Wot I Think: Time Gentlemen, Please

By Alec Meer on July 14th, 2009 at 2:31 pm.

admire my drop-shadow

This indie Britisher adventure game has been available for a couple of weeks now, for a piddling £2.99/$5. You may have heard of its precessor, the free Ben There, Dan That. But how does it compare to professional point’n'clickery of both yesterday and today? My judgement awaits…

There hasn’t been a better time to release a point’n'click adventure for years. There also hasn’t been a worse time for years. With half of PC gaming currently thrilling to the two-pronged return of Monkey Island and the sudden appearance on Steam of some of Lucasarts’ early 90s classics, the famously unfashionable genre is the talk of town again. On the other hand, a newcomer just isn’t going to naturally fall into that rose-tint colour spectrum, and so may struggle to stand out. And that’s horribly perverse, because super-cheap indie delight Time, Gentlemen, Please has much, much more in common with the golden age of adventure games as we remember it than anything officially related to it. It’s more like Sam & Max than Telltale’s Sam & Max is. It’s more like The Secret of Monkey Island than The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is. As we remember it.

Bear with me here. Values, comedy and comedy values have changed significantly over the last two decades. What was subversive in 1990 simply isn’t in 2009. Whether you prescribe contemporary comedy’s (in which I include the likes of Family Guy, the Judd Apatow stable and the laughs-through-awkwardness trending of Gervais, Peep Show, Sacha Baron Cohen, The Inbetweeners et al. Not all of these are strong, but they do have a certain brand of irreverence and taboo-breaking in common) willingness to say and show anything to a laudable desire to push boundaries or to the fall of society, one thing’s for sure – “I am rubber, you are glue” is pretty damned gentle by comparison.

The Lucasarts games weren’t defined by family friendliness at the time – they were without doubt subversive. From Sam & Max casually blowing up a bus full of civilians to Day of the Tentacle’s cheerful mockery of America’s founding fathers, and even to Guybrush Threepwood’s desire to be a big scary pirate and regular eschewing of the fourth wall, these were games that pushed outside of that family-friendly comfort zone. That was why my generation of PC gamers loved them so, not because we were creepy weirdos who still liked kids’ cartoons well into our late teens.

If you can unhook yourself from nostalgia and look at them with something like fresh eyes, they’re no longer quite as successful in that regard. Yeah, they’re hugely charming and they raise a few smiles, but they are not cutting-edge humour by 2009 standards. Which is fine – they’re old games, afterall. My real concern is that the Telltale Sam & Max and Monkey Island sequels – very much the vanguard of adventure-gaming in the modern age – haven’t progressed beyond those 15-year-old sensibilities of zaniness and irreverence. They step so slavishly in the perceived footprints of their Lucasartsian forefathers, and by doing so play things dangerously safe. I’ve attempted to explain my dissatisfaction with them as comedy offerings in the past, but a combination of rank ineptitude on my part and, crucially, not having a “no – do it like this” example to reach for meant I singularly failed to do so.

No – do it like this. Do it like Zombie Cow Studios are doing with Time Gentlemen, Please. They’re built upon the classic rules of adventure gaming, but they know their audience: grown-ups with a changed, even evolved sense of humour. Subversive humour, like it or lump it, now involves being that much more outrageous. In Time Gentlemen, Please’s book, that involves the likes of encouraging transvestite rodent necrophilia, keeping Hitler’s someone’s severed arm in your inventory and making references to automated wanking machines. It’s a hugely funny game in its subversion, and it makes me laugh in a way I laughed at Monkey Island et al in the 1990s.

It’s often pretty childish for sure, but crucially it’s not only childish – it’s also grown-up and clever and contemporary in a way the Telltale games and, yes, the Monkey Island 1 re-release, are not. Not anymore. Being 3D ain’t enough – even if Time, Gentlemen, Please couldn’t exactly be said to be pushing its genre forward, it is at least dressing it in modern clothes. Honestly, I’d be over the bally moon if Zombie Cow’s big-boy rivals do learn a few lessons from this.

For all its sustained and cheerful offensiveness, it’s also enormously celebratory about the genre. We’ve seen that fourth wall come down time and again in adventure games, but too often the references to being a game and knowing it are oddly matter of fact, just a referencing nudge and wink without purpose, and sometimes even strangely chiding you for believing the game’s world is real. TGP’s heroes, Ben and Dan, are openly overjoyed to be in an adventure game – delighted by the puzzle-potential of a newly-swiped item, and considering their inventories a physical record of joy and adventure. Often, the two will turn to each other after a clever/awful pun or ridiculous puzzle solution and both let loose a massive, shit-eating grin: they’re in a videogame, and they love it.

The graphics are super lo-fi, but hugely characterful and consistently visually inventive none-the-less. There’s a bunch of ways to interact with things, and new gags attached to almost every item or action attempt, and this is only ever gratifying, not overwhelming. It’s living proof that technology really wasn’t to blame for the late-90s fall of the adventure genre.

On the other hand, the irregular references to the Lucasarts games that inspired the real-life Ben & Dan do become tiresome, and disappointing. Be your own game and be proud of it, chaps. Don’t be so defined by tributes to the past.

On the other, other hand, this is the Sam & Max follow-up I’ve been waiting for. It might star two British blokes rather than a talking dog and rabbit, but it’s the classic comedy pairing of the competent one and the stupid one, both equally psychotic in their own ways, and it doesn’t express this simply by catchphrases and references to off-camera violence. Dan and Ben are clearly, clearly friends, share the same goals (I’m going to avoid going into the plot, as it’s a little over-complicated and, frankly, better told by the game than by me) and both bring something useful to the team. They’re self-interested to a glorious tee, and the game never, ever makes the mistake of thinking the supporting cast should be anything more than brief comedy props. I do apologise that there have so many back-handed digs at Telltale’s style in what’s ostensibly a discussion somebody else’s game, but honestly: it stems from joyous relief that, finally, someone’s done it right.

It’s a long way off perfect, of course, and bar the sharp humour probably isn’t going to lure long-term adventure-celibates back to the genre. Many of its flaws can be brushed off because it’s made by two guys, it’s absurdly cheap, and it’s made in the Adventure Game Studio app, but they’re still worth being aware of. On a technical level, it’s pretty annoying – there’s a sense of sluggishness, only plays in a low-resolution window (i.e. no fullscreen) (oops – in fact there’s a standalone settings app not mentioned by the game itself) and, in my experience, is a little prone to crashing. The banshee wail when, upon a crash, I realised I last saved some two hours previously, is probably still echoing around the rooftops of Camden Town. Presuming – hoping – Zombie Cow make good money from this, I pray they spend some of it on moving on from AGS and its limitations. And on an autosave function.

Outside of the technology, the inventory does get pretty bloated after a while, turning the puzzles from pleasingly organic absurdist logic to a bit too much trial and error. Fortunately, the game catches itself doing this on occasion and wryly gives the player a break. “Man, I love spanners!” exclaims yet another Nazi dinosaur (yes) guard blocking your egress. You can probably work out that particular solution right now. “Hey, here’s a spanner.” “Oh God, I love spanners.” “We know.”

But if you’re bred solely on episodic adventure gaming, you’re going to find this a long and complicated affair. Satisfyingly so – it’s not designed to be whipped through in a couple of hours – but, as a full-length game, the puzzles are a subtly different discipline to what you might be accustomed to. It’s pretty sweary too, and sometimes unnecessarily so. I’ve got no fucking problem with swearing, but occasionally it’s done in lieu of a gag, and that’s jarring amidst the razor wit that otherwise abounds. Oh, also: I’m not entirely convinced by claims you can jump straight into it without having played free predecessor Ben There, Dan That. I haven’t, and I felt a little confused for a while. That might well be simply because I’m being stupid, but of course the first game is free, so there’s no reason not to play it.

These are, of course, mere niggles, stated merely to keep my flowery praise earth-bound. Simply – Time, Gentlemen, Please is the best point and click adventure game in years. It’s also a triumphant testament to what can be achieved when a couple of earnestly passionate guys simply get on with making one, rather than worrying about licensing, mainstream appeal or hell, even production values.

You can buy TGP from here, and should totally try the free demo.

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59 Comments »

  1. thezombiecow says:

    Thanks Alec!

    You can run Setup (installed with the game) to toggle full-screen and set other performance options :)

  2. Alec Meer says:

    Oops. I iz a clever journamalist.

    (That said, external settings apps are bad news).

  3. thezombiecow says:

    I know, it’ll never happen again, I promise.

  4. Gabanski83 says:

    Loved BTDT, think I’ll grab this too.

    Loving the resurfacing of the adventure games over this summer, too.

  5. AndrewC says:

    Wow. Camden. That’s very brave.

    Yes, but congratulations Zombiecow!

  6. Andrew says:

    SOLD! Been meaning to try the free Ben There, Dan That for a while now. So now I’m gonna play both.

  7. Andrew says:

    btw “Download Warranty” is a little bit naughty zombiecow but i forgive you

  8. AlexW says:

    It’s an entertaining game, but, as someone that never played the classics, the same problems I had with BTDT appeared again.

    The most unfortunate issue was that the puzzles sometimes felt like too much of a pixel hunt – a couple of times, I actually had the right idea about how to proceed, but since I didn’t click on quite the right spot, assuming a link to larger objects that apparently didn’t exist, I failed to scoop an item up or such, and then spent a while trying everything else with nothing but failure.

    Similarly, one failed puzzle attempt involving a mouse trap and a nail was actually commented on as a fairly believable manner of succeeding, but because it wasn’t the specific intention of the designer it failed, dooming me again to trial and error. I know it’s infeasible to account for every possible variation each player might try to apply, but it can grate a bit.

    Still, excellent artistic style, nice music (even if it did fail to recognise attempts to customise sound options for more than one session), and amusing content made the game still quite fun. Just, next time, include an official walkthrough for us thickies, please? Trawling through the forum thread on it is a spoiler minefield.

  9. Dante says:

    I have to say I’m not entirely convinced by this Meerian humour hypothesis. I often find that the desire to be ‘edgy’ is too often used as a substitute for actual comic writing ability, which tends to shine through no matter how ‘safe’ the material.

    Ben This, Dan That was funny and crude, not funny but crude and not funny because it was crude, they were independant states, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  10. mcw says:

    Loved the game, i definitely agree on the comparison to Sam & Max. Little correction: You’re not carrying around Hitlers’ severed arm but a dead prisoners’ severed arm.

  11. MrBejeebus says:

    Its amazing, only in the past 2/3 months have I really noticed this resurgence of adventure games, I never really paid much attention to that whole genre before, now its everywhere!

    I’d prefer to get this, a new game, than a “classic” one, I only want new content at the moment…

  12. phil says:

    BTDT was simply lovely, though unless you knew who used a chicken with a pully in the middle and who chanted “that doesn’t work” at you till you found yourself repeating it under your breath, you’d miss the fifty percent of the fun.
    It was adventure gaming that had disppeared up its own rear end, then discovered a magical kingdom there, ready to be explored. If TGP is essentially this only longer, then woo, please have £3.

  13. Gap Gen says:

    Still haven’t finished this. I blame a life of international jetsetting and addiction to ArmA II multiplayer.

  14. James O'Hare says:

    Is this 64bit compatible? I was disappointed that I couldn’t install BTDT at home on Vista x64, forcing me to play it at work on my lunch break.

    That said, it’s the best adventure game I’ve played since The Longest Journey/Dreamfall, and the funniest I think I have ever played.

  15. unwize says:

    It would be pretty cool if Telltale could hire these guys to do a season, killing two birds – Telltale’s lack-lustre humour and AGS’s limitations – with one stone.

  16. Dominic White says:

    @James – that’s odd. I just installed and have been playing BTDT on Windows 7 64bit without having to tweak or change anything.

  17. Guto says:

    I finished the game yesterday and it’s just brilliant. One of the creators is also the creator of another overlooked indie gem called Gibbage which I also loved. I think that anyone with even the tiniest interest in adventure and/or indie games should buy Time Gentlemen, Please and support these guys. They deserve it.

  18. Wulf says:

    With the popularity of Time, Gentleman Please, does this mean that there’s going to be a third game?

    If so, then with the introduction of time-travel, I propose the title: Bill & Dan’s Rexcellent Adventure.

    Naaah, no one’s going to get that.

    /flees

  19. Richard Beer says:

    I will buy this game because of this review. And because it’s cheap and easy to download.

  20. orta says:

    Windows only, shame. If I remember next time I load boot camp up I’ll try it though.

  21. Gap Gen says:

    Actually, how was the idea to give people who donated to BTDT a free copy? Was it as ruinous as predicted?

  22. TheArmyOfNone says:

    So going to buy this game in two months when I get my internet back and can download it. You hear me zombiecow? The check’s in the mail.

  23. Matosh says:

    I too, just like Richard Beer, will buy this game right now because of this review, and because it’s cheap and easy to download.

    This will be the first (non-Steam) game that I have ever bought online.

    So congratulations, Alec and Zombiecow. I thought you’d like to know how persuasive that was.

  24. Ergates says:

    Currently playing through BTDT.

    My opinion can be boiled down to this: Very good.

    I will most definately be purchasing TGP, and would do even if it weren’t only £3.

    More please.

  25. Legandir says:

    This was a great game. I don’t remember carrying Hitler’s severed arm in the inventory. There was a severed arm but it was a prisoner’s, not hitler’s. Unless i somehow missed it…..

    The only complaint i have is the download warranty. I didnt pay for it but i have no plans to replay it anyway. Its a small complaint when weighed against a great game

  26. El_MUERkO says:

    I finished Ben There, Dan That and started on Time Gentlemen, Please last week but I’ve not had a chance to play much past the penis shooting but o far so good!

    It doesn’t run too well on my NC10 though which is a bit disappointing.

  27. Adam says:

    Does this thing have voice acting? I’m guessing not?

  28. Aubrey says:

    It’s good stuff. I was playing it all weekend. Although I loved Sam and Max and Day of the Tentacle, I have never had much time for adventure games. I find them mechanically kind of flawed and overly special cased, at which point, the special cases become the stars of the game, and if they’re not interesting, you’ve lost me.

    Been There, Dan That does not lose me. It is fantastically written. I could suggest an interface change or two, but if I’m complaining about mechanics or interface or anything else, I’m missing the point. It’s so fucking funny, that I stopped caring what the delivery medium was.

  29. Aubrey says:

    Err, Time Gentlemen Please, I meant.

  30. malkav11 says:

    While I very much disagree with the original poster about the merits of Telltale’s games, I nonetheless really do need to get off my rear and at the very least play Ben There, Dan That one of these days.

  31. Valentin Galea says:

    They should have put some chipmunks voices like in Okami/Chibi-Robo/others – reading all that text while the character sprites twitch between mouth-open/mouth-closed can be very depressing…

    Why does this game have to be so knowledgeable that is a game and base pretty much all of its humor from that?

  32. Ted says:

    It’s a fun game that everyone should play but calling the humor grown up and clever is kind of ridiculous. Some of it so juvenile it’s cringe inducing. I’m at least three decades too old (and I’m in my 30′s) to crack a smile at the extended attempt at a joke about someone getting shot in the cock. Same with the lengthy bit (and puzzle for fuck’s sake) about bloody diarrhea.

  33. Sunjammer says:

    We should never have trusted you Hitler!

    Also, i’m very much a fan of the racism slider. More games need one.

    Also, AGS, warts and all, is really a brilliant way to get an adventure game going quickly. I’m surprised at how fullended that tool is.

  34. Lambchops says:

    Having just played Ben There Dan That! as a kind of demo I have to say i’m looking forward to this. The game was a good laugh and the puzzles were pretty good.

    Although as a side note (and most definitely not a criticism!) one advantage that the current Telltale games have over this sort of stuff (mostly i feel due to the use of AGS0 is that they do have those impressive set piece type puzzles that AGS can’t quite pull off.

    Still a quality bunch of satisfying puzzles with a good dollop of Briitish humour and crude nonsense. I’m sure Time Gentlemen please will live up to it.

  35. RobF says:

    You’re never too old to laugh at someone being shot in the cock!

  36. MD says:

    Yeah, I haven’t yet seen the cock-shooting joke in question, but if it isn’t funny it must be poorly executed. The premise is sound.

  37. drygear says:

    I just finished this yesterday. John Walker somewhere said to go and play it right away, so I decided to finally play BTDT which I have been aware of but didn’t expect to be nearly as good as it turned out.

    I like all the improvements to BTDT, like the graphics and sound effects. The swooshing sound when switching actions and the sound when you move the cursor over something you can interact with don’t seem like they would be a big deal but they add a lot.
    Even though TGP was definitely a better game in some ways I had more fun with BTDT. BTDT felt more carefree, and I had a lot of fun trying all the items on each other to see the different responses, which I didn’t as much in the sequel, and I don’t know if it’s because there were a lot more items, the items were less interesting (I liked using everything with the bible in the first game), or there weren’t as many funny descriptions for using everything on everything else.

  38. Pod says:

    AGS doesn’t seem to have progressed any further than when I last used it, 7 years ago.

    Can different characters walk at the same time yet?

  39. LionsPhil says:

    Someone has a retro axe to grind. How many paragraphs do you need to spend on that? It’s the longest unbroken run of text in the article!

  40. Angel Dust says:

    I very much enjoyed Time Gentlemen, Please! but I found the humor to be by far it’s weakest aspect. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have more than a couple of funny parts, the intro recap was brilliant, but there was a bit too much of crudeness for crudenesses sake and the same ‘adventure game LOL’ jokes that AGS games have been making for years. Note I never found the old classics [i]that[/i] funny either but the reason I loved em, and why a quite like this little gem too, was the likeable characters. The relationship between Ben and Dan is really well developed and leads to the best laughs. Character based humour is often the trickiest to pull off and it’s the kind of humour that stands the test of time.

    What I found to be far and away this games strongest point was the puzzles; it seems that modern adventure games, both amateur and professional, have forgotten that the puzzles should be part of the fun and not merely obstacles inserted into the narrative so that it can be called a game. Time Gentlemen, Please! had the kind of puzzles that had you grinning from ear to ear at the absurdity and cleverness of the solutions. The last section is one of the greatest ‘one-room’ puzzle sequences I’ve ever played.

  41. Switchbreak says:

    I think what you see as the rise of subversive humor since the 90s is more an evolution of your own tastes than an actual change in general pop culture. After all, George Carlin had been out there doing his thing since the 70s and when Sam & Max was first released in the early 90s Bill Hicks was just coming in to popularity as a comedian and “Clerks” was turning Kevin Smith into an indie film icon.

  42. Ted says:

    The next Zombie Cow game should have someone shooting that whiny douche Kevin Smith in the cock. I think all of us except his tiny hardcore fanbase could unite behind that.

  43. drygear says:

    I agree with Angel Dust that the character-based humor was the best part, and enjoyed the relationship between Dan and Ben. I think the humor is good overall still, or at least better than any other AGS game I’ve played.

  44. pilouuuu says:

    Mmm has anyone played Telltale’s Strong Bad adventures? I played the demo and simply couldn’t stand or understand the humour. Is that supposed to be 21st century humour? How does is compare to this game in terms of humour?

    I agree that Lucasarts were a bit subversive in their time, and that they never been laugh out funny most of the time, but really like dark comedies… Serious and adult, but humorous at the same time. But the real star of classic games are its characters.

    What I would like is more professional comedy writers working in adventure games, now that the genre seems to come back to life.

  45. Owen says:

    I was tossing up (steady!) whether to get the remade Escapae from Monkey Island. This has made the descision for me. Guybrush Threepwood, here I come!

    Heh, only kidding. I’ll buy this when I get home tonight. Good luck to you guys.

  46. Alex says:

    Nazi Dinosaurs? They must have been watching too much Star Trek: Voyager.

    Or Star Trek: Enterprise.

  47. Krupo says:

    I love the developer commentary… on the review. More please.

  48. annie2277 says:

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