Raised By Screens, Chapter 12: Sam & Max Hit The Road

Note – this series has primarily been for RPS Supporter Program members-only, which is why you probably can’t find most of the rest of ’em, but I unlock the occasional chapter for everyone (along with many of our other initially subs-only features).

Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.

The last chapter was dedicated to my brief, complete immersion in point and click adventures generally, but among the slew of comedy puzzlers I devoured at that time, one particularly stands out. For many years, I’ve reflexively said its name when asked what my favourite early 1990s PC game was (or at least my second-favourite; my most beloved game of all time will be discussed in the next chapter, and will hardly be surprising to regular Rock, Paper, Shotgun readers), but until very recently I’d never thought about why. For the longest time, I said its name purely from fondness – whenever I thought of that era of gaming, this was the title that I simply felt warmest about when I conjured its sights and sounds in my memory. It’s time to try and discover why that is. It’s not purely because I regularly find myself whistling the incidental music.

SAM & MAX HIT THE ROAD
1993, DOS
DEVELOPED BY LUCASARTS, PUBLISHED BY LUCASARTS

Point and click adventure starring an anthropomorphised dog and hyperkinetic rabbity thing who work as private detectives.

Sam and Max came from Lucasarts, the George Lucas-owned studio who dominated and defined point and click adventures in the first half of the 1990s, yet while remembered fondly it’s rarely considered the best horse in that stable. Day of the Tentacle is the funniest, Grim Fandango the most creative, Monkey Island 1 and/or 2 the most iconic: that’s how it goes. Sam & Max, perhaps, was simply a studio at the peak of its powers doing exactly what was expected of it, and doing it very well without raising any particular bars. Compared to the triple-protagonist, time-hopping invention of Day of the Tentacle, released earlier that same year, Sam & Max seems like a step backwards.

This was not my concern at the time. For me, it was about characters and setting rather than mechanical ingenuity. I played adventure games because I wanted to spend time in a fantastical place, with all the colour, comedy and warmth that my real life so sorely lacked. Positive places where I could shelter from my parents’ escalating arguments or retreat into after another bleak day of being marginalised and mocked at school. The puzzles were simply a means of progression, of gating where I got to go next, rather than something I particularly enjoyed in and of themselves.

It seems absurd to say this of a game whose protagonists were a hound dressed as Sam Spade and a psychotic lagomorph, but Sam and Max seemed so much more real to me than the stars of Day of the Tentacle or Monkey Island. Despite the gags about murder and exploding robot mad scientists, these guys seemed more naunced and three-dimensional, where Monkey Island’s Guybrush and Tentacle’s Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne came across as so much more broad and ridiculous. Many people would argue otherwise, and I would no longer argue with them – we attach to what we attach to.

Perhaps it’s really a matter of setting. Monkey Island’s pirates had Peter Pan associations, while all that George Washington stuff in Tentacle had the twin problems of lacking resonance for a British kid and straying dangerously close to what I’d recently been taught by an authoritarian history teacher with a preposterous combover. (He put so much gel on it that on windy sportsdays it would become a vertical pillar erupting from his cranium).

Sam & Max seemed to arrive fully-formed. The events of the game were, to them, just one more working day rather than anything epochal. They weren’t ever surprised by what they encountered, nor did they much seem to care about whether things worked out. Nonchalance abounded, and that made Hit The Road seem so much more grown-up to me.

As for cultural relevance, there was no less Americana than in Day of the Tentacle, but it was pop-cultural Americana rather than historical Americana. These were things I recognised from outside the classroom, and inevitably that made them more appealing. I’d seen this side of America on television and in comics. Elvis, bigfeet (bigfoots?), dingy apartments with violent neighbours, freakshow carnivals, absurdist tourist attractions, and most of all The Road. This wasn’t just a serious of madcap events, but a journey. It was set across a country, not just a series of buildings, and that made it feel both bigger and more convincing than its more well-regarded predecessors.

Around that time, I went on the first of two West coast flydrive holidays with my family. We drove from LA to Arizona and Utah and back again, seeing canyons, visiting theme parks both glitzy and pathetic (some Flinstones attraction in the middle of the desert, which was essentially in a 7/11’s back yard), staying in frightening motels and camping in national parks. Big trees, desperate roadside attractions, bored staff, strange animals, a culture obsessed with itself, the road the road the road. If only my family hadn’t been there too it would have been the best time of my life.

I cannot now ascertain whether this road trip occurred before or after I played Sam & Max (the second time we did it was certainly afterwards), but in any case I experienced the two in quick enough succession and that they’re permanently intertwined in my mind. Sam & Max was more real because I’d seen some of its America in the flesh, and the flydrive was more meaningful because it reminded me of a game I loved. I loved Sam and I loved Max, but it’s the Hit The Road part of the title which means the most to me.

Sam & Max is America to me. That’s why it’s the Lucasarts game I reflexively claim as my favourite. It’s what I want America to be, but also why I can sometimes be sneery towards that nation. America is strange, sometimes wonderful and sometimes risible, things at the side of the road, America is driving for driving’s sake, America is never quite knowing where you’ll be at the end of each day. America is immense, America is free, America is hilarious. America is Sam & Max. But I was a passenger on Sam & Max’s wild ride, just as I was a passenger on my parent’s argumentative, fish-out-water ride. America isn’t ever going to be that to me again.

Always, though, I dream of hitting the road.

12 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    Mid nineties. Edinburgh University. 5 boys in 1 flat, one of us had a PC. We’d sit around it chatting and watching while somebody played. The great titles of the era, TIE Fighter and DOOM, Ultima VII (pt 2), System Shock. I could go on.

    The game we all played *together* though, and the only one I remember where we were all equally enthralled and sharing the experience, was Sam & Max.

    Will never forget it, and purely from our point of view and that shared experience, it beats Monkey Island into a cocked hat (ymmv).

    Nice RBS Alec, tnx!

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I think some of my favourite multiplayer gaming moments have been in groups of people all ‘playing’ on one machine. Swapping control every time you die/get stuck etc.

  2. rondertaker says:

    a thousand times yes. the TONE of sam n max is so utterly perfect and i was at the perfect age to embrace it fully… and i also experienced the amazing weird flintstones attraction around that time: which still exists thanks for the nostalgia.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Tom-INH says:

    That last bit is absolutely spot-on. Looking forward to X-COM next time (it has to be, right?)

  4. amateurviking says:

    Like all pre-Full Throttle Lucasarts adventures I had this on floppy so going back to the GoG versions and finding them fully voiced is extremely weird. Me and a friend used to make up the voices as we played.

  5. caff says:

    Excellent game, I can relate to your losing yourself in this other, more insane, colourful world.

  6. GallonOfAlan says:

    Never felt the love for this like I felt the love for Day Of The Tentacle.

  7. Stugle says:

    To this day, Scranton PA still has an irrational allure to my mind. I’ve never been there, nor do I ever want to go, but to my mind’s eye it must be a magical place.

    I loved this when I got it, circa 1995. One of the first fully voiced games I played and I can still hear those voices in my head (that came out sounding rather alarming).

  8. Zurriel says:

    As someone who drove from Minnesota to Florida, New York, and Colorado with his family when he was little, I feel like pop culture isn’t the word to describe either the tourist attractions in the game and the ones we stopped at in real life. Rather than expressing some kind of background consciousness or interests, these places (in the game and real life) are more like the fever dreams of middle America. They’re the sort of places where you can feel an individual’s ideas about success or the extraordinary making contact with reality.

    Often, that means executing what started as a strange idea to bizarre extremes, and Wall Drug or Mystery Spots or Walt Disney World are the results. Which is only one reason it’s amusing that Mount Rushmore is in the game along with the biggest ball of twine and the celebrity vegetable museum. They contain some part of what we think about exceptionalism or entrepreneurship, but in twisted ways.

    Funnily, I think Other British Person (albeit one who has lived here for some time) Neil Gaiman does a great job of capturing lot of what I feel to be American culture in American Gods, but of course there’s plenty of authorial perspective there, too.

  9. spaceseeker19 says:

    Much, much better than Day of the Tentacle, for me. After I lost the original CD-ROM of the game, it has irked me for close to two decades that the game has been out-of-print this whole time, despite countless collections and anthologies of Lucasarts games and Lucasarts adventure games being released during that period. Imagine my delight to discover that the game is finally available in digital form on GoG! I’m getting it immediately.

  10. Isaiah says:

    I love to play this kind of series because we can get a lot of new ideas and things after playing them. I have been listen about this game last monthduring my nyc to durham bus tours with my few friends. My friends told me about this game. I found it really interesting and enjoyable. We can see a lot of USA’s famous places during this series. Those are famous and most visited attractions of this country.