Sam & Max: Patterns

By now, I’ve played enough of Sam and Max, Season One to notice some overall patterns. Most obviously, all the episodes share a certain amount of content. There’s always Sam and Max’s office and its neighborhood, including Bosco’s Inconvenience Store and Sybil’s, a storefront that changes in purpose from episode to episode, but always has the same proprietor. Episode 1 takes place almost entirely in this environment, leaving it only at the very end, while the other episodes treat it as a kind of home base that you return to once in a while for help with the puzzles in the episode’s main area. Episode 4 seems at first to break the pattern by starting in a completely new place, but the player returns to the old neighborhood before things are far advanced.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, let me make it clear: re-using content like this is not a bad thing. I’ve written before about how adventure games benefit from establishing a sense of routine, and the same basic idea applies to series. Repetition establishes a theme for specific puzzles to be a variation on, and helps the player to follow the author’s thought processes. Every episode here contains a car chase puzzle of some kind, but no such puzzle is ever repeated. Bosco always has some ridiculously overpriced gadget behind the counter, and the player comes to anticipate discovering how to get the necessary money from the episode’s new content. Even outside of the puzzles, the shared environment is used as a way to illustrate the progress of the plot: the office closet accumulates trophies of every episode, and there are multiple changes to the decor and its descriptions in the aftermath of episode 4.

There are also some less concrete patterns at work. The first few episodes established a very strong pattern of subtasks that come in threes. Most of the time, you have one major obstacle to overcome and three explicitly-enumerated things you need to overcome that obstacle. It’s a strong enough element that when I was told, in episode 3, that there were two tasks Sam needed to perform to infiltrate the Toy Mafia, my first reaction was “Wait, two?” (A third task was added before the conversation was over.) There’s even a threeness in the architecture of the core neighborhood, with its three sub-areas (the office, Bosco’s, and Sybil’s). But this starts breaking down in episode 4: I noticed a three-part task there, but it wasn’t the chapter’s major goal, and the subtasks were far from explicit.

The season has an overarching plot involving hypnotic devices supplied by an unseen mastermind; all the episode villains are either victims of hypnosis or using the devices against others. Each episode links to the next with a little foreshadowing of the next villain at the very end, and links backward with continuity references and a few preserved inventory items. The first three episodes don’t make any large changes to the status quo, and end with Sam and Max in pretty much the position that they started in, but that ends with episode 4. By now, you’re probably noticing a pattern yourself: episode 4 is the point at which the established patterns break, because the escalating wackiness can no longer be constrained.

2 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 22 Jun 2008

    And is, incidentally, the episode where most people seem to feel the series really took off. It’s still one of my favorites. I mean, Max as president. What a horrifying thought.

  2. Merus on 22 Jun 2008

    One of the things I think was really valuable to take from the Sam and Max episodes was that Telltale really experimented with were the different kinds of repetition and how players reacted. The changes in the Neighbourhood areas in Episode 4 and on were brought about by player complaints that the area was being continually recycled, while conversely the Soda Poppers got a larger role because players responded positively to their reappearance in Episode 2. Bosco’s increasingly large demands for his help (although paid off in Episode 6) certainly annoyed me, while I enjoyed seeing the condiments bar being used regularly.

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