A screen shot from Sam & Max Save the World Remastered.
Screen shot courtesy of Skunkape Games
Games

Why a Group of Ex-Telltale Developers Are Bringing Back Sam & Max

The comedic duo have been a mainstay of games for decades now, and they're coming back in a remaster of Telltale's first season.
November 9, 2020, 5:00pm

Sam & Max are back—again. Yes, there was a virtual reality game announced a few months back, but this latest announcement is likely to land a bit harder with fans. Several members of the original Sam & Max development team at Telltale Games have come together under a new roof to update, polish, and remaster the first season of Telltale's episodic series. 

This update to Sam & Max Save the World, the game’s first season, is coming to both Switch and PC on December 2.

It's been two years since Telltale, who helped pioneer episodic gaming, shut down after years of chronic mismanagement. The aftermath of Telltale's closure was messy, with hundreds of employees laid off without severance. The rights to several Telltale's games went back to their original owners, while others became part of a controversial Telltale revival. But Sam & Max, the franchise that kicked off Telltale's ascent, remained in limbo.

How this version of Sam & Max came to be started after Telltale went under. It was a hectic time where it wasn't exactly clear what was going to happen with everything Telltale owned.

"I was in the loop a little bit about what was going on," said Telltale founder Dan Connors to VICE Games during a recent interview with several other people working on the update. "And I knew that the assets were available. And I thought, 'wow, Sam & Max would be really cool I bet. People would be happy to work on it again.'"

Connors, who was CEO for Telltale before management shifts saw him stepping down from the role in 2015, got on the phone with several key people he'd remained in touch with from the Telltale days, and pitched them on the idea of getting back in the Sam & Max business.

"When I first heard from Dan, [I thought] 'oh, a collection of us have the opportunity to actually buy and collectively own our own work? We could own Sam and Max?'" said Jake Rodkin, who worked on the user interface during the game's first season. "That's awesome."

If Rodkin's name sounds familiar, it's because the former Idle Thumbs podcast co-host later worked on Telltale's breakout hit, The Walking Dead, and eventually left to form his own studio, Campo Santo, who released the acclaimed Firewatch. Rodkin now works at Valve.

Buying the rights is just part of the puzzle, though. A magic fairy doesn't just show up and hand you a disc with the game on it. The folks managing Telltale's assets started digging through the servers it had acquired from the defunct studio and sending download links.

snm-savetheworld-comparison04.jpg

"We were sent basically everything that existed," said Rodkin. "Marketing assets, source code to the game, the source assets for the art, the source audio, all the original Maya animation files, all the original voice data, the source code to the game engine."

Most of the handover happened digitally, but there was one hard drive with random material, and at times, they had to reach out to ex-Telltale employees and hope they had better copies of material on their computer. In one case, that material was found hiding in a garage. But because Telltale was a company shipping episode games at a rapid clip, the studio had to be pretty organized, which meant everything that showed up here was pretty organized, too. 

Once Skunkape Games had acquired the rights to Sam & Max, they needed to figure out what to do with it. Their first thought was simple: put out a patch that fixes some bugs. Just do the basics. But it turned out there is nothing basic about touching a video game made 14 years ago, because even trying to mess with the original tools would mean building a PC running Windows XP, an operating system that Microsoft officially stopped supporting back in 2014.

Thus, the team's ambitions moved higher; they decided to use the most updated Telltale Tool, the studio's in-house tech to build games. It was famously archaic, and often criticized by its own developers, but over time, it did get better and more flexible. Moving over to the updated Telltale Tool had obvious advantages, like making ports to the Switch a lot easier.

And yet…

"If you short circuit past almost fifteen years of game development history and bring all the same game data over to that," said Rodkin, "a bunch of the old stuff just didn't work."

Max_progression.jpg

In the new Telltale Tool, the lighting system no longer worked, which means they'd have to redo all the game's lighting. This opened the door to something more than a patch. If they were going to have to go as far as relighting the game, why not take another few steps?

(Skunkape actually reached out to an ex-Telltale employee who was familiar with the updated lighting system and asked them to help out.)

Everyone who worked on this update originally worked on the first season back at Telltale, which also meant it was a chance to, for better and worse, revisit their past work. Whenever I've read something I've written from more than a few years ago, I cringe. In this case, it was a bunch of ex-Telltale developers starting at work they'd put together at least 14 years ago.

"I modeled for a lot of the characters originally 15 years ago when I shouldn't have," laughed Jon Sgro, who helped at Telltale (and Sam & Max) doing modelling, before becoming the studio's director of production technologies. "I wasn't the character modeler back then."

Sgro had a chance to touch everything in the game. Some of the most impressive work comes from Sam and Max themselves. In the original, Max's mouth had some pretty basic animations, which the team described as "a rubber band that's vaguely stretching around." Now, Max actually looks like a fully formed character, his face better expressing his humor.

snm-savetheworld-comparison01.jpg

Some of the work even involved asking Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell to contribute some additional art; one of the goals of the remaster was to make the look of the character more in line with the way Purcell's drawing style has evolved since Telltale first worked on the game.

"I've had my comics re-released a couple of times in different configurations, with a few touch-ups to the material itself," said Purcell. "Similarly, the remaster revisits the visual presentation of Telltale's first season of games by updating the models and lighting in a way that makes it very fresh and with more of an animated feature look. I had the benefit of getting peeks at it along the way so I could see what the potential was going to be. It's very thoughtfully executed and is gorgeous."

"All of the work that the environment and character artists and the animators did is actually probably nicer than people might remember it as just because it was buried under like 2006 Telltale tech," said Rodkin.

Rodkin's chance to revisit his old work came in the form of the interface. Sam & Max was technically released on Xbox 360 at the time, but it didn't have true controller support—it was just the analog stick acting as a virtual mouse. That's different now. There's also an updated intro, which might seem like a small thing, except for getting a chance to fix a mistake. 

Sam_progression.jpg

The theme music to LucasArts' Sam & Max: Hit the Road is iconic, but when Telltale was making Sam & Max, it didn't have the rights to it. While composing a theme song for Telltale's take, the studio asked composer Jared Emerson Johnson to, in the words of Rodkin, "make it sound like the opening theme to Sam & Max: Hit the Road, but not so close to it that it's like legally questionable." Nobody was ever really happy with how it turned out.

For the remaster, Johnson got some of the original musicians together with a few new collaborators and wrote a brand-new opening theme.

It's one of many parts of the game that have been updated beyond simply making it run on updated PCs and newer consoles. One of the key questions facing a lot of remasters, remakes, and updates is how much you touch the original material. What, exactly, is sacred?

"The first episode was never really well received, or as well received as it could be," said Connors. "But when we played through it, we'd look at it and notice that so many of the moments—the ideas were great, the dialog was great, everything about it felt like it should be working. But we could just tell from our experience now that it wasn't pushed in the right directions to make those scenes work. So a lot of things that were great ideas just kind of fell flat because we didn't have the time or the budget or whatever to make those moments sing."

Consequently, this update is more than just tweaked visuals and lighting. There are fundamentally new music cues, different camera angles, and altered timing for jokes. They recast the voice actor for Bosco, because it was a black character voiced by a white actor, a creative decision that didn't exactly sit right with the team when they decided to revisit it.

But the team also tried to draw a line in the sand: don't mess with stuff you didn't work on. 

"We were very, very committed to sticking to the original design and the story," said programmer Randy Tudor, "even to the point where there were a couple times John [Sgro] was playing the game and he'd write up a bug and be like 'That shouldn't be like that.' I'm like "well, that's the way they designed it. We were very careful about not trying to reinterpret intent."

One small example was towards the end of the first season, where Sam and Max enter a room where there's a big spoon that can be bent using your newfound psychic powers. 

"When you leave the room, the designer was very specific about, 'oh, I want that spoon to unbend,'" said Tudor. "We couldn't remember why? But we think it was because they didn't want someone to accidentally stumble across the puzzle solution. And we kind of sat on that issue for a while and thought up several different possible solutions and ended up not doing anything. [laughs] So it's still the way it was before."

In the end, though, the result is the same: Sam & Max are back—again. The comedic duo have been kicking around video games for decades now, and despite time marching on, their lasting appeal continues to attract people to tell new stories and fans to enjoy them.

"I've noticed how fans have responded to Sam & Max over the years, and they often relate to their quirky friendship," said Purcell. "If we're lucky, we all have certain friends who 'get' us. Sam and Max have differences in their personalities, but they share a common language and familiarity, like your best friendships. I like when I hear that some of Sam & Max's ongoing jokes or obscure lines become meaningful in-jokes between friends who share Sam & Max with each other. Like they have their own version of that friendship."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).