A bit more than a decade ago, my husband and I played a bunch of LucasArts adventure games. Remember, this was pre-Episode One. Pre-Grim Fandango not being released for Macs for that matter. LucasArts was still okay then. In fact, they were pretty cool.
Sure, the Indiana Jones game was kinda dull, but Day of the Tentacle was a geek’s dream. Personally, though, I preferred Sam & Max Hit the Road. It’s still the most surreal game I’ve played, although Psychonauts came close. But even Psychonauts’ meat circus (really) didn’t quite compare to the combination of conspiracy theory, circus freaks and roadside attractions that was Sam & Max. Gator Golf, anyone? A bigfoot underground? How about a rotating restaurant atop the world’s largest ball of twine?
Still, my favorite part of the Sam & Max gameplay was the dialog. It was menu based. All the options tended to be snarky, but there were a few that would get a person decked in real life. Really funny, but nothing you’d actually say unless you wanted to end the conversation immediately.
The first time we came across one of these, we looked at each other, figured out how much progress we stood to lose, and picked the least helpful option. It got about the response we expected–a nasty, angry (silly) retort–but then the weird thing happened. We still had all our other dialog options left. There was no penalty for being nasty. This made a lot of sense in the game, since Sam and Max were both psychotic, but it took a little getting used to.
From that point on, we always chose the funniest, least productive dialog first. After all, if we picked the less-funny, productive stuff, we moved forward in the game and lost our chance at the funny.
Then we went even further. We decided we liked playing by Sam & Max rules, so we adopted them in real life. No penalty for the funny first response, even if it isn’t very friendly.
I don’t recommend this for everyone*, of course. It takes timing and a good sense of how much distance must be kept from the truth in order for something to be funny. Most of all, it takes both a willingness to explain and a willingness to listen when a joke goes awry.
For example, my husband has recently discovered caipirinhas and likes to have one in the evening. We even bought an ice crusher for making them. Since he had a final this weekend, he’s also been studying most evenings. Last week, as he was making a caipirinha and preparing to study, I joked that he was going to need to bring one to his final.
He got a little huffy and declared that it was one drink over several hours and–oops. I stopped him and invoked Sam & Max rules.
Then I explained. He’s never taken a psychology class, but luckily, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know anything about the subject.
“You know how context aids memory–you’re more likely to remember something in the same circumstances you originally encountered it?”
“Okay. This is one of the things that get mentioned in a variety of psychology classes. Every time it’s come up in one of my classes, there’s always one student who just has to say….”
He grinned. “So I guess I should bring beer to my finals.”
Thus was disaster averted. But that’s the thing about Sam & Max rules. You can’t play by them with someone you don’t trust or who doesn’t trust you. You can’t play with someone who won’t explain when the meaning isn’t evident, or with someone who won’t take explanations at face value, or with someone who can’t tell when the joke falls flat. Playing by Sam & Max rules takes a lot of work.
But when it works, it’s very silly fun.
* It’s taken me time, but I have eventually come to realize (not understand, mind you) that not everyone’s life and friends are a traveling comedy routine.