LucasArts' Secret History #9: Sam & Max Hit the Road Tales from the Crypt

A chat with Mike Stemmle

When did you join LucasArts, and what projects did you work on prior to Hit the Road?

I joined Lucasfilm Games June of 1990, and was immediately put to work on a project called "Passport to Adventure" (which really only sounds right if you pronounce it with an echo, like "PASSPORT TO ADVENTURE-TURE-TURE!") The Passport was a mishmash of demos from three SCUMM games: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Loom, and the as-yet-unreleased Secret of Monkey Island. After that crash course (with an emphasis on "crash"), I spent a year or so under the tutelage of Hal Barwood, putting together the epically-cool Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. After that, I did some spot work on a couple of projects (including an ill-fated Loom sequel) before landing the Sam & Max gig.

Hit the Road was the first game on which you served as "Project Leader." How did one gain this title at LucasArts circa the early 90s?

In my case, the head of the company took Sean and I to a bar across the street from the Kerner complex and said he wanted us to be project leaders on Sam & Max. From this sample size of one, I conclude that most of us project leader types were promoted due to the effects of booze.

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You've worked with these characters more than once, even if the final product wasn't always published. What makes a Sam & Max project an attractive one to work on compared to, well, anything else?

They're funny, they travel seamlessly from one setting to another, and they're cute as a couple of buttons. Writing for them is like writing a Hope and Crosby road picture… only with less crooning and an unfortunate lack of Dorothy Lamour.

Sam & Max had of course been around long before they starred in their first video game. Were you a fan of the characters prior to being assigned to Hit the Road?

When I began working at Lucasfilm Games, I was dimly aware of Sam & Max, but had never bought a comic. Once I started however, I was quickly immersed in the characters, since the company had adopted them as the unofficial company mascots. Heck, the training environment for the SCUMM system was a primitive version of the Sam & Max office. By the time I was assigned to Hit the Road, I was a huge fan… almost by osmosis.

What made you guys conclude that a graphic adventure was the best way to bring Sam & Max to the interactive medium? What makes the characters better suited to a story-driven experience than a shooter or anything else?

 Well, truth be told, LucasArts wasn't exactly technologically prepared to do a Sam & Max shooter back then, so I'm not sure we could've pulled it off even if we wanted to.  That said, I think Sam & Max work well in graphic  adventures because the format allows for more sheer weirdness.

I understand that the storyline was loosely based on one of Steve's comics. How did you guys go from that basis to the story of the final game? How involved was Steve in the story process?

  The Hit the Road story borrowed a number of elements that cropped up in the comics, like the Cone of Tragedy, the Giraffe-Necked girl, and so forth.  Steve was deeply involved in the story and design process; I honestly couldn't tell you whose ideas were his, mine, or Sean's today.

Many of the games you've worked on have had a sense of humor, but it's fair to say that Sam & Max has a unique brand. How did you go about capturing the distinct voice of Steve's madcap characters?

  For Sam, I always try to imagine Steve's voice and syntax as he's telling me about some insanely cool bit of Americana.  For Max, I always try to write down the first insane thought that comes into my head (e.g. "His nostrils tasted like pain!").

How do you feel the game's puzzle design holds up?

  I'm a poor judge.  I will confess that some of the puzzles are remarkably hard/borderline unfair, and would never go out the door today without some better hints.

Hit the Road has an icon-based interface rather different from most other LEC adventure games. What was the rationale behind this decision?

Before HtR, most of the adventure games didn't use voice acting, so the dynamic of "Read the Dialog Choices/Select a Dialog/Read the Chosen Dialog" wasn't all that annoying. But we knew we were eventually going to be a "talkie," so we decided to make a break from telegraphing our punch lines. Luckily, computers were getting more powerful at the time, allowing us to flood the screen with those memory-hogging icons.

I've always felt that the irreverence of Hit the Road was pretty darned close to that of the comics (certainly more so than the animated series), but were you guys ever under pressure from LEC management to keep the crudeness in check?

  Not that I can recall.  Of course, we were a pretty crude company back then, what with the time-travelling outhouses, the spitting contests 'n' whatnot.

Hit the Road is a fairly sprawling and nonlinear adventure game. What sorts of challenges does this pose by comparison to an episodic project, such as the Strong Bad games you've worked on?

  The relatively nonlinear aspect of HtR made it a lot more difficult to keep track of all the possible gameplay possibilities.  At one point we even had to throw our hands up in despair, admit that we'd written ourselves into a corner, and have a helicopter fly the Desoto from one environment to another.  The shorter episodes at Telltale are slightly less complex… slightly.

Most of the minigames in Hit the Road are totally awesome, but seriously, what's up with Surfin' the Highway?

Let's just say that Highway Surfing was an interesting exploration into the limits of the SCUMM engine.

Hit the Road has some of the best early voice work in a video game. How involved were you in voice casting?

Curiously, not one jot. Actually, I'm pretty sure that the casting was all Steve, though my memory may be playing tricks on me.

Were there any ideas cut from the game due to time or budget constraints?

Originally, the halls of Bumpusville were going to have an integrated bowling mini-game to disable the security system. It never quite gelled though, so it was cut.

Any amusing production anecdote you'd care to share?

Well there is the one about the poor programmer that Sean and I almost crippled, and the dirty joke that got snuck into the manual, but no, I've said too much.

How would you compare you experiences in modern game development to that of LucasArts in the early 90s?

 Working for LEC in the early 90's was a lot like being a really talented garage band that's funded by rich parents – we were good, but we never had to learn how to manage our money, so we did whatever the heck we wanted, no matter how stupid it was (and some of it was VERY stupid).  These days we're trying to be creative AND smart.

Hit the Road was successful both critically and financially. Was there ever any talk at LucasArts of a sequel soon after the release of Hit the Road? (I'm talking prior to the highly publicized Sam & Max: Freelance Police fiasco.)

Not that I ever heard. Funny, that.

These days you work at Telltale, and presumably are going to be working on future seasons of the episodic Sam & Max games. Although both Telltale's games and Hit the Road fall under the genre of graphic adventure, what will be different about your approach to Sam & Max compared to that of fifteen years ago? How about compared to that of your more recent efforts on Freelance Police?

As I've gotten older, I've found it less and less important to "stump the player." I must be getting soft. I've also gotten (marginally) more adept at ratcheting down my verbosity a notch or three.

Hit the Road is considered a classic, and interest in it along with Sam & Max in general has no doubt resurged thanks to the new games. Are you surprised by the game's lasting appeal? Did you ever see yourself one day signing people's Hit the Road game boxes at conventions when you were making the game?

This summer at Comicon I was anonymously rifling through a box of Blue Devil back issues when I was approached by a father and son who asked me if I was Mike Stemmle, 'cause they were big Hit the Road fans. It was simultaneously one of the coolest and most surreal moments of my life. I had no idea the game would have this much staying power, and have nothing but warm fuzzies for all the Sam & Max fans who kept hope alive through the lean years.

What location have Sam and Max never traveled to that you'd most like to see them create mayhem in?

Prison. High School. Broadway. Ancient Rome. A Space Station.

If you could put Sam and Max in any other genre, what would it be?

I dunno, they work pretty well in the adventure realm. Sam's Banjo Hero? Max Fit for the Wii ("Feel the burn NOW!")? Sam & Max's Nigh-Infinite Series of Increasingly Aggravating Puzzles? Sam & Max's Petty Theft Desoto?

Thanks for your time, Mike!

My pleasure. Go buy some Strong Bad episodes, NOW!

… and Sean Clark too!

When did you join LucasArts, and what projects did you work on prior to Hit the Road?

My first day at LucasArts was in June of 1990. That was so long ago, the company was actually called Lucasfilm Games then. I worked on a laundry list of projects before Sam & Max. There were all sorts of localization projects, ports to platforms no one ever heard of (FM Townes, CDTV, etc), and I also threw in some help on projects like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.

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Hit the Road was the first game on which you served as "Project Leader." How did one gain such a distinction at LucasArts back then?

There were many ways of earning the distinction of "Project Leader". Some washed cars for the executive staff. Others opted for providing coffee and backrubs. I preferred the tried and true methods of blackmail.

How did the notion of a Sam & Max adventure game come about, and how did you wind up on the project?

Just after completing work on the Indy game, the then managers of game development took Mike and I across the street to a bar (Hello to my peeps at J. Frenly's!) to get some beer in us and flatter us until we agreed to lead the charge on a new Indy game. They mistook my usual drooling and slurring for intoxication, but grossly miscalculated. Mike and I quickly countered with a pitch for doing a Sam and Max game instead. How did I finally end up on the project? I washed Steve's car.

Did you have any familiarity with the Sam & Max characters before you got involved with this game?

Yes, but not in the biblical sense.

How did you and Mike succeed in capturing the unique voice and sense of humors of Purcell's characters when writing for them? Was Purcell himself a large influence on the game?

Steve was a huge influence on the game, of course. Mike and I thanklessly read and re-read the comic books, then read them again, before setting out on writing game dialog. Many suspected we were just slacking, but we found it tremendously helpful to read the comic books whenever we didn't feel like working.

Hit the Road is a fairly lengthy and nonlinear game. From a design standpoint, what sorts of challenges did you guys face in bringing it to life?

We cheated by breaking it into three major sections. That reduced the complexity a bit. After Fate of Atlantis, I would say Mike and I were particularly sensitive to the complexities that can arise by opening the gameplay up (three paths, anyone?). The main thing was to really map out the puzzle tree and make sure we caught as many of the edge cases on paper before we built the game. Of course, that didn't uncover all of the issues. Once we built a first playable walk-through of the game, we were then able to go back and look for situations where we had puzzles that could be circumvented, objects that couldn't be found until you had found that same object, etc.

What was the design philosophy behind the game's puzzles?

Make 'em puzzley. Other than that we had a couple of rules we tried to follow – 1) Figuring out how to use the interface to do something doesn't count as a "puzzle", and 2) once figured out, the solution to the puzzle should feel almost obvious.

Hit the Road features several fun minigames, with my personal favorite being Car Bomb. Whose ideas were those? Or was it a collaborative effort?

I don't recall whose idea was what, but we all wanted there to be a handful of mini-games. It just felt like the manic, easily-distracted sensibility of Sam & Max to have them totally forget about the world coming to an end for a while to play countless rounds of Whack-A-Mole. Like the locations, we had more ideas than we could actually put in the game. The trick was editing the long lists of ideas into a grouping that wasn't too thematic nor too nonsensical.

This wasn't the first time that you and Mike Stemmle collaborated on a game – the two of you went on to head Escape from Monkey Island. What sort of working relationship do you two have?

None at the moment given we're at different companies now. When we were working together, I think we balanced each other quite well. Like Yin/Yang, Simon/Garfunkle, Chocolate/Peanut Butter, Indictment/Acquittal.

What do you think of the Sam & Max game episodes that Telltale puts out? Do you think characters like Sam & Max still have a place in today's marketplace?

Telltale is doing a fantastic job – there's really no better team to work on Sam & Max games. I think it's awesome that a) adventure games are still being made, and b) that Sam & Max still have a stage. And yes, of course Sam & Max still have a place in today's marketplace. Cute, wise-cracking animals shooting the crap out of things is timeless.

Although those days appear to be behind you, you've worked on a number of adventure games throughout your career. What is the attraction to the genre for you as a designer?

I like building and playing all sorts of genres. But adventure games provide a unique opportunity to blend storytelling and game play into the same activity and mind space. Designing the interactions between the game and the player are so much more interesting when you can have characters walk on screen and say "Booga Booga!" and it mean something to the player.

How would you compare you experiences in modern game development to that of the work environment of LucasArts in the early 90s?

The games we made then can now be played on cell phones.

Is there anything major you would change about Hit the Road if you had the opportunity to do it over again?

The schedule.

Any amusing anecdotes from Hit the Road that you'd care to share?

Besides not being involved in the voice casting?

Any cut ideas from Hit the Road that you can remember?

There were lots, but listing them doesn't do the ideas justice. It just looks like a bizarre list of half-baked ideas. Brilliant, half-baked ideas.

How did you end up departing from LucasArts, and what have you been up to since?

When a company with as great a potential as LucasArts changes its product strategy to making only one game at a time, and Star Wars no less, my skills aren't much of a fit.

Why do you think Hit the Road has had such lasting appeal? Does it ever surprise you to see gamers continuing to talk about it?

Couldn't you ask the same thing about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Or antenna balls? Some things just aren't meant to be understood. It does surprise me, though, but mostly because the gamers talking about it tend to be young. The game was way before their time. It's like hearing about this awesome new band called Aerosmith.

… and Steve Purcell, why not?!

Before Hit the Road, Sam & Max had been appearing in comics in the company's internal magazine and had made numerous cameos in several LucasArts games themselves. What made it the right time to let them star in their own adventure game?

Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark were preparing to start in on the design for a new adventure game. I believe an Indy game was considered which may have seemed more daunting within the time frame that was set (less than a year). Kelly Flock was the head of LucasArts at the time and came to me with the proposal that they license Sam & Max for an adventure. He was a fan of the comics and Mike and Sean were familiar with the characters too. I remember being amazed that George Lucas's company was licensing my characters. I was a freelancer and decided to drop everything and come back to LEC to work on the game.

You were actually on the team of the game, and I assume that since these are your characters you had your fingerprints on several aspects of the production. How involved were you in the story, writing, and design processes of Hit the Road?

Since I was in the building I was able to do a little of a lot of things. I had decided I just wanted to make myself as available as possible for whatever was needed. I worked on the story and brainstormed puzzles with Mike and Sean as well as Collette Michaud who was the Art Director for the company and who I wound up marrying during the project. I pitched in on gags and animated Sam & Max's walk cycles as well as the Kushman Brothers - siamese twins who had this ungainly walk where they would flip end over end and swap places. I animated Wak-A-Rat and did rough layouts for most of the backgrounds. I listened to tons of voice actor demos and helped cast the characters. One of the most fun tasks was designing a Hit the Road floaty pen.

Hit the Road sees the characters travel all across the country, visiting roadside attractions and tourist traps. What made a road trip story prime material for Sam and Max's first interactive tale?

Not long before this I had done a comic called Sam & Max On the Road which referenced the road trips I took with my family when I was a kid. We moved to California in a 1960 Chrysler that looked like Sam & Max's Desoto. When I started chatting with Mike Stemmle about a possible theme it seemed he was already thinking about a roadtrip for the game as well. We liked that it could be somewhat modular - you could add or subtract locations based on how the design progressed.

Sam and Max have pretty distinctive voices. Did you give Mike and Sean any "training" with regard to getting the writing style right?

Like I said, they already had a handle on the style of humor. I think obscure as Sam & Max might seem to be, they are remarkably "gettable". You can count on the fact that Sam will over explain something and that Max will cut through the crap with a blunt wise ass comment, that they will both engage in various non-sequitors and that they will express their overzealous brand of crime-fighting in colorful ways. That said I don't think that everyone could pull it off and Mike and Sean did an amazing job keeping true to the spirit of the characters.

What sort of working relationship did the art team have? How was the work divided?

Hard to remember, there may have been a little crossover between art and animation but most people were one or the other. We had Peter Chan for backgrounds but we had to wait until Day of the Tentacle was done using his talents. That meant that I had to start in on pencil roughs for the locations. Peter's layouts would have been much more creative than mine but he and Paul Mica did an amazing job painting the backgrounds.

What was the process of creating a piece of background art for the game?

They started as rough pencil sketches which were either a screen or two wide if there was a panning background. I think those roughs may have been installed into the game along the way as placeholders. If I remember right, the final backgrounds were painted in Photoshop. Clickable items were done in a layer as an animation state. Sometimes there would be an animation cycle added for water or moving details - always the smaller the better

What sort of input did you have on the game's soundtrack?

I think I might of had some broad notes on the soundtrack but Mike is very musical and really took the soundtrack under his wing. He had a lot of interaction with Peter McConnell. I do remember that at the time I was enamored with Martin Denny with the parrot sounds and tiki drums and suggested that angle for the Savage Jungle Inn music.

I've always felt that Hit the Road successfully captured the tone of the comics, but was there ever any pressure from company management to keep the crudeness in check? Do you remember anything that had to be "toned down"?

Maybe I'm mistaken but I can't remember anybody breathing down our necks about any of the content. It's not like we were trying to pull a fast one and sneak obscenities into the game. Sam & Max are really sort of tame in that most of their moral ambiguity is implied.

Hit the Road was the first time that the characters were voiced. Over the years, Sam and Max have been voiced by no less than three actors each, and they've all been rather different, yet all of the performances somehow manage to feel pretty much correct. What went into the process that eventually led to the casting of Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson?

I think at the time everyone agreed what sort of voice Max might have -- little scrappy guy, maybe a Joe Pesche type so Nick Jameson filled the bill handily. My first thought about Sam's voice was always Donald Sutherland, the young version from the movie MASH. Another thought was Steve Landesberg from the Barney Miller show. I was totally convinced that's what Sam would sound like. We couldn't get him on the phone - video games were considered a fringe operation then and maybe not as lucrative to an actor as doing carpet ads in Seattle. I sifted through a lot of tapes and heard Bill Farmer and he made me laugh. He was the official voice of Goofy, one of my favorite cartoon dogs, but I liked Bill's dry read for Sam and we were able to use him for a bunch of other characters.

I'm familiar with Freelance Police and the Xbox action/adventure, but were there any other concepts that were nixed even earlier in development? Was there any "demand" for a new Sam & Max game within LucasArts after Hit the Road?

There was talk about doing a sequel to Hit the Road at LucasArts and I remember brainstorming a few ideas with Collette and Dave Grossman. One of the storylines I worked on the most was Sam & Max Plunge Through Space where the Statue of Liberty is stolen, hauled into space and converted into an intergalactic casino.

At some point Ron Gilbert was interested in doing Sam & Max as a set of mini games that you would market as impulse purchases on the counter of a retail game store. I remember going out for a brainstorm meeting with Ron and Dave Grossman. We thought it would be inspiring to have our meeting at Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater with the hideous animatronic animal band and such but it became clear within minutes that was a big mistake.

LEC ultimately took a pass on a Sam & Max sequel so years later when Infinite Machine called I pitched them Plunge Through Space for the Xbox concept they wanted to do. I developed it with them for a while and we pitched it to Microsoft and EA and when Infinite Machine closed shop, ten minutes later LucasArts called again -- They wanted to license Sam & Max. Mike Stemmle was ready to lead a new adventure game and we came up with Sam & Max Freelance Police which was initially an episodic concept and had to do with a hidden tropical continent called Subarctica ruled by an enormous penquin queen. It also had a great chapter about a desert gathering called "Burning Max" where artsy hippies frolic at the foot of a gigantic wicker lagomorph. Mike Stemmle was hilariously depicted by his art team as a naked blurred-out reveler.

How would you compare your involvement with Hit the Road by comparison to the other Sam & Max endeavors (the animated series, the cancelled projects, the Telltale episodes)?

Hit the Road was a full-time job for about eight months. I was there the whole time except for a honeymoon.

A couple of years later the animated series was underway and that took most of my time. I was trying to play the same role which was to be as available as possible. I would write and edit scripts and sift through model packets and frequently fly up to Toronto to work with the production crew.

Once the subsequent projects were being developed I was lucky to be working at Pixar full time so I was more of a consultant on them as I am with the Telltale episodes. Fortunately Telltale has an excellent handle on how to do Sam & Max so the heavy lifting is in good hands.

Time has been kind to Hit the Road, and it is often heralded as a classic. Why do you think the game has had such lasting appeal? What is it about the characters in general that has kept them relevant even to this day that they still appear in new webcomics and episodic adventure games?

I always think that once you know the characters, they have a familiarity in their behavior like good friends with a shorthand way of riffing. Their most obscure references are like private jokes that when you get them it's like you're sharing something with the characters. Also I don't think we ever locked Sam & Max in a particular place in time. I think they are resilient to adaptation meaning that once you sort of understand them the delivery device is beside the point.

Any amusing anecdotes from Hit the Road's production that you'd care to share?

I was always amused with how Jesse Clark, was animating a fight scene with Sam with his coat off. He loved how Sam appeared with his shirt sleeves rolled up and would go on and on about how cool he looked that way.

How would you compare the work environment of early 90s LucasArts to that of your more modern experiences in the games industry?

I still think that Telltale has a vibe that is similar to the old LucasArts. They are an extremely lean and efficient operation and they seem to be totally dedicated to all their licenses.

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