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
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.