Friday, 18 May 2012

Game of the Week: Time Gentlemen, Please!

The history of comical pastiche is one of varying success. Family Guy's parody of Star Wars succeed only in being the most turgidly boring thing ever created by human minds while films such as The Princess Bride and Chinatown showed that, done properly and with some intelligence, pastiche  can be as good as those which they lampoon and pay tribute. Spaceballs fits somewhere in the middle I guess.
This week's game, Time Gentlemen, Please!, developed by Size Five (formally Zombie Cow) Games, who were responsible for Time Gentlemen's freeware predecessor Ben There, Dan That, possibly sits a bit higher than Spaceballs on the scale of Family Guy (-20) to Chinatown (+ 2,000). Despite what I just wrote please don't be put off by my comparison to Spaceballs (the scale means nothing!), Time Gentlemen is a genuinely funny game which pays great homage to the classics of the point-and-click genre while also being a clever and deserving example of it.

Being what it is, the game takes a lot of the staple game mechanics of the point-and-click and uses them for its own gameplay. The player is given various actions, such as walk, talk, pickup, and an inventory in which items can be stowed. All the game's puzzles are solved by using specific items with the game world or by combining items in the inventory to resolve puzzling situations. It may sound a little dry, especially when written in such an awkward manner, but what these games so often succeeded in doing was to make these simple mechanics both exceptionally funny and rigorously challenging. Notoriously point-and-click games partially devolved into using often absurd and obscure puzzles - leaving the player, in frustrated bafflement, trying all objects with any possible pixel on the screen. Yet despite this genuine problem with the genre (especially in its later phases) many players still hail these games as some of the best ever made.

Time Gentlemen manages to deal with these problems a little bit while still not giving in to the crushing peer pressure of accessibility. The game begins straight after the events of Ben There, Dan That with our two protagonists, the game's writers and designer Dan Marshall and Ben Ward, ruling over an altered England whose population believe Ben and Dan to be their leaders. Due to the two's negligence the population soon starves to death leaving Ben and Dan to travel back in time in an attempt to undo the events of the previous game. At any rate, the Ben and Dan find themselves imprisoned by Nazi Dinosaurs and the player is then given full reign to puzzle the two out of this mess of a story.

While the story and the game's script are ingeniously/moronically funny (I should mention that in terms of language this game isn't so much for kids) the game also succeeds in terms of puzzle quality too. Dan Marshall's recent blog post addressed to Tim Schafer actually kind of picks up on how Time Gentlemen irons out the sometimes frustrating aspects of earlier entries in the genre. For instance puzzles are sometimes sign posted by dialogue from the characters which gives the player subtle clues (subtler, that is, compared to the too-tempting-to-not-use hint system in the Special Edition Monkey Island games). There is also the inclusion of a game map so that travelling from one puzzle-solving destination to the next is easier and doesn't require the player to spend five minutes walking left (as Marshall so eloquently puts it "walking around is for idiots"). 

Clever Secret of Monkey Island reference inbound

 This modern, high-speed, stream-lined, gloriously new accessibility doesn't impede on the puzzles' quality and as such the game side-steps feeling either dated or 'dumbed down'. My favourite puzzle mechanic is the time machine - invented by a cross dressing robot - which allows the player to age objects in order to solve several puzzles. It's an idea which  fits into the genre remarkably well yet also feels fresh and free from restricting nostalgia. And I think this is really where Time Gentlemen succeeds. It's a homage to a genre past its heyday but it remains authentically fresh and enjoyable. This isn't a rolling list of in-jokes and tired references (though there are those too), but rather a (marginally) respectful homage which builds on the point-and-click while keeping all those things which make the genre so worth recalling. 

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