By Alec Meer on August 20th, 2008 at 4:59 pm.
During a bout of iPhone willy-waving down the pub recently, someone observed that there are two things that always get released for any piece of hardware that’s hacked to run homebrew code, and everyone duly installs them. Then doesn’t do anything with them except show them off to people in the pub. The first is Quake. It used to be Doom, but in the 3D age the big Q seems to have become the de facto way of demonstrating that a given piece of hardware has something decent under the hood. Touchscreen controls mean iPhone Quake isn’t hugely playable, but it does look amazing.
The second, and the source of my point, is SCUMMvm, the esteemed emulator for the old LucasArts adventure games. I suspect everyone who installs SCUMMvm, whether it’s for their PC, their PDA, their PSP or whatever, has a favourite game they install alongside it. For many it’s Day of the Tentacle, and God knows there’s a legion of Monkey Island die-hards, but for me it’s always Sam & Max Hit The Road. Except I never play it. I only watch the intro.
With the exception of the WoW login screen, I’m fairly sure this is the videogame scene I’ve watched more times than any other. How many times? I suspect I’m approaching triple figures. Complete playthroughs of the game itself number perhaps five or six (partial ones are probably around a dozen or so). I’m a total geek for this introduction, fully able to quote it in its entirely. The trouble is I no longer know if it’s funny. I’ve succumbed to Pavlovian call and response – if someone mentions a line from the intro, I laugh. But it’s entirely based on recognition, not necessarily humour. So, my quest for today is to re-establish whether or not this is funny:
(I’m just talking about the first couple of minutes, until the theme tune kicks in.)
Is it? In a quietly obsessive-compulsive mood, I’ve watched it ten times this morning, trying to fight through the nostalgia and appreciate it for what it is. It’s a bit like asking a cat why they enjoy rending flesh. They just plum don’t know any different.
Of course, I’m making it not funny simply by over-analysing it. Still, the conclusion I’ve come to is that yes, it is funny. Not as funny as my brain’s been telling me it is for the last fifteen years, but definitely funny. But not really because of its jokes. “You’ll fry like a pork sausage” is not an especially funny thing to say in and of itself, but it is when said in a funny voice that raises into an inexplicable falsetto on ‘pork.’ I think I shall make a point of doing that whenever mentioning specific meat types. The same’s true throughout – there aren’t many jokes in there (and the stilted animation harms a few that are), but the vocal performances lift every line into comedic splendour.
It seems like truly memortable voice acting in games is a rare thing these days, and we’re stuck with Gruff Hero Guy, Sassy Hero Girl and Sibilant Villain. I’ve been playing Space Siege lately, and I swear to God I recognised the lead character’s Gruff Hero Guy tones. He sounded the same as the lead character in Mass Effect, who sounded like the lead character in Crysis, who sounded like the lead character in… I’m quite sure they are different actors, but man I’m bored of that voice. Whatever happened to distinctive voice-acting? It seems to have been another casualty of the ongoing obsession with hyper-buff/hyper-sexy game character stereotypes, but surely it doesn’t have to be restricted to comedy games. TF2 is the obvious exception, a game whose voices contribute enormously to its appeal and character, and not solely for comic effect. Valve are pretty good at it generally in fact – the Half-Life series musters a good half-dozen memorable voices. More excellent voice-acting, please, the games industry.
The comedy here also hinges on the fact that the mad scientist is the only guy in the scene who appears to give a monkey’s about what’s going on. He’s trying really hard to be a supervillain, bless ‘im, but everyone else is entirely unflustered – including the damsel in distress. That’s why Sam’s desert-dry “Hello” is so funny. No outlandish neologisms or word-mashes, just a world-weary sigh in the face of absolute insanity. I think that’s what I love about Hit The Road the most. Come for Max’s psychotic non-sequiturs, stay for Sam’s resigned shrug even in the face of Armageddon.
Ah, catharsis. Fun-robbing, over-analytic catharsis, but catharsis nonetheless.