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A Wild Sheep Chase

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Groundhog Day: One DeSoto, Two Carefree Owners


“Friends?!! We’ve only been out together three times, and you’re already telling me you just want to be friends?!”

And so began a crazy obsession of mine. One that featured a Bogart-esque dog and a “rabbit-thing” chasing a Bigfoot across the tourist traps of America.

Without endlessly waxing nostalgia, Sam & Max Hit The Road is a perfect coalescence of my youthful interests. Growing up in the Welsh Valleys as an awkwardly dry outsider, I didn’t help my cause by discovering bands like Pavement, having an interest in noir, reading Image comics, drooling over Bettie Page and watching Nickelodeon on a (presumably stolen) satellite dish when everybody else settled for their lot. When you get down to brass tacks, a Welshman enamoured with American culture rather than his own roots is pretty absurd.

Yet it goes a long way in explaining why I adore Steve Purcell’s surrealist road trip and the way it trivialises glamorous infatuations. It’s reminiscent of my family outings to holiday camps and the vacuums of entertainment they became as I grew older. Sure, the targets are painted with broad strokes, but it’s a perfect representation of derivative tourism and invigoration through desperate diversification.

Personally, it’s a viewpoint the US fans of Hit The Road take for granted.

Sam and Max are thoroughly entrenched in US culture. Their world lies with corn dogs, ice lollies, guns, banjos, their beloved DeSoto, Dragnet-style vigilante justice and made up sports like “Fizzball”. Their actual job as Freelance Police is ultimately inconsequential, merely an excuse to exist in ‘exploitation’ surroundings. Only Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and The Adventures of Pete and Pete come to mind as suitable peers.

Hit The Road is a genuinely hilarious videogame and one I still find intelligently layered. To deconstruct the humour would be pretentious, but the reason why it works is the way it entwines puzzles with jokes.

Take the scene at The Mystery Vortex, for example. Max makes a throwaway comment about the area’s telekinesis being powered by huge magnets underground and Sam berates him for such nonsense. Low and behold however, just as you’ve nearly forgotten about the remark, they discover that Max is spot on with his assumptions and in turn, this becomes a new obstacle.

Puzzles in adventure games can kill the momentum instantly, especially in a comedy. Make one too tough and a humorous moment collapses amidst frustration, turning the payoff into a damp squib. It’s this sole reason why I’ve never rated Grim Fandango as a great comedy adventure. Controversial maybe, but many LucasArts adventures were unbalanced in a similar fashion. Sam & Max Hit The Road and Full Throttle have always been harangued for their simplicity, but that seems unfair.

Hit The Road is forthcoming with most solutions, but the whole point is that it’s an interactive comedy first and a brain-teaser second. Steve Purcell, creator of Sam & Max, understands the need for balance:

“You try to be aware of the amount of time you have players sitting and watching as opposed to interacting. Fortunately a lot of the humor came out of the way that the characters would respond to the player’s actions. Even observing something in the room could produce a funny response in which case the interactivity IS doing the work of the story”

Even if the puzzles were difficult first time around, Hit The Road wouldn’t stop you dead with an uncharacteristically cold response like Monkey Island. In fact, it encourages experimentation; opening up new avenues of observational one-liners though mistakes.

My personal favourite being, “This is a completely un-usable thing-a-ma-bob!”

As the 90’s came to a close, I became despondent replaying Hit The Road, knowing that after destroying half of America for the salvation of a Bigfoot tribe, it was truly the end of the Freelance Police’s adventures. Purcell had all but quit drawing them, the cartoon only lasted one season and the Americana I found to be unique in the Valleys became prevalent in everything outside my fishbowl town (hell, maybe it already was). It was weird transition and maybe that’s why Hit The Road has stayed with me for so long; a brilliant reminder of the things that shaped me as a person and as a writer.

The John Muir Song taught me the word “edutainment” after all.

That sadness eventually became a moot point when Telltale Games started making the Sam & Max series. As much as I’m equally obsessed with them, admittedly, they don’t have Hit The Road’s scattershot charm. The closest they came to recapturing the spirit was the amazing Abe Lincoln Must Die!

Hit The Road lacks some of the darker aspects of the comics (which have only just been explored in The Devil’s Playhouse) and is somewhat shallow, but I put it to you that most videogame humour is weak material and centred around forced-upon memes anyway. For that, Hit The Road entirely successful and a rarity in the way it creates comedy on its own terms.

After all, it’s a game featuring a Woody Allen lookalike being terrified by a fibreglass fish, eggplant carvings of celebrities, the horrors of country music, bungee jumping out of George Washington’s nose at Mount Rushmore, Gator Golf, The World’s Largest Ball of Twine, a rock that doesn’t look like its “Frog Rock” namesake and an obscure Talking Heads reference.

Are there any reasons why I wouldn’t want to make that trip again and again?

I can’t think of a reason not to, little buddies.
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About Stephen Turnerone of us since 6:10 AM on 07.15.2009

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