One thing I have noticed since I was young is that every new season of television shows creates a new trend or two. In the last 15 years it seems we have seen everything, from a flood of cartoons, themed sitcoms, non-themed sitcoms (thanks, Seinfeld), sci-fi shows, crime dramas, and more. There are two common patterns; either a network hits gold and cranks out dozens of similar shows to cash in (see how The Learning Channel nearly destroyed itself thanks to Trading Spaces), or two networks create almost identical pieces of shit in hopes that theirs will stick.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, we have seen both of these trends as the games industry has tried to tackle episodic gaming. On one hand, we had Telltale Games working on episodes for Bone and Sam and Max, while Valve and Ritual made their own serialized installments of Half Life and Sin via Steam and the Source engine. Two competitors (if we lump Valve and Ritual), multiple products from each. In the end, two of them would die out before they had a chance to fly, while Valve realized that they were making entries in a miniseries rather than simple episodes, and so they decided to quit once it was done.
Only Telltale’s Sam and Max would stay the course, completing its entire six episode season and leaving the fans clamoring for more. While it may not prove to the world that episodic gaming works, it was popular enough to warrant another season, and unlike what frequently happens in television, this one looks to be even better.
The first season was a solid batch of adventure games, hampered only sometimes by a lack of clues and an uncertainty about when “episodic” warranted repetition of certain themes and puzzle setups. You could tell as the season went on that the project was evolving, and by Episode 6 we saw some serious progress in both areas. Season 2 manages to add even more streamlining. The game begins with a quick (and hilarious) setup guide to get the game running smoothly, and from here you can try a tutorial to get used to things. You can also choose just how many clues the game gives you. I had it at the lowest setting which offers no clues whatsoever, but if the last season was an indication, moving the setting up likely determines how many hints you can squeeze out of Max. It is a smart setup that allows everyone to get through the game without forcing anything upon us.
The controls are improved as well. You can now lead Sam around by dragging the mouse, and a double click will get him to move faster. This eliminates any control issues, as it is now possible to navigate with greater speed and precision. Neither of these are new ideas to adventure gaming, but they are more than welcome.
Aside from these fixes, Season 2 remains true to its predecessor. Sort of. Aside from obviously looking the same, it is still the usual blend of dialogue and puzzle solving. This time however, Telltale has played around with the overall pacing as well as the humor. For one, Ice Station Santa starts the season off like a an actual show might, with a snappy intro and puzzle that segues into a new and improved title sequence. This is followed immediately by the game’s new area, the North Pole. Interestingly, both the intro and the North Pole restrict your movement; you can’t leave either until you’ve solved certain puzzles. This works out incredibly well.
In Season 1, most of the episodes fell into a pattern of walking around the block catching up with the regular characters (who each used different spins on the same shenanigans), solving a trio of major puzzles, and beating the final boss. It could get a bit overwhelming, as you actually had a lot of ground to cover in such a small area if you wanted to see all the jokes, and you had to visit everything to make sure you didn’t skip over a clue or an item.
By starting off in isolated locations, Ice Station Santa allows the player to focus on just a few characters and puzzles at a time, knowing full well that not everything they see has a use yet. When it finally does open up and give you free reign over each area, it still feels much more compact and easy to navigate than before, and we go into something of a second act. This is when you will do most of the interaction with old and new characters, including dialogue and a few light puzzles. When this is over, the final act wraps it all up with the old trio of puzzles and the boss battle.
I have no clue if Telltale was trying to make a three act game, but I’m at least willing to guess that the structure of Ice Station Santa is intentional. From start to finish it has much snappier, TV like pacing that feels more focused. When you don’t have access to every puzzle in the game, it becomes much easier to pinpoint something to investigate, as well as find a solution.
Humor is, without a doubt, the biggest selling point for Sam and Max, and Season 1 delivered some of the funniest writing we’ve seen since the heyday of Lucasarts. Still, there was still room for improvement. There were times when the jokes felt forced, as if they were goofy or edgy simply because that is what Sam and Max do. It also walked a fine line between clever use of pop culture (like Futurama) and blatant and pointless name dropping (like Family Guy).
It looks as if Telltale read a ton of Sam and Max comics in the off season, as the humor is now more grown up. Despite the friendly exterior, Ice Station Santa has no shame in mentioning drug use, alcohol abuse, and sexual innuendo. Its political stabs are a bit more biting, including one ballsy joke about the current allegations of torture use by the American government. The pop culture references are more modern, but there are a few that won’t make much sense to anyone under 30 (unless you’re like me and study old pop culture). The humor is clearly more adult than before, and is much more like what we would expect to hear out of Sam and Max.
I can’t really say enough good things about Ice Station Santa. It seems to have fixed every problem that fans had with the last seasons games, with the possible exception of difficulty (which has to remain balanced rather than insanely difficult). Plus, it is even longer than past episodes were. Despite the hiccups that Season 1 faced, it was still great fun, and the comedy was better than just about anything currently on the market (yes, even Psychonauts). Yet with just one episode out, Season 2 looks to eclipse it in every way. The puzzles are still fair and easy to digest, and the humor isn’t just the best we have right now, but so good that it puts the entire industry to shame. For most gamers, the industry darling of 2007 will be Portal. Since I only rented that game, my vote goes to Sam and Max. The cake wasn’t a lie, and neither are these guys.