Sam & Max Episode 5: Reality 2.0 came out on GameTap yesterday. I also played it yesterday. This is only the second time since the series started that my schedule has been forgiving enough to permit me to play the game as soon as possible (the first being when it premiered back in November). I must say that the episodes just keep getting better. I seriously thought that nothing could top a 20 foot robotic Abe Lincoln saying, "In the name of Democracy... Bring it!". I was wrong. I could spout on for, well... minutes at least, about the dialog, the characters, the sheer joy in theepisodicness of the game. But I won't. I will, however, say that Jerry Holkins has love for the series, as that in itself may sway you to download a demo.
Instead, what I wanted to write about is inspired by the game's subject matter. Without giving away too many details, the story this time has our intrepid Dog and Rabbit crime fighters headed into cyberspace to confront the personified Internet herself. Yes, the Internet is a woman, so what? In the process they run into just about every game cliche they possibly can.
What really hit me was the ability of the game to produce interesting commentary on Internet culture and games in general. For the uninitiated, Sam and Max have a long and glorious history of subverting their mediums, mocking their own reality, and generally poking fun (and pun) at just about everything. By nature they are a verbose and sarcastic mirror for reality. Which makes them a perfect vehicle to express commentary about games from within the medium.
Which is interesting because Telltale Games are not attempting to create a new form of participatory storytelling. If anything, they are pushing for the renewal and rebirth of a more traditional means of linear narrative. The satire of their own medium contrasted with the effective fun of the game itself submits the argument that sometimes a game doesn't have to reach new heights of interactivity (whatever those may be) to be fun. You know going in that there is little direct agency provided to you (Sam and Max even know this). You have limited locations to explore, limited and pre-defined social interactions, and entirely pre-scripted and sometimes cyclical dialog. The episodes are not fun because you are saving Sam & Max from peril through action. However, slow and deliberate exploration, and the metered story progression, provide a backdrop of achievement around which the real rewards cluster themselves. The design team has populated the world of Sam & Max with so much lush detail, and humorous observation, that it is a pleasure to explore and fun to progress despite the lack of real agency. Your actions, however simple and repetitive, are necessary to dribble out the satisfying humour that the game provides and that is enough.
Traditionally adventure games relied of a reward cycle of puzzle/progression to provide interesting stimulation. Telltale has replaced these often complex challenges with much simpler ones in such a way that the reward they provide doesn't compare to digging around in the dialog trees and passive scenery searching for the next laugh. You are driven to progress because you know it will unlock more areas, more characters, more dialog, and thus more humour. The hard gameplay, solving the puzzles, has been replaced by the light gameplay of passive exploration. You want to explore what the characters have to say because what they say is the reward. Which makes this game a perfect vehicle for subtle and interesting commentary.
And at a game a month, six games in a year, that's a lot of potential commentary. With a game that only takes a few hours to play, and controls that anyone can understand, that's a large potential audience. It's an interesting way to make a game mean something.