Releasing an episode of a game every single month can't be the easiest thing for a game developer to pull off. In Telltale's case, it has evidently been learning on the job in an area of the market that's so hilariously untested that even the consumers that like the genre can't agree whether it's What They Want.
Who'd be a game developer? Over the past three months or so, Telltale must have been on the end of so much conflicting feedback, that it's a wonder its head stopped spinning in order to get anything out of the door at all. You've got some people howling that the episodes are too short, others bemoaning that the voice talent 'isn't quite right', or that the puzzles are 'too easy'. Others, worryingly, insist that the script just isn't funny enough, or certainly not up to scratch with what was expected. Some people just react badly to 'remakes' by default. C'est la vie.
And then you've got those, like our very own John Walker who take the not unreasonable view that the adventure game genre as a whole has been frozen in amber since about 1993, and feel distraught that the episodic Sam & Max does nothing to address the crushing lack of innovation, and - worse still - was a “vapid attempt" to resurrect the beloved brand. Ouch.
Same great taste
The first part of his argument is, indeed, a fair point. But what if absolutely no innovation was what you wanted? What if all that was required to extract the $8.95 out of your bank account was for someone to finally get around to producing a faithful continuation of their adventures? To my mind, innovation isn't a pre-requisite to gleaning entertainment, from whatever source, and I was, personally, extremely grateful that Telltale didn't attempt to fix something that wasn't broken with misguided 'innovation'. I didn't - and don't - require a new recipe. I just need reams of witty one-liners, decent characters, a faithful art style, logical puzzles and an unobtrusive interface - and for the most part Telltale has done a grand job. For about the price of a tube ticket across London once a month, Sam & Max fans have been granted something they've been demanding for over a decade. If anything, the format and delivery is the innovative bit. That'll do for starters.
But as much as I'll defend the majority of what's appeared in the Sam & Max episodes to date, I know as well as anyone that they could be better. I think we all acknowledge that a combination of factors make it hard to please the audience these games are aimed at. Budget certainly comes into it, but it's maybe the episodic structure - as exciting as it is - that places the biggest limitations on how Telltale can structure Sam & Max's adventures. Episode 4 - again - has ample examples of these restrictions.
Every time an episode emerges, our crime fighting Rabbit and Dog duo start with a clean slate. No puzzles are left 'hanging over', as was always the case when you progressed through the old long-form LucasArts classics. You could pretty much guarantee, say, that a seemingly useless object that you picked up early on would eventually come into play at some point in the adventure - either directly or by combining it imaginatively (or obscurely) with something else. It's just one of those arcane adventure gaming 'rules' that was unspoken , but not one that Telltale can employ effectively here. That means, as a consequence, all the puzzles you come across tend to be much more obvious in an episodic framework. Not only does it quickly become clear that pretty much every object you can pick up is of direct importance, the extremely limited number of locations that each episode revolves around makes it a fairly simple case of joining some clearly defined dots.
This way to happiness
On the other hand, this more self-contained framework - without question - reduces the frustration factor of endless wandering to almost zero, meaning that episodic adventuring becomes much more about enjoying the dialogue, and simply clicking and smiling your way through to the end. What I will happily concede, though, is being able to easily carve through each episode makes for a far less satisfying gameplay experience, because there's a notable lack of achievement. To a certain extent you're playing an interactive graphic novel with mildly diverting puzzles. A deeper analysis would suggest that the intrinsic desire to play through an adventure game gets lost by reducing the puzzles to little more than mining dialogue trees and using the right object when the context presents itself.
As for Episode 4 specifically, little has progressed despite Telltale's having responded to the feedback to date. Hopes rise initially when the game kicks off - for the first time - outside of the office in a previously unseen location. Joy! But no sooner have you wandered around, you're right back in familiar territory again, and straight back in the same old routine. Gah! So, yes, you're left with no choice but to revisit Bosco's Inconvenience and groan at his latest terrible impersonation, pay your office a visit and, of course, see what job Sybil's doing this month. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't wearing thin at this stage, especially as none of the recurring characters are especially amusing. Sam & Max are typically up to scratch, but more than once I found myself wishing they'd just do something unexpected instead of recycling old lines with a subtle variation.
As you might expect, it's hard to give specific examples that won't provide massive spoilers in the process, but when you do get to the new parts of the game, it's somewhat disappointing to see Telltale bring back characters that weren't hugely impressive in the first place. Now that we're effectively eight hours into the game, I'd expect to have met more new characters, and had far less recycling of the ones that fell pretty flat first or second time around.
To be general, I can forgive the lack of innovation; the base mechanics for the game are absolutely fine. They're solid and flexible to do what's required but what isn't working so well is the quality of the peripheral cast members, and - by extension - the need to continually revisit the same base locations that we're all extremely familiar with now. As part of an extensive, connected game setting you can forgive the need to backtrack, but it's now definitely detracting from the overall enjoyment of the 'new' episodes - especially when those encounters adhere to a now familiar format.
I'm still a great fan of the episodic format, and broadly speaking you can't moan too loudly about a regular, self-contained, entertaining format at $8.95 a pop. That said, Telltale is by no means exempt from criticism just because it's daring to do what so many developers won't.
For a start, Telltale is taking a big risk by constantly recycling locations, characters and even the formula between episodes - because too much of the same thing quickly becomes boring. The Sam & Max episodes are still excellent fun when you're enjoying the 'new' parts of each episode; specifically some stand-out set pieces and dialogue. Sadly, I do feel my willingness to stand up for Telltale beginning to slip away thanks to the amount of padding we're having to digest with each passing month. Abe Lincoln Must Die is by no means a 'bad' episode, but it feels like the series is stuck in something of a rut already. I just hope it's not too late for the talented people at the studio to get it firmly back on track for the last two episodes and end this bold episodic experiment in style.