These past months have been an unexpectedly active time for the Freelance Police, but at the sassy center of this Sam & Max renaissance is their all-new game, Sam & Max: This Time It's Virtual, due out later this year from HappyGiant.
Following the throaty demands of Scummbuddy an enthusiastic readership, Mojo forged some journalist credentials and figuratively sat down with Mike Levine of HappyGiant to discuss the joys, challenges and perversities of inducting the beloved duo into the open-ended, open carry realm of virtual reality.
Though Sam and Max have been closely associated with graphic adventure games, there’s ample reason to believe that they’re readily adaptable to different gameplay styles. Minigames have always been a part of the Sam & Max adventures, and at one point there was an Xbox Sam & Max game in development. Did this precedent make you more confident in the notion that you could bring them to new territory? How did the idea of VR for Sam & Max come about in the first place?
So yes, we are taking Sam & Max into new territory. However, Sam & Max fans should feel pretty at home in this game. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think the first footage we released, which were "minigame-esque", might have given the impression this game is just a bunch of mini-games. It is not. This game has a lot of story and adventure in it in fact. The "back 9" or Act 3 of the game, which we have shown none of, is entirely adventure-like. We also released some footage today of one of the more adventure-y levels.
We approached this game with the mentality of "how would LucasArts have made a VR game?", and of course what we thought was going to be the most fun (usually those two things are aligned if done correctly). VR is a very different and new medium than a flat screen. The very nature of a "point and click" adventure makes little sense in VR, as every object you must grab, inspect and there is a real physical interaction with it. You cannot quickly scan a room with a cursor for example. It’s a physical medium, and we wanted to explore that. We very much tried to steer away from in-game text and UI, as it breaks the illusion to some extent.
But let's step back, what is a mini-game? What is adventure? I am not sure there are hard fast definitions that all would agree on. As you correctly stated, Hit the Road had plenty of mini-games (all of which I worked on!). But to me, if you are using your "brains" more than your "brawns" - it leans adventure. So the way this game works from a top level is this - You are being trained by Sam & Max as a cadet to become a new member of the Freelance Police. This is broken up into 3 parts. In each of those parts, there are aspects that are much more brainy than brawns. We have one Course called "Get A Clue" which is basically a Sam & Max Escape Room (complete with dead clone corpses of them!). Each time you replay it, it will be slightly different. It's all puzzles and clue solving. Then, after you complete a few courses, which you will be graded on … "things" happen. Sam & Max get called into action in the "real world" and they bring along their young Cadet to put your new found skills to use, and see how you do.
Now let me answer your question (:
To really answer that question of how we came to make a VR game, would require a deep dive into my personal work history, the history of LucasArts, and the history of HappyGiant. Let me try to be as brief as possible.
- The Culture at LucasArts was always to break new ground. Even though we were making "adventure games", the formula was constantly changing. As the tech evolved, every game wanted to go farther and see where they could take it.
- Then you have me specifically. My role at Lucas largely became working with projects in the very beginning, to figure out the art path, and how the game was going to actually get made. A lot of what I did there was behind the scenes R&D that was absorbed into other games. So envelope pushing, bleeding edge, whatever you want to call it, it’s always been in my DNA.
- And tied to that is what HappyGiant has done the last 5+ years. Getting into the XR space early. First with Phil Tippet and our AR board game HoloGrid: Monster Battle. That game was a very real TCG game, and way ahead of its time. When Apple glasses come out, we will bring it back and it will be a much better experience than holding your phone up for 5 min at a time. But that game allowed us to experiment. We brought it to HoloLens and other headset platforms. And we brought it to VR. With Oculus to Gear, and we worked with Qualcomm on some other demos. So we had played around in this space.
- When I tried the Quest - I was blown away. I immediately saw new possibilities with VR and not being tethered. As time went on though, I did not see many games in that ecosystem that I wanted to play. Games with comedy, and maybe more importantly, VARIETY. BeatSaber is great, but I got it after 5 min and was bored after about 10. I wanted to play a game with a story that kept me wanting to play. I wanted to play a game with many types of gameplay, that always kept me on my toes. So when we decided to make a VR game, I thought about Sam & Max, and how cool it might be to play alongside them. To be in their office and go on cases with them. I have always remained in touch with Steve, and I floated the idea by him, and he was into it. So away we went ....
I was a fan of Insecticide, where there was (maybe?) a similar intent to incorporate elements of a story-driven game into a title with more varied gameplay. How does the “genre-melding,” if it’s fair to portray it as such, compare here? Put another way, what if anything does This Time It’s Virtual borrow from graphic adventures?
Ahh Insecticide! Well first, if you recall the details, we were somewhat forced to add in the action to that game, at least the way it was put in. It was what I call the "dark period" for adventure games, and no one would fund a pure adventure game. Now truthfully, we did want action elements in that game, as it was modelled after Detective films and TV shows we loved, which always had a mix of both. But as we did not have full control, because we worked with an outside tech house (this was pre-Unity), even the action elements were not as we first envisioned them. We wanted to make something where the two elements were more seamlessly blended together, but the tech at the time just did not allow that.
This Time It's Virtual! is a different animal really. This game was meant to be played modularly as some people like their VR in smaller doses. And as you are graded on the Courses, those have a certain element of replayability. But overall, this borrows a ton from graphic adventures. It has that as its very core. In those games, one central thing was you were always doing different things. You entered a scene, and had to figure out what to do. It was always changing, but there was a central goal and narrative. And lots of ridiculous characters and dialogue. This game has all of this.
With fans being so accustomed to controlling Sam and Max and firing off their wisecracks through dialog trees, it’s a fresh angle to turn the tables and have a game where you assume the role of a third party being chaperoned – and inevitably ridiculed – by the Freelance Police. How does this change the way the characters are written? I know Mike Stemmle wrote a lot of Poker Night 2, where the dynamic seems similar, so I was wondering if that experience proved valuable to this project.
And speaking of Mike...if there’s such a thing as being a tenured professor of Sam & Max game design/writing, he would have the distinction. How’d he get involved?
I couldn't agree more with that statement about Mike, and how much he helped this project. Few know this like the MixnMojo crew, but Mike is really the "central vein" to almost all Sam & Max games. He wrote most of Hit the Road with Steve, worked on a bunch of the TellTale games, and now this. Aside from Steve, there is no greater authority in my humble opinion. How did he get involved? Well, some things are just meant to be I think. First off me... I keep in touch with a lot of people from back in the day. To get our funding we had to make a demo on our own and I reached out to Mike, but he was busy. We made the demo. It was rough but good enough to show the potential. When we got the full deal, I decided I had to try once more, and lo and behold, Mike was free. We did some calls early on, and he liked the direction we were taking it. We had a lot to hash out, and we did. But his "blessing" if you will of the overall design meant a lot. If he had come in saying "whoa whoa whoa you guys are doing this all wrong" it would have given me great pause. But he did not, it was kind of the opposite of that. It made sense to him.
My impression is that Steve Purcell tends to be pretty trusting to developers who have experience with his characters, and that bona fide certainly applies to your team. How does Steve’s involvement manifest during development? Did he have any particular ideas at the outset that he wanted to see play out in a VR game?
Steve has been fairly involved. At the beginning in the early planning and overall design, we did several calls with Mike, Steve, Peter Chan and myself. I was not at TellTale so I only hear stories - but for this, I wanted him as involved as I could get him. And since we had a relationship, I am gonna guess I had more direct access to him then whoever was producing a game for TellTale. He is very very busy, but we do calls fairly regularly (in his off hours) where I show him game videos and he makes suggestions. And we try to get all his ideas into this game, obviously. He is the ultimate authority. But then again, with Mike, Peter, and I will humbly add myself beneath those guys - he does trust us. I am sure we will get to Peter here, but Peter has this "power" to channel people and their ideas, and Peter really knows Steve and Sam & Max, as does Mike of course. But I will boldly say this may be the most Steve has been involved with a Sam & Max game since Hit the Road.
Any chance that Steve will be doing cover art for this game?
We’re enjoying something of a Sam & Max renaissance right now. Your game is coming along at a time where the Telltale seasons are getting remasters, and some cool collectible figures are being manufactured as well. Just curious: Has there been any coordination with the Skunkape guys or comparing of notes as you’re concurrently working on Sam & Max titles?
Believe it or not, it's all been one happy family. We have been speaking throughout this, trying to support each other and also not step on each other's toes. We all want Sam & Max to succeed! As fans have noticed, there is even going to be some music in the VR game from Sam & Max's past. This just made sense and goes with the kind of hidden theme of inside jokes and things from Sam & Max's past throughout this game. We have also been speaking to the Boss Fight people and well ... expect some surprises (:
I was alarmed to realize that The Devil’s Playhouse came out in 2010, meaning it’s been over a decade since the last Sam & Max game. Since they feel the need to train a successor, are the characters feeling their mortality as much as I am?
LOL ... well yes, it has been 10 years since a NEW Sam & Max game! It's crazy! This is why we hope even if fans do not own a VR headset, they will realize it's important to support this game. This can be a first step to bringing them back in other ways. So on one level, they are timeless, like so many comics and cartoons. At the same time, I don't think Mike could resist making a few jokes about their age, their past and stuff like that. So we walk that line some. But it's not like they are tired, or any more out of shape then they ever were. The world has just gotten more crazy, and they need some fresh blood to help them out. So you are not a successor so much as a new recruit in case too much mayhem breaks out at any one time.
A Sam & Max adventure game traditionally has tons of lines of recorded dialog. Can I assume Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual holds its own on that front?
OMG yes (: SO ... MUCH .... DIALOGUE ... If you replay the game, you will also hear diff lines and jokes for some parts. Heck, our title screen is an easter egg. I will tell you a side note about it also. We have learned so much while making this game. And we have done a TON of user testing, both with people who have never heard of Sam & Max, and fans as well. Like we did “pizza orgies” (user test groups) at Lucas (can I even say that anymore?), these test sessions were insanely helpful to us in shaping and polishing this game. But back to the dialogue - it's funny as on a flat screen, we as humans can process as thickly dense dialogue as writers can throw at us. But we have found when in VR, when fully immersed in a world and things are happening around you, not everyone can process it. It's been utterly fascinating watching how different people play the game, and process information. We do have subtitles that are off by default, but even when on, it’s kind of lame and hard to "read" text in VR. It just defeats the entire purpose of being in this cool immersive world. But we did find again and again, the ones who knew Sam & Max or played adventure games, were just able to process more, and were more exploratory. Without giving too much away there is one scene where you can complete the tasks and move on. But there are also a lot of easter eggs in the scene that for the most part, the adventurer gamers sought out. These all trigger more dialogue and story points that are only there for the truly curious. So ... do not rush through this game! There is lots to explore!
How was it working with David Nowlin and Dave Boat? They’ve logged quite a bit of cockpit time voicing the characters at this point -- were they quick to reinhabit their roles?
This was my first time working with them, and they were both incredible. I thank Julian from Bay Area Sound for connecting us. They really do embody both of the characters on their own. All our VO sessions were fairly fluid as well, these guys have done this before. They both added things, and kind of improv at times, which is fantastic.
I’ve appreciated how the depiction of the city streets and Sam and Max’s office appears to be consciously honoring both the LucasArts and Telltale versions of those environments. Canon is a pretty fluid thing in the Sam & Max universe, but the characters have never shied away from in-jokes. What can we expect in terms of nods to past adventures?
In short, quite a bit. And thank you for noticing. I will admit my personal bias for Hit the Road. I worked on it, and know it the best. There are little "Easter eggs" all over the game from it, the comics, and to a lesser extent the TellTale games, but some. A lot of references to things as well. I personally wanted to get the office back to a little more Hit The Road style. But that was a 2D drawing. We had to adapt it to 3D. And we also looked at the comics quite a bit, and some things TellTale did. This game has a lot of the comics in it, I like to think. We looked at them when we began, and many of the levels began as loose riffs on some of the comics. For example the "Nutrihole" level was very much inspired by the comic "Beast in the Cereal Aisle". We had a Volcano God Sacrifice idea, but it didn't make it in the game. There is always next time. (:
I see from the screenshots that the landing of Sam and Max’s office building is making a return after being excluded from the Telltale games. Can we expect any interactions with their neighbor Flint Paper?
Not as much as I hoped but Flint is in the game, but you have to work hard to umm, "hear" him. This is definitely something we contemplated but ran out of time and budget. If there is a sequel ....