We've talked a lot about episodic gaming here on the site, considering both the good and the bad. The concerns of users, and the words of gaming commentators, focus on the limitations of the format. "Don't break up a game just to charge us more for it" is the prevalent thinking. The 'march of progress' has allowed game companies to come up with plenty of new ways to get our money, so it's an understandable fear. Until last month, though, I had never considered the possibility that the very essence of the episodic game may allow us to reflect on the past as well as the future. In the latest and most dramatic of retro-gaming coups, Sam and Max have returned to the modern PC landscape. They're colourful, they're wry, and their antics are very, very funny. Read on for my impressions of this first episode in the new Sam and Max series, and why I have high hopes for their future wacky antics.
- Title: Sam and Max: Culture Shock
- Publisher/Developer: TellTale Games
- System: PC
Aside from the return of a beloved pair of gaming icons, what's exciting about Culture Shock is Telltale's novel approach to the game's structure. Instead of a single game spanning twenty to thirty hours, Sam and Max is being viewed as a 'game series', like the episodes of a cartoon.Culture Shock is the first in the series. The second episode is slated for the end of December, with each game after that just four weeks apart. The current run of the show is set to conclude with the sixth episode in April. In between the game episodes, reruns of the Adventures of Sam and Max: Freelance Police cartoon series will be available for download.
The quality of the Half-Life series (and bundles add-ons like Portal and Team Fortress) is keeping interest high for that series. Here, though, the effort Telltale is making here to keep series fans 'fed' with content seems like a winning strategy. Fickle gamers that might otherwise wander away from the story will have additional materials to keep them occupied in between game-play sessions.
Likewise, they're making the barrier to entry in the games themselves very low. Culture Shock makes no effort to frontload the game with ponderous backstory. The cynical pair starts the adventure in their familiar office. A simple problem faces them: a rat has stolen their phone. This humble beginning allows new players to familiarize themselves with the game's delightfully retro gameplay. It's via these first simple manipulations of the cartoonish world that we begin to establish the character of the titular duo. Sam and Max are introduced to players unfamiliar with their proclivities via a number of well-written and witty observations. Instead of beating us over the head with Max's homicidal tendencies or Sam's unique vocal tic, the pair's oddball reactions do a wonderful job of fleshing out the bounds of the story. Aside from the mechanical need to introduce the characters, these observations are highly chuckle-worthy.
Which, gratifyingly, is not to say the puzzles are easy. Some of the puzzles late in the sixish hours of play require some truly twisted leaps to unravel. You'll find yourself sitting back in your chair with your hand on your chin, wondering what exactly you're missing in an apparently simple situation. Equally gratifying is that even the toughest of puzzles won't require a FAQ to work out; given enough thought even the toughest brain teaser in the game can be unraveled. As long as you keep in mind that you're in a cartoon, you're going to have lots of success in Sam's world.
Once outside of the office, you're thrust into the heart of the game's short tale. Former TV star Brady Culture has apparently gone mad, and has brainwashed former child stars "The Soda Poppers" into doing his ineffectively evil bidding. They're passing out "Eye Workout" videos that will further spread Culture's sinister influence. You'll spend your time in-game assisting Sam and Max in freeing their neighborhood of the horrific child-star menace. As you may have already guessed here, the title's plot is very much tongue-in-cheek. A few moments of slapstick comedy are interspersed with wittily written puns, sight gags, and wordplay. The actual humor in the game is quite well done, and my only real complaint is the occasionally cheesy pop-culture reference. If the game had dragged out for twenty-some hours, even I probably would have quickly tired of the 80's-era plot setup.
That right there, though, is the beauty of episodic content. Folks new to adventure gaming, or who have been turned off to it in the past, will only be playing for about five hours. A game concept that could turn into a chore over the long haul is condensed into a bite-sized chunk. This is the way that comedy gaming should be done, and my hope is that Culture Shock is the start of a renaissance in this part of the gaming market.
I have high hopes, then, for the success of the Sam and Max episodic series. The first outing here is strong, and with further refinement I can only hope future episodes will be even more polished. Adventure game fans will dive into this title with little prompting. In all likelihood they've already finished it by now. If you don't like adventure games, though, or have never played them and have held off from trying out Culture Shock, I suggest you give it a go. At eight bucks, you're looking at about $2/hour for some really funny stuff. Therein lies another beautiful angle of episodic content: if you don't like it, you can call it quits with little regret. I think you won't.