Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse

The general conception of adventure games, much like JRPGs, is that they’re enjoyed primarily for their narrative value. Yet unlike JRPGs, I get the feeling that people are more ready to defend adventure games on ludic grounds. “They’re not just about the story”, they’ll tell you. “They’re also about working out the internal logic the world runs on, and then using that understanding to conquer whatever challenges the story throws your way.” Conveniently, this explanation slots well into the historical narratives the gaming community has created around the genre. It explains why the genre died during the late 90s (because games like Gabriel Knight 3 relied on arbitrary logic that made for unfair challenges), and why it rose from its own ashes about a decade later (either because games like Machinarium reined in the genre’s excesses or because games like The Walking Dead obviated the need for puzzles at all).

Still, this reasoning relies on a set of assumptions about adventure games that I don’t think would hold up that well in practice. By grounding the genre in pure logic, we assume it operates like a set of dominos, even though a lot of games are too free form and open to exploration to fit that model. This is where Sam & Max: The Devil’s Toybox comes into play. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary adventure game: here are some puzzles, here are some pieces, get to work putting it all together. But the more you play it, the more you realize just how much the game questions adventure game form. While its experiments never outright contradict or negate that generic framework, it still does a lot to complicate it, getting us to ask questions like, “How does this genre function?” and “What’s my role in all this?” For a certain amount of time, at least.

31230_2016-02-02_00008That’s why the game initially presents itself like a standard adventure game. In their quest to stop the evil machinations of villains like General Skun-ka’pe and Mr. Papierwaite, Sam & Max approach the world much like any other adventure game protagonist would. They collect various objects; they gather clues from people; and they use it all to solve whatever puzzles stand between them and the rest of the story. The only real difference between this and the Monkey Islands of the world is the addition of Max’s psychic powers (teleportation, mind reading, shape shifting, etc.), which, barring certain narrative developments, Max can use across multiple scenarios. This is only a surface change, though; one that supplements the game’s logic instead of meaningfully disturbing it. Most of his powers preserve the cause/effect logic of “use this object in this context to get this result”, meaning they effectively function much like regular items would.

Most, that is, except for Future Vision. When Max first receives this power, it’s easy to think the writers are using his Future Vision to provide a narrative justification for the game’s hint system. But after making your way through a few of the game’s puzzles, you learn that it’s actually both a vital tool for solving puzzles and the site where Sam & Max dismantles the very process of solving puzzles in the first place. Usually when we talk about puzzles in video games (adventure games especially), we discuss them as a linear chain of cause and effect: you see a problem, you piece together bits of information you’ve gathered, and one revelatory moment later, you’ve solved the puzzled and you can move onto the next. In fact, researchers at UC Santa Cruz have identified this process as “the eurekon design pattern”, describing it as vital to understanding adventure games. With Future Vision at play, though, this cause/effect understanding no longer applies as neatly as we want it to. Predictions can be defied, and characters can act on information they received from future predictions. Sometimes, the act of gathering information is all you need to complete a puzzle.

Yet no matter how wrong this set-up feels, it looks right from every perspective available to you. As a player, things make sense because we perceive the game along our own linear timeline, so there’s nothing to interrupt. And as Sam and Max, things make sense because self-fulfilling prophecies and ontological paradoxes are just a couple more tools at their disposal. Despite this, something about the situation as a whole refuses to make sense. What’s causing that tension? As far as I can tell, it has something to do with how the game encourages us (by which I mean the player and the characters they control) to view these challenges. Rather than promote the linear thinking that many other adventure games are known for, Sam & Max instead promotes a non-linear thinking process that complicates our previous understanding, moving some parts around and throwing others out just to see what happens.

31240_2016-02-02_00014It almost feels like the game is playing with you, or at least with its own structure. It wants to see just how far it can stretch and complicate its own inner workings while still leaving the foundation intact. That would explain any temporal chicanery that exists outside Max’s one power. For example, the entirety of the second episode asks you to reconstruct a timeline in such a way that it’s legible to yourself, even though the final result is utterly incomprehensible if you were to follow the events in a linear fashion. And just in case you think the game’s experiments are limited to Max and his psychic powers, episode 3 begins with Sam effectively jumping between three repeating time loops and trying to interrelate them in such a way that he can advance his own loop forward.

In fact, the more I play this game and the more I see how much it unravels its own inner workings, the more I feel that it was designed by the capricious devil Max rather than the restrained voice of reason otherwise known as Sam. And by that, I mean the game perpetuates conflict as long as it can get a good joke out of said conflict. This much is evident within the narrative conceit, which sees both future and past duking it out in the present, and the eponymous heroes exploiting said dispute to their own advantage. Yet it’s also reflected in the form of the narrative: although the episodic format leaves the story feeling sporadic and lacking any significant structure to hold everything together, it’s notably spared the deconstructive intentions that Sam & Max has for its own gameplay.

This was most likely done for the sake of the game’s humor, but I can’t help but appreciate the clever meta-joke resulting from that decision. Here’s this adventure game, a game we assume operates on the careful unity of gameplay and narrative, throwing all such expectations into question by wreaking all sorts of havoc on the former while leaving the latter alone. You’d think this would create some kind tension, but in light of how well the game proceeds in spite of that supposed tension, we’re left with nothing to point to. The joke’s ultimately on us, the player who’s expected to make sense of this mess.

Unfortunately, Sam & Max can’t keep the charade going for as long as it should. The game plays a lot more like a traditional adventure game the further you get into it: Max’s powers become somewhat less important; puzzles become more straightforward in their execution; and it feels as though the game is accepting a logic it previously rebelled against. Easy though it may be to blame this on the episodic format exhausting the writers’ creative energies, I’m not sure how well that holds up in practice. After all, the time-related elements continue all the way through the third episode, and even later episodes play around with the psychology of Sam and Max, something that was only hinted at earlier on. In fact, it’s very difficult finding a single definite cause for why this happens, so maybe it’s best to describe it as something that just happens to the game. This isn’t to say that Sam & Max experiences a notable drop in quality; it understands the adventure game formula too well to let that happen. Yet it’s hard to deny that the game loses the rebellious character that makes its earlier moments as impactful as they are.

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