By now, you should be quite accustomed to seeing clumps of random and completely senseless phrases appearing on Joystiq. However, the one pictured above might be unfamiliar to you, especially if you haven't been following our coverage of Telltale's episodic Sam & Max series. In my review of Episode 3: The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball, I mentioned my highly sophisticated Sam & Max laugh log. You're looking at the one I kept for the latest episode, Abe Lincoln Must Die!
In order to gauge and compare each episode's humor in an unquestionably scientific way, I wrote down a shortened version of every line of dialogue in the game that made me guffaw unmistakably. Worth noting is that this process is entirely separate from jokes that made me giggle, snicker, smirk, snort, smile and titter. As you can see for yourself, my chosen scrap of paper (identical in size to the one I used previously) eventually became a riotous mess of words infringing on personal space and using broken bottles to threaten each other.
The writing in Abe Lincoln Must Die! is by far the sharpest in the series, which automatically makes it the best episode released thus far. My silly scrap of paper is testament to that and it helped me realize that every time I wrote down a hilarious phrase, I was actually writing down one more reason to play the game.
"You're not supposed to listen to casual asides!"
Though we're not nearly in the same pressure cooker the developer finds itself in, the monthly release of episodes can make things difficult for the barely literate fellow writing the reviews. In trying to avoid repeating myself month after month ("Gee, these games are great!"), I've been giving a lot of thought to why it is that, despite some obvious problems, Sam & Max keeps leaving me with a strong urge to completely exhaust my stockpile of positive adjectives. I'm already down to second-stringers like "cool" and "inconceivable," and I'm not even sure if the latter means what I think it does.
The one thing I'm very sure of, however, is that Sam & Max is an adventure game. Yes, it says so right here on the Telltale Games website. As with any genre, certain qualities are favored above others; in this case, it's the story, dialogue and characters that need to excel for the game to be considered a welcome addition to the adventure family. Sure, there are important things like puzzles, exploration and interface, but when you reminisce about your favorite adventure games, those rarely pop up as identifying factors. If I was going to list my reasons for loving Grim Fandango, I wouldn't start with any of those. When you get the important things right (or very right), you can get away with almost everything else.
"What can you feed a submarine anyway?"
That isn't to say that Episode 4 or the rest of the series gets away with anything, like it's some bank robber leaping into a getaway vehicle. The problems are right there: you spend a lot of time in the same locations, talking to the same characters who, very often, represent the same running jokes. Why am I not bored yet? The best explanation to my mind is that, much like having a flashlight pointed at your eyes, the issues are simply to difficult to make out over the glare of the clever writing and abundant charm.
With every episode, I actually look forward to barging into Bosco's Inconvenience Store and seeing what ludicrous and horribly inept disguise he's wearing this month. I can't wait to ask him for items that he couldn't possibly have. I look forward to seeing the ill-advised, yet surprisingly convenient career Sybil has adopted this time around. If you were to tie Sam & Max's episodic nature more closely to that of television (besides just being in episodic format), you'd realize that it's a lot like a sitcom. A recurring cast of great characters is placed into a "wacky" situation every month and, as they say, hilarity ensues. The two key differences are that this sitcom is interactive and, you know, actually funny.
"Metaphor is such an ugly quality in furniture."
The topic of interactivity is linked to another common complaint about the series. It's been pretty easy, for the most part. The thing is, the puzzles in Sam & Max aren't strictly, well, puzzles. They're jokes. And you get to make them! The games are so entrenched in absurdity that there's really no aspect of them that isn't amusing or endearing in some way. This episode in particular sees Max at his most animated and expressive, somehow managing to be disturbing and lovable at the same time.
Fans of Steve Purcell's comics will undoubtedly be pleased, as will those that might just know Sam & Max from their gaming exploits. In many ways, this is a polygonal Purcell page brought to life with animation, impromptu musical numbers and perfectly suited voice acting. While this has been true of all prior episodes, it's especially obvious and even overpowering in this one. The satire-laden plot of Abe Lincoln Must Die! is the grandest in scope and the most lacking in sanity the series has yet seen, not to mention the longest at roughly three and a half hours.
And that brings us back to my disheveled smidge of paper. Every time I wrote something down, I was demonstrating why the Sam & Max games are worth playing and worth paying $8.95 for. For Sam & Max, success is very much a laughing matter and a matter of laughter.
Who doesn't enjoy laughing? (Point them out so we can put them out of their misery!)
Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die! is available now on the Gametap subscription service. On March 8th, it will become available for download on Telltale Games' official website. $8.95 will net you a single episode, with $34.95 giving you the entire season (six episodes in total).
Overall score: 8 / 10
- Joystiq review: Sam & Max - Culture Shock (PC)
- Joystiq review: Sam & Max - Situation: Comedy (PC)
- Joystiq review: Sam & Max - The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball