Sam & Max: Perils of adaptation

For all that the characters of Sam and Max are emblems of the later point-and-click adventure, they’re not a terribly natural fit to the genre. If Steve Purcell (the creator of Sam and Max) hadn’t been doing art for Lucasarts at the right time, I doubt that anyone would have seriously considered them as potential adventure heroes. The original comics are driven by randomness and non-sequiturs. True, adventure games can and do get away with this sort of thing in the situations they present to the player. But the actions of the player character have to make some kind of sense if the game is to be solvable by any means other than exhaustive guesswork, whereas Sam and Max in the comics were just as unpredictable as their surroundings, and seldom did anything that could be expected to help their situation. Coming up with situations that let Sam and Max act like Sam and Max but still provide motivations for the player must have been a challenge. Some of the puzzles in the 1993 game were criticized for being too arbitrary, which is to say, for being too close to the spirit of the comics and not adapting to the new medium enough.

Season One has fared better so far. To the extent that it keeps the protagonists zany, it does so in ways that don’t require player involvement. For example, at the beginning of the first episode, Max has filled a closet with cheese, for no reason other than “you can never have too much cheese”. This is something that happened before the game starts, so it’s part of the premise, something that the player reacts to. But it’s also something that a player character did, and revealed in response to a player action (opening the closet), so the effect is similar to a player-initiated non-sequitur.

The dialogue is another big risk for an adventure adaptations. A lot of the humor of Sam and Max comes from the off-kilter tone of the dialogue, and the contrast between the the plush-toy appearance of the title characters and the casual and cheerful way they discuss horrors and mayhem. Examining an electric fan, Sam comments “Max almost lost a finger in a fan like that once,” and Max replies “Yeah, but it wasn’t my own finger.” This would cross a line if it were depicted visually. We know that Max is a furry little psychopath, and Sam isn’t much better — for all that they’re “freelance police”, they recognize no law beyond their own whims, and there are puzzles that hinge on this. But mainly we know it from their words, not their actions.

The reason this is a risk is that it’s all too easy for reliance on dialogue to hurt gameplay. Far too many adventure games and RPGs devolve into click-on-everything-in-the-conversation-menu for large chunks of the experience. Breaking a large text dump into a bunch of menu options doesn’t make it less of a large text dump, and that’s not what people play adventures for. Fortunately, the folks at Telltale seem to be fairly sensitive to this, and keep the menus fairly trim and mostly optional, as well as using them for an unusually large number of actual dialogue-based puzzles, rather than just infodumps. In fact, most of the trademark Sam and Max dialogue doesn’t come from the conversation menus at all, but from responses to examining things, as in the electric fan example above. This is a point where having a sidekick unexpectedly helps: Max is an independent observer who can argue with Sam’s descriptions and comment on his actions even if you never talk to him explicitly.

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