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.