Parting Reflections

So what are we left with?

Something that kept popping into my head as I put together this chronicle was the question of what endures and what does not. The reason I insisted on non-ironically referring to this as a “saga” (George Lucas’s better one, if you ask me) all those years ago when we were on the preface is the genuine scope of the narrative. That scope permits us a trustworthy sense of which characters in this story are remembered versus forgotten, justifiably or not.

I knew when I began this article that it was going to function as a stealth history of this web site, and it’s no accident that I allocated almost as much space to the story of Mixnmojo as I did to that of LucasArts itself. The life cycle of Sam & Max 2 strangely correlates with the final years of Mojo in its original and most relevant form. It is not a stretch to say that the fate of the site was, in retrospect, entwined with the fate of the property. Just as the original Mixnmojo died when Freelance Police did, its stubborn continuation on a humbler scale forms parallels with the characters’ rebound under Telltale and beyond.

Stubbornness is the word. So what feeds it? Perhaps the truly indominable nature of Purcell’s creation (don’t forget to pre-order those new collectible figurines, dive headfirst into the gorgeous Telltale remasters, and hype yourself up for the upcoming VR game) is owed to its lack of saturation, as Stemmle believes:

Besides the inherent spiffiness of the Steve's characters, I think a lot of the reason that Sam & Max endure is that they haven't been beaten into the ground. A handful of comics. One season of an animated television show. One full-length video game, and 16 episodes of a serialized adventure game. And that's over 30+ years. There's so LITTLE Sam & Max product out there, you'd swear they were a British sitcom.

The explanation for our longevity is surely less flattering (the image of a comatose patient whose DNR form got misfiled comes to mind), but like Sam & Max, Mixnmojo is still around, still carrying a torch for those old LucasArts games, which have gratefully never been more available. At its heart and even during its heyday of contemporary game coverage, Mojo was always primarily concerned with being the unofficial custodians of a certain batch of legacy titles, so its fundamental charter hasn’t really nor will it erode. Not to get mushy, but those games live on, as they should, regardless of the sad fate of one single project, or even of LucasArts, which ultimately, deservedly collapsed.

The Secret of Monkey Island on display at the Smithsonian’s "The Art of Video Games" exhibition. Maybe their copy of Obi-Wan for Xbox was busted.

We’re still here, still doing our thing, still debating with each other about whether the EGA or VGA version of The Secret of Monkey Island is the “real one.” It’s a testament to the fact that it’s the individuals, whether you’re talking about people or releases, that earn lasting loyalty in a way that an entity or label does not, or should not. Love the band, not the brand.

I’m sure you could make a similar kind of statement about Telltale, which itself proved more fleeting than the undying fondness for some of its earlier titles. Though it’s an overly simplistic view, one can bisect Telltale into pre-Walking Dead and post-Walking Dead just as surely as one can divide LEC along the line drawn by its unshakeable Star Wars addiction. I leave it to someone else to tackle that company’s history at length, and such an effort would probably benefit from several more years hindsight, as this one has.

I considered Freelance Police deserving of a deep dive in part because it is a crucial part of this site’s biography, and in part because of the interesting smaller arcs it exposes in addition to the larger, more familiar beats. It can seem a bit lacking in perspective to ascribe so much intrigue to something as trivial as game development or a site that tracks it, but this author and his target audience are close to the material. Sam & Max 2 went down while I was a teenager who followed this stuff religiously, so its exploration possessed the enchantment of a nostalgic exercise.

Doing the research for this was like getting to re-prosecute high school, or something, and it was more enjoyable than anticipated to plunge into the lengthy tedium of digging through the reams of ancient internet scrolls, revisiting past events without an adolescent mind’s distorted importance of them, and trying to fill in stubborn blanks with the benefit of hindsight. I hardly imagine the interest to be universal, but the little dramas, turns, subjective devastations and Pyrrhic victories, especially on the fan side, are as fascinating to read about for yours truly as suspense fiction. And in their own, small-scale way, some of the outcomes are borderline Shakespearean.

I was particularly struck in hindsight by the downright Cinderella-like stories of fans becoming developers. Jake spent much of his young adulthood writing about games like Sam & Max and Monkey Island through these fan sites, and like a few of his compatriots eventually found himself working on sequels to those games, as well as getting to help Purcell piece together a handsome, expanded reprint of Surfin’ the Highway (the definitive bound collection of all Sam & Max strips) -- a labor of love that was long overdue. That’s just a cool story in and of itself, one burbling beneath the A-plot, that’s worth highlighting, and I daresay there’s a couple of those running throughout the previous ten pages depending on what kind of relationship you have with the subject matter.

Since I’ve gone and implied that there is an A-plot, I’ll quickly surmise that it’s what I was getting at from the jump: More about the modern adventure game - which I am admittedly not very familiar with (confession: I haven’t really been much of a “gamer” since the topic at hand was a current event), but which I nevertheless can recognize really only exists thanks to changes in financing, production pipelines and distribution - traces back to Sam & Max 2 than is generally understood or at least spoken of aloud. To the extent that this relationship is convincing, I wanted to shed a tiny shaft of light on it, in my arrogance that no other site was in quite the position to do the shining.

“A very small adventure game can cast a very large shadow.”

That said, I tried my best not to approach this with an agenda. Instead of starting with a conclusion that I hoped to find support for, there were two questions I set out to ponder when I embarked on this. The first was whether things ultimately worked out for the best for Sam & Max and the people that love it. The second was whether the fate of Freelance Police was inevitable, arriving as it did at a particular turning point for LucasArts.

As I made clear in the introduction, I've come to consider the answer to the first to be fairly straightforward: Yes. I think Freelance Police would have been good, and I think it even would have been successful, in the sense that its budget was humble enough that the correspondingly humble sales it would have generated from a genuinely excited public would have more than covered it. But that would have been it for the characters at LucasArts, which would have otherwise proceeded toward the uninspirational conclusion of its story exactly as it did in the timeline we live in.

“What we spent wasn’t large by comparison [to other games] but neither was the revenue forecast,” says Dan Connors, underlining that the game’s independent viability may have been less an issue than the fact that it was deemed too slight a performer in the grand scheme of things to be worthy of the company’s time. “I don’t think Sam & Max would have turned the studio around or sunk it,” says Kevin Bruner. Therefore, it was effectively a neutral project in the business estimation, which interestingly enough meant it was as much of a target as something seen as destined to fail.

It certainly meant that there would be no follow-up. Had it released, Freelance Police would have represented a new Sam & Max outing from LucasArts after eleven years in the dugout, and the hiatus after that would have been indefinite. The title was, by any realistic estimation, the last call for the genre at a studio that was unrecognizable from the one that shipped Sam & Max Hit the Road. It was only because of Telltale, which emerged from the ashes of the fallen game, that the characters got a true resurgence. The math says we got more, and not less, Sam & Max content because of what happened to the LucasArts sequel.

However, the fact that the game was not sacrificed in vain should not obscure the fact that it was still sacrificed, and for reasons that are every bit as circumstantial and frustrating now as they were then. To minimize this is to insult the hard work of a talented team. The fact that I don’t believe LEC would have ended up any differently is part of that frustration, and brings me to my answer to the second question: No. The game’s cancellation was, emphatically, not inevitable, as hindsight sometimes tricks us into believing certain events were. Earlier, I described the circumstances that had been brewing at LucasArts when the decision was made as a perfect storm. Several things happened to secure Freelance Police’s position on the chopping block. In the absence of even one of them, the story might have easily been different.

If Simon Jeffery had lingered at the company a little longer, that might have been enough to protect the game, which was instead left at the mercy of an interim governing body who were champions of nothing instead of short-term fortunes – and even then their calculations were dubious, as they were apparently predicated on notions such as the continent of Europe being erased from the globe overnight. "I think that's a given," says Randy Tudor when I ask if the continued presence of Jeffery would have made the difference. "We went from having president who cared about creativity to someone who was only concerned with numbers."

If Sam & Max 2 had simply not been the very last of the string of non-franchise games that LucasArts had put on its itinerary in 2002, it would have been spared. If only RTX: Red Rock or Gladius or Full Throttle 2 had entered development after Sam & Max 2 and not before, it would have instead been one of them that would have been on deck when the studio’s fiscal situation came to a perceived head and a decision to clean the slate was implemented. And frankly, any one of them would have been a more deserving victim.

If Sam & Max 2 had been a little less protected from just how askance the upper echelon was looking at the project in a state of quiet panic, the team might have taken measures to improve their chances. This could have included making a point of shifting development priorities in such a way that focused production episodically, as Telltale would later, thus achieving that “critical mass” Connors referred to, before time ran out. The team wasn’t racing against this clock because they didn’t know they were up against one.

And so timing, happenstance and plain old lousy luck were what really killed Sam & Max 2. It was collateral damage, the casualty of larger forces. Its demise was arbitrary. That is not a particularly fun nor satisfying narrative, but it’s the one that emerges. “I used to say Freelance Police was the daisy that got hit by the weed whacker,” said Dan Connors during an interview from late 2005, while Telltale’s first Sam & Max season was in pre-production.

Which is not to say inevitability played no role in this. What is true is that time was probably up for graphic adventure games at LucasArts, for the various reasons that have been touched on in our exploration of the studio’s turn-of-the-century posture. The choice LucasArts had – and it was a choice – was whether to sunset their status as the genre’s greatest contributor gracefully, rather than in such a blunt, unconsidered, asinine way that disavowed their core fan base and irreversibly stained what should stand as a much less equivocal legacy.

Freelance Police could have come out, period, and it would not have required some costly stand for principle on the part of the LucasArts honchos, but merely thinking that was less narrow than an angstrom. Even from a dollars and cents perspective, the executive order doesn’t truthfully make dispassionate business sense -- the one level on which it was supposed to be justifiable. The explanation that Sam & Max 2 was cancelled out of a kind of ruthless efficiency, so that the talent could be re-assigned to more lucrative projects, is more than weak -- it was mooted. The team was dispersed anyway by massive layoffs and migrations that were part of the immediate internal transition that followed.

LucasArts spent plenty of money – a heck of a lot more than shipping a nearly complete adventure game would have come to – trying to build itself up all over again as an internal developer under Jim Ward (and again under Darrell Rodriguez, and again…). In an alternate timeline where the studio simply finished up what they started with Freelance Police, then, things would have realistically played out the same, with no meaningful difference in terms of resources expended or earned, nor in the company’s ultimate fate. The difference would simply have been that a good project wouldn’t have gratuitously gone into the trash can on top of it all.

LucasArts as an adventure game developer may have had to die. It just didn’t have to be murdered.


  1. Page 1 Introduction/Justification
  2. Page 2 Part 1: Star Wars Interactive
  3. Page 3 Part 2: Brain Drain
  4. Page 4 Part 3: Simon Says
  5. Page 5 Part 4: A Welcome Oasis
  6. Page 6 Part 5: “The only game, really"
  7. Page 7 Part 6: Spot the Pattern
  8. Page 8 Part 7: “The smoothest project I ever worked on”
  9. Page 9 Part 8: General Shut-Uppery
  10. Page 10 Part 9: “I mean, kickass we got Slashdotted”
  11. Page 11 Part 10: Telltale Now
  12. Page 12 Parting Reflections
  13. Page 13 Appendix: Sources and Acknowledgements