Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Sam & Max 105: Reality 2.0 (2007)

This week we're tackling the fifth episode of Telltale Games' first complete (and longest at six episodes) episodic adventure season, bringing Steve Purcell's Sam & Max characters back to the world of adventure gaming.  Episode 105, Reality 2.0, pays homage to classic video games and RPGs, with much of the Sam & Max universe redesigned in virtual reality terms.

The Sam & Max games are generally well-written and funny -- the characters, a sardonic noir-ish detective dog and his hyperactive rabbit buddy, readily lend themselves to outlandish and absurd situations and puzzles.  They've always seemed perfect for adventure gaming, although the visual tone of these early Telltale games is a bit more cartoonish than Purcell's independent comics.

As always, I encourage interested readers to play Sam & Max 105: Reality 2.0 before proceeding here, as my comments are likely to give away most of the plot and many of the surprises and gags.  But it's been out for five years now, so I'm not going to feel the least bit guilty about the multitudinous...

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

As the story opens, President Max (running the country remotely from the detective office, not the White House) is dispatching giant battle robots to enforce his policy decisions, which apparently have him embroiled in impeachment hearings and war crime trials.  As usual, the commissioner (who, we assume, has no qualms about ordering the Commander in Chief around) calls shortly with this episode's crisis -- computers are going haywire due to an "electron surge."  Sam & Max have absolutely no idea how to handle this, so it's time to jump into action!

The jokes discovered by poking around the office have been updated, welcome after some visible recycling in the first few episodes.  The former President's severed head from Episode 104 has been added to the closet, along with the accumulated artifacts from the season to date.  And, in a hint of references to come, the cheap VCR under the TV has acquired a decidely Nintendo-esque look about it:

Down the street, the perpetually career-hopping Sybil has gone into the beta testing business, and we find her playing some sort of action RPG with virtual goggles on.  Sam assumes this is a hypnotic device -- it does feature those little whirly hypnodiscs we've been seeing all season -- and we need to administer a blow to Sybil's head to free her from the trance.  But we can't just shoot her or hit her with the boxing glove left over in inventory from a previous episode, because she's swinging wildly as she fights off VR monsters in-game, so we'll have to be a little more creative.

There's a Secret-Serv Ice Cream truck parked outside the office -- which Sam correctly declares is "not fooling anyone."  Bosco's Inconvenience is open for business, and as usual the proprietor has adopted a disguise in defense of his paranoid fantasies.  This time he's wearing blue pointy ears, speaking in Renaissance Fair-ese, and calling himself Elboscodril, a mighty half-elf ranger:

He's trying to take his business to the Internet for security reasons, primarily because Jimmy Two-Teeth (the neighborhood rat) has gone into the arms dealing business, setting up his competing shop on a table in Bosco's own store.  Bosco has a virulent biological weapon for sale (we can probably guess what this will turn out to be) at a price of one billion dollars; this is not likely a problem for President Max, but we can only pay online so we will have to figure out a way past Bosco's online security. 

Jimmy Two-Teeth has a cannon for sale, but he's unwilling to sell to the police despite Max's gleeful threats.  The DeSoto is out of commission, too, so all of our initial puzzle-solving is going to have to happen right here downtown.  If we try to take Jimmy's cannon, he fires a ball at Sam's chest, knocking him down.  But while Sam is getting up and Jimmy is reloading, Max can push him headfirst into the cannon barrel, allowing us to take the whole assembly with us.

Firing Jimmy at Sybil knocks the goggles off her head and disrupts her trance, but she's not thrilled to see her rescuers -- she was supposed to be beta-testing a computer game called Reality 2.0, and now the goggles are damaged.  We also learn that the C.O.P.S. have moved in next door - that is, the Computer Obsolence Prevention Society -- at Lefty's old abandoned hardware store.  They're reportedly doing some kind of computer work, immediately arousing Sam's suspicions.

The C.O.P.S. turn out to be a motley assortment of outdated technology -- a coin-op Bluster Blaster arcade cabinet, an answering system/phone, a PING home video game console, and an old luggable PC equipped with a voice synthesizer.  Interrogation confirms the Internet's plan to enslave all of humanity, with the perhaps unwitting help of the C.O.P.S. who are taking the 0x0c (hex 10 for you non-programmer types) steps to recovery (presumably of their former glory).  Bluster Blaster seems to be the most power-mad, frequently quoting Williams' Sinistar arcade game: "I HUNGER!" "I LIVE!"  These machines, appearing here for the first time, will continue to appear in the Sam & Max series.  They even have a motivational techno song called "Useful to Boot," presented in four separate verses if Sam is persistent in asking about it.  The luggable PC appears to be on an IV drip, but it's not cooling its super-fast processor -- the system indignantly acknowledges that it is for output, not input.  At last, the C.O.P.S. dispense a "junior" set of goggles for Max, and a replacement chip for Sybil's broken headset so that both characters are equipped to enter Reality 2.0

Entering this new world, we find it looks a lot like the regular Sam & Max neighborhood, except it's all glowy and TRON-like, with streams of ones and zeroes replacing the ever-rumbling subway cars.  The Internet plays host, manifesting as a floating head apparently re-purposed from Episode 102's TV director character.  Sybil is replaced by a virtual avatar, but a floating pair of lips ties into her audio-blog feature, allowing Sam & Max to explore her short VR gaming history -- she started playing on a Monday and remained in a trance until interrupted by our heroes on Friday.  We can return Sam & Max to reality easily enough, by taking the VR goggles off; they are protected by Sam's shielded hat and Max's imperviousness to outside influences.  Many of the game's puzzles depend on switching back and forth between reality and Reality 2.0.

Sybil's closet is locked in both realities -- the key is lost in the real world, and the door, apparently concealing a treasure, can't be opened in Reality 2.0 either.  Outside Sybil's, the world is quite different, with videogame landscape elements and AI characters based on people we've already met for "familiarity" (and budget) reasons.  TV host Myra appears here as Auntie Biotic, a disease/virus- filtering email cop.  She's wearing +1 armor that we might want to get hold of, or we may need to overcome.  A jack-in-the-box produces a "pop-up ad" (get it?) for Ted E. Bear's Mafia-Free Playland and Casino, seen in Episode 103.

We can visit the C.O.P.S. in their Reality 2.0 control room, and apply our Computer Bug (in reality, the listening "bug" from earlier episodes) to each of them to alter the virtual reality in various ways.  Bluster Blaster's failure causes virtual gravity to weaken; slowing down the phone shrinks Sam and Max to tiny size; and shutting the luggable down flattens Sam and Max out (something I didn't know this engine could handle, it appears to render them as 3-D and then inserts them into the scene as 2-D sprites).  PING just goes crazy with a cute little musical tune, not an immediately useful effect.

Outside we find some floating coins -- gravity reduction will probably be useful here -- and Jimmy has another coin he conceals in his rat hole, which glows, suggesting there's another in Sybil's locked closet.  It looks like we will be rounding up coins as part of completing this story.

A wizard hat-sporting analog of Hugh Bliss occupies the storefront next to Bosco's; he's an Internet Wizard who claims to be able to predict our future, but sees only nothingness and blackness.  But he provides a Rainbow Customization Kit, i.e., a can of paint for the DeSoto.  There's a one-click "save point" floating outside Bosco's E Convenience store, which conveniently invokes the engine's actual auto-save function.

Bosco's Reality 2.0 store is more clearly an RPG shoppe, selling such items as a wooden long sword and a Cloak of Visibility.  There's also a direct reference to the Sam & Max comics, with a sign promoting adult beverages: "DRINK Cheap, Evil-Smelling Beer Every Day of Your Life" (there are also Potions of Staggering Drunkenness for sale behind the counter.)  Bosco's wooden long sword can be purchased for 5 gold coins; presumably we can raise the cash, then use it to kill the sludgie slime monster lurking in the concessions area.

So we're off to round up the necessary gold, disabling various C.O.P.S. components to assist.  With gravity reduced, and a mighty "It's-a me, Sam!", three are quickly collected.  Shrinking down (and temporarily going back to reality to make it up the stairs to the office) allows our boys to collect the coin from Jimmy Two-Teeth's rat hole, with a little requisite pummeling.  Slimming down to 2-D gets us under Sybil's door to find the fifth.

Buying the wooden long sword allows Sam to do quick Legend of Zelda "sword get!" take.  Taking on the nearby opportunity for battle pits Sam (dexterity 3) against the blue sludgie slime (dexterity 2), and we can choose to ATTACK WITH ITEM, ATTACK WITH QUIP, or FLEE!  The sludgie blob isn't up to matching Sam's repartee, but it flees and no XP or items are gained.  Attacking with the long sword takes it out easily, and Sam collects the leftover blue slime slime, after jumping up and down a la Final Fantasy victory celebrations.

What else is there to kill?  Fighting Auntie Biotic seems an obvious thing to try, but she always gets the initiative, and her dexterity way overpowers Sam's defensive skills and quips.  We can knock Bosco back into real reality with the sword, so that he's replaced with an AI simulacrum in Reality 2.0.  In the real world, we can talk to him about his account at Banco-Lavadero.com, which we could access to buy the bio-weapon... had he not had the password wiped from his memory and tattooed on his body for safekeeping.  Sigh.  We can get Bosco to look behind himself with various ludicrous suggestions, but can't easily see the tattoo.

We might as well explore some more -- in Reality 2.0, we can now travel to Banco Lavadero, but can't get in -- as other cars drive in and enter, we can see that the license plate and the paint job have to match, front to back.  The virtual DeSoto's plate reads BRP, so we go with a blue-red-purple color customization, and now we're in.

We still don't have Bosco's password, but can we route money in anyway by toying with the bank's complicated money laundering flow?  No, we do need his password; in reality, we can "borrow" Bosco's own binoculars from the counter, read the back of his neck, and see that his password is... BOSCO.  It seems we may also need to unlock the account of a "MR. BIV," possibly a reference to Hugh Bliss via the traditional rainbow mnemonic (ROYGBIV) but we don't have that password either.

Sybil doesn't want her VR goggles back -- now she's testing contact lenses that get darker in sunlight, though her job is to stay out of the sun to verify that they don't darken, so her participation in this episode may be wrapped up.  We can click on PING in the control center to turn off pop-up ads, allowing us access to the Ted E. Bear jack-in-the-box outside.  Its only purpose seems to be to generate the ads, but taking it with us may be useful...

And yes, the pop-up ads prove very useful for warding off Auntie Biotic's withering attacks!  But Sam's sword is unable to do her any damage in return; the best we can do is fight to a turn-based draw.  Returning to Banco Lavadero and playing around with the "Cook the Books" buttons (I mistakenly thought this was just for password entry) to alter the cash flow, I managed to get the flowchart configured to send $1000 million, i.e. one billion dollars, into Bosco's account.  The ensuing transaction yields a tissue-bonded sample of Bosco's cold germs, as we more or less expected.

The mucus (a deadly Computer Disease as seen in its Reality 2.0 analog) doesn't do anything to Auntie Biotic directly.  But we can see a +2 sword stuck into the billboard above Sybil's shop.  We can readily jump up there using low gravity, but it's well-embedded and can't readily be pulled out until we apply a little blue slime for lubrication.  One hit with Sam's new, more powerful sword, and the troublesome email guardian is dispatched.

Sam & Max jump at the chance to send the Computer Disease into the email system, and all 7734 breaks loose.  In its death throes, the Internet no longer wants everyone to be happy in its simulated reality; it has completely lost its respect for living things.  In a fit of pique, it turns off the graphics, and we find ourselves in vintage text adventure mode, picking up the story where it has left off.


We can try to GET RESPECT FOR LIVING THINGS, but it falls into a chasm and is eaten by a Shambling Corporate Presence.  There's a rather sweet homage here to the power of the text adventure to render events that are expensive to pull off in animated form -- chasms rip open in the ground, Bosco's shop tips and empties, a foil card and tons of cute kittens shoot out of Sybil's roiling walls.  There are also some really nice gags for text adventure veterans and modern multimedia gamers alike in this sequence.  For example, we can try to GO BONKERS, but You do not see any "bonkers" here -- prompting Max to ask, "Where's the bonkers, Sam? Where?", and Sam to respond, "Closer than you know, little buddy."

We can GET BOSCO'S and feed it to the Shambling Corporate Presence, but consuming the whole building doesn't come close to satiating its hunger.  But we can easily take another one, as a replacement appears each time we take the shop, with some name variations that sound suspiciously like proposed but unused names from early in this series' development, e.g. Bosco's Cheapo-Mart, Bosco's Buy-n-Sprint.  We can dip Bosco's into the lake of nauseating cuteness flooding Sybil's place, making it a NAUSEATING BOSCO'S.  Feeding this to the SCP causes it to vomit up the Respect for Living Things. Then all we have to do is USE RESPECT FOR LIVING THINGS WITH INTERNET, and all is well!

Well... maybe not all is completely well.  The Internet has gone down for the count, but it reveals it was tricked into trying to take over the world by one Roy G. Biv.  The plot thickens!  But at least now Sam and Max can have lunch, as the credits roll to an uninterrupted cut of "Useful to Boot."

I liked this episode's novel reuse of familiar environments -- the episodic business model depends on later use of assets created earlier in the process, and this one does a nice job of disguising the corner-cutting and even taking advantage of it.  We still have one episode left to play in this season, and I'm sure I'll be getting back to it soon.

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