Digits & Dragons
Adventuring Gets Furry: Sam and Max
Ah, Spring. So close I can almost smell it. That wonderful time of year when the sun comes out,
snow goes away and quality games return to the market. The beginning of the calendar year is
always a rough time for new games and 2007 is no exception. Thankfully, we won't have to wait
long before some of the most anticipated games of the year are out. In the meantime, however,
all is not lost. One gaming series that isn't tied to huge all-or-nothing release dates is Sam and
Max, an adventure series by Telltale Games. If adventure games are your thing, this might be
just what you need to keep you warm till spring.
Under the Fur
Sam and Max looks like a cartoony kids game, what with the talking dog and rabbit, but like
most adventure games seems to do well with all ages. I think more than any other genre,
adventure games manage to hold appeal for both young and senior (i.e. over 20) gamers. Older
gamers are attracted to the clever stories and dialogue and the brain-teasing stories. Youth alike
can enjoy solving the mysteries, as most problems don't rely on facts or knowledge but on
looking at problems from different angles. In addition, both can be sold on the simpler controls
that don't demand lightning reflexes and let the player move at his own pace.
Before these modern, episodic releases, Sam and Max was originally a comic book series. The
series follows this furry duo as they do their freelance crime fighting work through various exotic
locations and get into all kinds of trouble. In 1993, LucasArts released "Sam and Max Hit The Road" and in 2002 came close to releasing a sequel which was canceled, to the dismay of many fans.
Our two furry protagonists
Sam and Max adorers were not left in woe for too many years as the creator, Steve Purcell, had
not given up on the duo. Getting together with a couple other LucasArts developers, Purcell
founded Telltale Games, with the games in Sam and Max: Season One being their latest and
most popular release.
The Case Begins
The first Sam and Max episode, entitled "Culture Shock," came out late last year. After hearing
glowing comments about it and seeing the low price tag, I decided to give it a shot. The games
are currently distributed only through the Telltale Games website or through Gametap, their
distribution network. Once you purchase the game and make the download the installation is fast
Rather than waste time with an opening menu or a complicated setup, the first time you play the
game you'll be thrown right into the office of Sam and Max, where your first mystery is to find
their missing telephone. Sam is the main character, a well-dressed talking dog who is never
without his pistol or his stylin hat. Max, on the other hand, is the sidekick/comic relief. Always
lookin' for trouble and ready with a funny or weird remark, Max keeps things from getting
Moving Sam and Max from place to place is pretty straightforward; the only real form of input is
the mouse and you simply click on different parts of the world or items in your inventory to
move the adventure forward.
Using the mouse to explore the office I found a rat hole where a stubborn rodent had made off
with the phone and demanded Swiss cheese as a ransom. Looking further through the office I
found some cheese in a closet, but sadly it was not of the Swiss variety. After hitting a few more
dead ends I came back to this not-so-holey cheese and realized that I could make it holey fast
enough with a few shots of my revolver. Sure enough, the rat didn't know the difference and I
was soon reunited with the office phone.
Unfortunately, this minigame isn't half as fun as it looks
All this happened none too soon, as I immediately received a call from the police chief informing
me of trouble downtown. Well, the rest of my time in "Culture Shock" was spent in dealing with
solving this trouble caused by three former child stars and their hypnotic power-starved master.
This quest only involved a couple of locations but for the most part stayed fast paced through
clever dialogue and slightly tricky puzzles.
A Piece of the Puzzle
Telltale Games has chosen to follow the episodic pricing model that I talked about in an article
last October and it seems to be working well for them. Each episode costs $8.95 (or is available
through a ~$10/month subscription) and seems to be worth the price. Although there are only
about three hours of play time and next to zero replayability, it is still certainly worth what you
would pay to go to a movie.
If Telltale's plan works, the low price point and small gaming portions will keep people coming
back for more. The biggest problem with this model that I see is that if they make a flop of an
episode they could potentially lose many of their previously faithful subscribing customers. With
most crappy games, once you buy them you lose and the developer runs off with your money.
With this model, it is almost like an agreement. They keep making games and you show you like
them by continuing to buy them. If one party doesn't live up to their end, the whole deal is
Side characters like Bosco the "inconvenience store" owner are a constant throughout the series
So far, the plan seems to be working. At the time of writing, there are three episodes of Sam and
Max and a fourth one slated for release shortly. What's even more amazing is that the releases
have been on time, a virtually unheard-of feat in the gaming world. Although some have
complained that the quality of later episodes is lessening, the number of fans is increasing and I
hope that Telltale can balance their production demands and the demands of fans for fresh and
The Adventuring Genre
Sam and Max has a lot of elements in common with other adventure games. Like most of these
games, witty dialogue and interesting stories make up for the absence of fast action and intense
emotions. A good adventure game is one part interactive movie, one part Where's Waldo and
one part detective work, but when it all comes together right, it works.
Although the death of adventure games is constantly claimed to be imminent, they don't seem to
be going anywhere fast. Personally, I can only handle adventure games once in a while, which
makes finding the good ones all the more important. With Sam and Max's quirky humor and
reliable releases, it looks like Telltale will be dominating the genre for a while.
It helps too that the Sam and Max games are developed in America, for an American audience.
A lot of the adventure games that hit the U.S. shelves are actually made in Europe, and
sometimes the humor or storyline doesn't exactly translate. Sam and Max is about as American
as it gets and is better for it.
The nice part is, even though Sam and Max isn't exactly my cup of tea, the episodes are short and
I don't really feel burnt out after getting through one. It's kind of nice to find a game that ends
just when you are ready for it to end. Though it may not be an epic success, this was one winter
title that did not leave me feeling blue.