch to turn off the Brady head haunting the ceiling fan, pull the coat hanger off the TV to interrupt the broadcast Brady, and pump up a rat to eat the Swiss Cheese Brady lurking in the closet.  The last bit is trickier -- Max's head is floating near the ceiling, while his body with Brady's head is on the floor.  Sam can turn the upward-pointing One Way sign on the wall to temporarily invert gravity, but it doesn't last.  Sam must stand directly below Max, and SHOOT the sign to spin it so that he can catch him.  In a rather disturbing vignette, Max's head eats Brady's head, and Sam wakes up as his old self in Bosco's Inconvenience Store... to find that Max has been kidnapped!

We need some kind of anti-hypnosis device, but Bosco doesn't have anything for us.  Sybil has a blueprint for such a device, featuring a colander fairly prominently, but Sam has no clue about how to assemble it.  Fortunately, Bosco does, and just needs something for an antenna.  The coat hanger comes in handy yet again, and Bosco delivers without charging a cent, as he's paranoid about Brady Culture too.

The climax takes place at the "Home" For Former Child Stars.  Sam's spiffy new helmet defeats Culture's hypnotic rays, but when the Soda Poppers arrive to challenge him, he hypnotizes them again and they attack Sam.  Fortunately, Sam can duck out of the cartoon fracas and interrupt them with the punching glove.  He can order them to attack or become various people and items... getting them to Become Brady Culture introduces the topic of worship to the available options.

Now we can direct the Soda Poppers to worship Sam, causing Brady to react with a "No! Worship me! Me me me!"  And then we can pull a classic Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck maneuver, by directing the Soda Poppers to attack the videotapes, causing Brady Culture to say, "No! Attack me!" and ending the chapter.

As our heroes wrap up this adventure, a TV set gives us a glimpse of Culture's continuing evil, as a talk show audience seems to sit in rapt -- perhaps hypnotic -- attention.

The end credits roll with the Soda Poppers' TV theme song playing, and the credits end with dedication in memory of Karyn Nelson, 1965-2006.

I have always loved Sam and Max, going back to my first encounter with Steve Purcell's work in comic book form in the late 1980s, and I am very happy these characters have been successful in the adventure game genre.  This first Telltale game is on the easy side, but it's still very, very entertaining, and I look forward to replaying the others as they age into retro-relevance here.

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