Max: Why don't I get an inventory?
Sam: Where would you keep it?
Max: That's none of your damn business, Sam.
- Sam & Max Hit The Road
Once upon a time, the graphical adventure game was king of the genres. Set the wayback machine for 1993 and you'll arrive at a time before first-person shooters, hooker-beating simulators, and massively-multiplayer time sinks dominated the shelves. CD-ROM drives were just becoming mainstream, bringing lush soundtracks and spoken dialog to gaming. This was the year Myst was released, a multimedia experience that changed what we expected from a new title. It was the year the market started to shift away from adventure games toward shooters and strategy titles. It was also the year LucasArts released one of their greatest point-and-click adventure games: Sam & Max Hit The Road. With its left-field humor and beautifully drawn artwork, Hit The Road became an instant classic, just in time to see the king of genres dethroned.
Anyone who thinks the adventure genre died back then, however, is dead wrong. Telltale Games is introducing the psychotic freelance police to a new generation of gamers in Sam & Max: Episode 1: Culture Shock. And it's every bit as good as the original.
The characters of Sam and Max have been around since 1980, when Steve Purcell, an illustrator and animator, created the characters from his brother's childhood doodles. Purcell took a 6-foot dog in a suit and a rabbit-like homicidal maniac, made them private detectives, and dropped them in a surreal landscape. In 1987, he published the first full-length comic featuring the duo while working at LucasArts on animations and backgrounds for their legendary Scumm-based games. The characters became immensely popular among LucasArts employees, prompting the company to develop a game based around the duo. Sam & Max Hit The Road introduced gamers to the darkly comic world that Sam and Max inhabit, becoming a milestone for adventure games.
The newest game in the series comes from Telltale Games, an indie developer created by former LucasArts employees. Rather than releasing a 40-hour point-and-click fest, Telltale is following the digital distribution trend, presenting the game in episodes featuring shorter, self-contained stories. Much like watching Lost or Battlestar Galactica, playing Episode 1 makes me long for the next episode. Sam & Max feels like the first issue of a comic book series brought to life.
The first episode is titled Culture Shock, and it begins with the Freelance Police in their office, waiting for a case to present itself. Soon enough, you're exploring the neighborhood, meeting ransoming rats, conspiracy-theorist convenience-store clerks, and former child stars resorting to lives of crime. The game's interface is remarkably simple. Using the same engine as Telltale's Bone series (another comic book adaptation), players interact with the world through a simple cursor and inventory system. Culture Shock doesn't waste time reinventing the interface wheel, making the game easy for beginners to pick up while invoking warm and fuzzy memories to adventure veterans. The visuals are rendered in 3D, bringing the (sur)reality of Sam and Max's world to life with bright colors and beautiful polygons. Culture Shock takes the demented beauty of the first game and makes it pop off the screen. The audio in Culture Shock is equally superb, with catchy music and hilarious voice work. The dialog is so well done that I found myself reloading sections of the game just to hear Max's manic one-liners and Sam's over-the-top exclamations. Everything you touch in the game brings a laugh; you'd be hard-pressed to find a funnier game.
The old office...
... And the new office.
Playing through Culture Shock takes about five hours if you explore every dialog tree and click on every item. That may not sound like a lot of content, but it's five hours of consistently entertaining content, with more on the way. In December, Telltale will release Episode 2, then put out a new episode every month until April. Finishing Culture Shock leaves you starving for more, and unlike other groundbreaking episodic titles -- I'm looking at you, Half-Life 2 -- you won't have to wait over a year for the next installment. This is how episodic content should work. If Culture Shock is an indication of the quality we can expect, we're in for a treat.
Sam & Max: Episode 1: Culture Shock is a return to form for the adventure genre, a blend of classic LucasArts gameplay and modern technology. The game is available today for subscribers of GameTap, a service that already deserves your attention thanks to their upcoming release of Uru Live, the next Myst game. Telltale will also be offering the game on its own website starting November 1st, with more episodes to come.
I can't wait.
Sam: Take that, you lawbreaking dairy products!
Max: Sam, no! The Cheese was innocent!
Sam: Innocent? I think not.
- Sam & Max Episode 1: Culture Shock