Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Sam & Max Episode 104: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (2007)

Time marches on, and so does my self-imposed five-year spoiler threshold -- so this week, we're playing though Telltale Games' Sam & Max Episode 104 - Abe Lincoln Must Die!.  This was the fourth episode of the series' first season, published in early 2007, continuing the interactive adventures of Steve Purcell's gleefully anarchic comic book canine/rabbit crime-fighting duo.  The Telltale series rendered in point-and-click 3-D has been quite successful, with three seasons published to date, and the writing and puzzle construction is really hitting its stride here; there are also lots of incidental but funny conversation options available, with solid voice acting and characterization.

I always encourage interested readers to play these games for themselves, and this full episode has been made available FREE as a demo (for the season) by Telltale Games here.  So you really have no excuse if you proceed from this point and wander haplessly into the brain-searing miasma of...

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

The Commissioner apparently has a lot of power, as Sam & Max are out to take down the out-of-control President of the United States (after making a prank call using the organic listening device "bug" from Episode 103: The Mole, The Mob and The Meatball, which Max has used to record an exorcism.)

After a drive through the opening credits (on a blue background in this episode), our heroes find themselves outside the White House, where Agent Superball (a recurring character being introduced here) guards the entrance.  Resident rat Jimmy Two-Teeth lounges in an innertube in the reflecting pool, being watched by a periscope apparently attached to a submarine; he doesn't really participate in this episode, but he was a key member of the Season 1 cast and so he puts in a cameo appearance during his vacation.

We can pick up a boxing glove at the side of the pool, and check out the pay phone in an alcove; we can't use it to make outgoing calls, as it only takes Susan B. Anthony dollars, so we'll need to go back to the office if we need to use the phone. 

Our main goal at the moment is to talk our way into the White House past Agent Superball, whose wonderfully deadpan delivery has made him one of my favorite characters.  There are some funny exchanges here, including one in which Superball picks up on what was meant to be a casual aside between Sam and Max concerning the difficulty of tricking him.  Max would love to employ violence as a solution, but Sam's cooler head prevails.  From conversation, we learn that Superball is also responsible for various secondary duties, so we probably need to distract him somehow so we can sneak in. 

We can go back to the office to see what's going on in the old neighborhood.  Our friend Sybil is now running a dating service, continuing her career-jumping ways.  One of the newspaper headlines hanging on the wall seems to reference previous episodes: "Giant Plush Toy Suspected In Conspiracy."  The closet door is locked -- and Sybil doesn't have a key for it, even though that's where she tapes video intros for her dating service.  Sybil herself is having trouble finding a soulmate; she wants someone older, with a history, tall and distinguished.

Sam and Max can submit applications to see if Sybil can find dates for them; she thinks stranger things have happened... somewhere... probably.  Her "computer" (which doesn't seem to actually exist beyond her rummaging around in a desk drawer) matches people's personality matrices at 15 compatibility points.  And there's a great math joke here -- Max says, "I don't have a personality matrix so much as a personality vector."  Of course, Sam and Max's perfect matches turn out to be... Max and Sam, respectively.  And we wouldn't have it any other way.

At the dead-end street near Sybil's building, the collection of posters has been refreshed.  And this time one of them falls down, so we can take it with us for potential puzzle-solving later: a military recruitment poster reading, "Give me all you got!"

The formerly-vacant storefront next to Bosco's Inconvenience Store is now occupied by Hugh Bliss, the rainbow Prismatology guru/magician encountered in Episode 102.  His "Emetics" book is free, with free home delivery, and has been translated into 15,000 languages, including Esperanto.  Sam is appropriately skeptical of Bliss' claims for well-being through color visualization, while Max gives in immediately to Stockholm Syndrome.  We can ask Hugh Bliss to do a magic trick, and he vanishes briefly -- long enough for us to steal his "Free Home Delivery" sign.  We seem to be collecting signs here.

One of the headlines on the newspaper machine outside Bosco's covers a couple of classic Lucasarts references: "Purcell attacked by Two-Headed Monkey."  Bosco himself is now disguised as a Russian, apparently to dissuade a government targeting device he believes is aimed at him.  He is working on his own missile defense system, and planning to raise an army of tens of millions of workers.  Sam: "That's a lot of Bolsheviks."  Bosco: "No! Is all true!"

Bosco has a truth serum for sale -- most likely yet another ordinary item at an outrageous price, in this case one hundred million dollars.  We can also play another round of "Do you have any..." -- including souvenir snowglobes from the Mystery Vortex, a reference to the Lucasarts Sam & Max Hit the Road adventure game.  Some gags in the refreshments area are recycled from previous games, saving a little episodic-development money at the expense of freshness.  The restroom sports a "terror level" sign... lowest level is green, "probable terror" -- but this won't come into play in this episode.

We might as well check in at the office.  The President has left some transparently self-promotional messages on the answering machine, claiming to have saved the country from a plague of robotic hyenas shortly after taking office.  We can call Meesta Pizza or the White House, which should give us a chance to distract Agent Superball if we play our conversation right.

The President appears on television to announce that mandatory psychological exams will ensure that all Americans meet the minimum requirements for joy and goodwill.  Our captive from episode 103, Leonard Steakcharmer, has joined the collection of past-case artifacts in the closet, still tied up and gagged.  Here, too, some gags are recycled from previous episodes.

So it's time to see if we can get Superball to leave his post.  "Have you checked the baby?" doesn't work -- he has -- but we can ask him to hold, and as a man of duty, he does so, indefinitely.  Now we can enter the White House, to find the President putting out another crazed proclamation concerning a pudding embargo.  He appears to be hypnotized, continuing this season's overarching plot, but we can't just hit him over the head as Sam & Max would usually do -- the same Secret Service agent seen at the end of 103, Agent Chuckles, is standing watch.

The office is filled with patriotic/presidential gewgaws and comic details, some tinged with political satire -- there's a sculpture of an eagle with a gun in one hand and cash in the other, for example.  A portrait of George Washington on the wall appears to have Steve Purcell's face.  There's a joke about Roosevelt's boxing gloves -- is that "Roosevelt" T.R. or F.D.R.?  Sam thinks they belonged to E.R.  And this one's my favorite milk-snorting silly elementary-school joke from this episode -- "Hi, I'm George Washington.  Anyone need their nuts cracked?"

The President's character design manages to blend aspects of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton; he thinks our heroes are interpreters, and he's meeting with foreign dignitaries shortly -- a chance to intentionally mistranslate, perhaps -- but said foreigner has not yet arrived.  Special Agent Chuckles can be engaged in conversation -- he's anti-critter, it seems -- and Sam recognizes his voice; he was one of the Toy Mafia bears in episode 103, but he won't admit it.

Chuckles informs us that we can't get into the tempting war room during peacetime.  The President's calendar is similarly attractive, but we can't mess with it while the President is watching.  If we try to enter the War Room, we are tossed out -- and witness Governor Whizzer (see Episode 101) arriving to visit the President.

Agent Superball is still on hold outside, so we can re-enter to find the Prez in need of our interpretation services -- the previous impostors who looked just like us having been thrown out -- even though Whizzer has been speaking perfect English with no accent to speak of.  Whizzer is now the governor of West Dakota, America's 51st state, winning the popular vote on the strength of his erstwhile TV celebrity status as one of the Soda Poppers.  He's trying to kick his own soda habit and is here to lobby the President for more federal support of his Mount Rushmore Soda Abuse Prevention Program (MRSAPP).  Clearly we will want to knock him off the wagon somehow, if only for fun.

Interpreting is straightforward, but we can of course choose to distort Whizzer's words for our own purposes.  There's some really great dialogue here -- most of the options are fun, as we can posit armed revolution, unrequited love, and baseball fever -- but we really want to make him ask for a drink.  The President obliges, opening the Oval Office globe to reveal cold, fizzy orange sodas.  Whizzer can't resist, and of course finds himself in immediate need of a bathroom.  When he asks, we can translate honestly, or ask "Which way is Lincoln's Bedroom?" or "Which way is the War Room?"  Getting him to attempt to access the War Room gets both him and Agent Chuckles out of the way for a bit, as they head off to the interrogation room.

Now we can try to deal with the President.  Using the gun elicits Sam's comment, "I don't like Jodie Foster that much."  But the boxing glove left over from a previous episode in inventory works just fine, knocking the President's head completely off and revealing him as a hypnotic puppet using the airwaves to enslave American minds.  Agent Chuckles returns to discover the President is "dead," and declares an emergency election, activating the robotic statue of Abraham Lincoln, disguised as a sculpture at the Lincoln Memorial, as the presumed victor.  The Commissioner calls -- it seems Max will have to run against Lincoln, and win.

We can gather some campaign slogan cue-cards from the President's office -- "The buck stops here," "1000 points of light," and "I did not have sex with that woman."  But Superball has taken up guarding the War Room and the Presidential Calendar in Chuckles' place, so we can't do anything with those yet.

To win the nation's votes, Max needs to engage Lincoln in televised debate, and fortunately the robot does not match the original's statesmanship; we have an opportunity to influence Lincoln's cue-card responses with the various signs and cards we have collected to date.  Our candidate can spout off some joyfully crazed, Max-like campaign speeches about his coming despotic rule, but doesn't contribute anything of substance beyond some funny moments, e.g. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself.  And the chupacabra!  Madre de Dios! He'll kill us all!" 

We have to knock Lincoln off of his lofty perch somehow.  He just keeps reading whatever is on the cue cards, so with Sam moderating the debate, we can get him to make some questionable platform policy announcements on toxic waste ("Free home delivery!"), religion and schools ("Two wrongs don't make a right!"), and taxes ("Give me all you got!")  His poll standings drop with each controversial answer, though the increase actually appears to go not to Max but to perennial third-party candidate Ralph Nader.

Lincoln is still winning at 40% to Max's 39% after the cue-card takedown, so we have to probe him on family values.  He has been faithful to Mary Todd Lincoln for over 150 years.  Maybe we need to tempt him somehow?  We can put the "I did not have sex with that woman" cue card on the stand, so it looks like we might be on the right track.

Maybe Sybil can help us find a potential date for Lincoln.  Actually, maybe she would be interested.  We can use the bug on Sybil to spy on her innermost thoughts, but all we hear about is other careers she is considering, which probably serves us right.  There don't seem to be any blank applications around to forge, but Lincoln's campaign flyer might work as an application: "I want you!", followed by a list of his qualifications.

This episode doesn't focus as much on Bosco and Sybil as has been the case to this point -- it's more wide-ranging in scope -- but both play significant roles. Sybil loves Lincoln's "application" and asks the boys to give him her number.  But Lincoln stands fast for fidelity.  His prepared statement might be useful, though, if we record it with the bug and play it back for Sybil.  Max teases him, eliciting a few mild threats to boot.

We can now play selectively edited portions of Lincoln's statement to Sybil over the phone, suggesting that she should meet him immediately on the steps of the White House for a date.  She arrives during his family values speech, and the scandal pushes his numbers down slightly, allowing Max to win the Presidency by the narrowest of margins, much to everybody's consternation.  Out of control now, the hypno-ray-eyed robotic Lincoln stomps off to wreak havoc and enslave the populace.

Sam and Max are left back on the White House lawn, and shortly President Max finds all three of the Soda Poppers -- Specs, Peepers and Whizzer -- in the Oval Office, threatening Civil War among the Dakotas they all now govern over custody of Mount Rushmore and its tourism value.  And they don't quite believe Max is actually the President.  They are contentious but cordial to each other; we may have to fix that.

There's a ribbon on Max's desk that we can use to appoint anybody as an honorary Cabinet member, but Peepers doesn't want it.  Neither do the other Soda Poppers; Agent Superball will accept the position, but still won't stop guarding the War Room door.  Using the bug confirms that Whizzer is still sorely tempted by thoughts of soda.

We can change the date on the calendar to Arbor Day, or Earth Day, or Easter, or Secr... Administrative Professionals' Day, or the Beginning of Passover.  This doesn't seem to have any immediate impact, however.

We can take out after the rampaging Lincoln ("LINCOLN SMASH!") in the DeSoto, but bullets, megaphone threats and horn blasts don't distract him at all, so we need a better plan.

Perhaps we can visit Bosco and obtain his "truth serum" to give Whizzer a drink.  We don't have the hundred million dollars... but maybe President Max does?  Bosco recognizes Max as the President, but still wants cash on the barrelhead.  Back at the White House, we can examine the Presidential Discretionary Budget, conveniently capped at one hundred million dollars.  But the only available options are historic sites -- The Alamo, the Statue of Liberty, and Independence Hall.

Agent Superball will take a vacation, if it's a federal holiday.  He won't take Easter or Passover off -- it has to be a secular holiday.  Hmmm.  We can't turn the calendar page away from April -- do we need to create a NEW federal holiday?

Sybil, disappointed by Abe's apparent dishonesty about his marital status, has changed careers again to run a... dating service?  A carbon-dating service, actually, as she can't afford another signage change at the moment.  Hmmmm... can we borrow her nifty carbon-dating gun?  The tiki on her desk turns out to be 2000 years old -- she thinks she can get her office on the registry of historic places.  Maybe those rotisserie weenies at Bosco's are old enough to qualify?  Could be, but Sybil won't let us borrow the equipment until she knows her office is on the registry.

Returning to the White House, we can allocate Max's budget to her building -- and when we return there, she's nowhere in sight, presumably on debt-free vacation.  The carbon-dating gun is still on her desk, and we can borrow it to confirm that Bosco's hot dogs date from the early Cretaceous period.  Re-allocating the budget should be simple now.  Yep -- now we get Bosco's truth serum, which as usual is rather more mundane than the price tag warrants: a bottle of vodka.  Sybil is not back in her office -- we can date a few things lying around, and there's a darkly funny bit about the 8-year-old stuffed fox; Max sees the "bright side" by imagining the fox offed itself and donated its body to taxidermy.

Whizzer doesn't handle his soda very well -- so what will he do under the influence of truth-inducing vodka?  He reveals that Peepers and Specs think each other's ideas are stupid, and all-out war breaks out between the Dakotas!  Which cues this episode's (and season's) best and brightest surprise -- a fully-choreographed musical number celebrating the joys of War, starring a cast of multiple Agent Superballs.  It's completely unexpected, witty, and charmingly animated.

Resolving not to let THAT happen again, Sam and Max enter the War Room... or would, except Superball is still guarding the door.  We can strip him of his ribbon, and return it, which we need to do -- as we have appointed him Secretary of... something among the various humorous choices, say Meats and Cheeses... he is willing to abandon his duty by taking Secretary's Day off.

The Dakota Situation is getting bad, as displayed on the War Room's situation screens, and Lincoln is still on the rampage.  The War Manual simply says, "1. Select Target. 2. Press Fire."  This is simple enough.  We can bomb Krypton (or will, eventually, in 26 million years when our missile arrives), Bosco's (he was right!), or Antarctica; the Kremlin's beacon isn't working at the moment, fortunately.  The missiles are disguised as the Washington Monument; as each one launches, it is replaced with another.  We can confirm that Bosco's Missile Defense System is fully operational, and shoots our incoming missile out of the air.  Somehow, it appears, we need to get a targeting beacon near Lincoln.

From the War Room, we can also take a gander through the periscope in the White House pool, though we don't see anything besides Jimmy Two-Teeth lounging around.  Going back to Sybil's and Bosco's doesn't yield any new ideas. Trying to chase down Lincoln again proves gun and megaphone useless in equal measure.

Hmmm.  If we deallocate the budget from Bosco's store, does it disable his missile defense system?  Nope.  It seems we're running out of puzzles -- there's almost nobody around to talk to, and few situations to address beyond the primary challenge.  And even though I had played this episode before, I got stuck here!  I consulted Telltale's official walkthrough to re-discover that the homing beacon at Bosco's is on his security camera.  I assumed Bosco would know or say something about it, but such is not the case.  With hindsight, I should have realized the camera angle visible on the Beacon Cam was a clue to its whereabouts, and suspected it might be liberated for alternative use.

Now we can follow Lincoln in the Desoto and hopefully find a way to attach the beacon to him.  A simple, accurate toss by Max does the job, and the Beacon Cam shows that it's still attached when we return to the White House (confirming that the view from the War Room is a live camera feed through each of the beacons, which I hadn't quite realized.)

In short order, Max's mighty foot strikes the red button.  The missile is fired... robot Lincoln is destroyed... and Agent Chuckles, riding on the giant ex-President's shoulder, is knocked out. 

And our heroes go off to do something for fun, while Chuckles' apparently robotic or alien superiors report an ominous contact error in his earpiece...

Telltale Games did adventurers' hearts good with the revival of Sam & Max, and this is arguably the best episode from season 1.  But we've still got two more episodes to go before we wrap up this season, and I look forward to the ride.

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