Time Gentlemen, Please PC Review
Adventure games stem from a proud tradition of trying to rub a steel pipe against a courgette and watching as they fail to actually combine in to anything. Fun or not the puzzles were rubbish; a kind of special synergy of inventory trial-and-error and baffling Rube Goldberg logic. Open the door by pasting bits of film tape on to a midge, melt down a Shetland pony into pixie glue then use it as custard, that sort of thing.
Yet back at its very height, LucasArts, Sierra, and even Adventure Soft were still managing to churn out some of the most enjoyable games of the decade. These were the kind of games that boasted classic Tim Schafer dialogue along with some of the most dynamic and memorable characters of any game era: The Guybrush Threepwood’s and Sam and Max’s that defined a generation of gaming and burrowed themselves into the heart of anyone who had one.
The whole genre is a weird oil and water mix of the brilliant and the tedious. But no matter how much you loved them the puzzles were still rubbish. Even back when games could be solved largely by sweeping your cursor over the entire surface area of your screen it would take an aptitude for wading through ten minutes worth of 2D junk just to find that one lizard rune. And there you are in 1993, up at 3am with the slight cologne of flat Pepsi on you from hours of basting next to your CPU, just trying to look up a walkthrough that’s not written entirely in Korean.
Time Gentlemen, Please, however, is made by the kind of people who clearly know and understand the headaches of the genre. This has to be one of the only adventure games that sticks to the traditional absurdist guts while having entirely logical puzzles. Imagine that, point and click puzzles based on actual relative sense. Consider this an exercise in reducing frustrations by going against the grain and allowing user-friendly puzzles and a robust little hint system hidden within character banter. Try not to swallow your tongue in baffled glee.
Writer/designers Ben Ward and Dan Marshall penned this as a sequel to last year’s award winning AGS adventure Ben There, Dan That. BTDT is free to download so you can give it a go, although Time Gents still ostensibly functions as a stand-alone game. Both are clearly labours of love. You might actually recognise Dan’s name from his PC Zone column How To Make A Game which described the development of an independent release from the ground up. For the record, being an indie designer is hard. Some generations have their Nam, indie designers have bills and pink eye which is mostly as bad. So when you’re looking at Time Gentlemen, Please you’re seeing a game that was made by two guys who clearly have inherited nothing but a love for and wealth of knowledge of adventure games after decades of play.
The story is a bit of Day of the Tentacle mixed in with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Ben There, Dan That introduced Ben and Dan as a couple of time travelling layabouts in an expansive world of mid-nineties allusions and references to bad TV. Following up on BTDT’s plotline is Time Gents’ extremely savvy 21st century homage that harkens back to the early traditions of point-and-clicks in a way that only true slacker connoisseurs could manage. This is the story of two Brits travelling through time and accidently influencing history to churn out WWII-era robot AI and Nazi dinosaurs.
It even feels like the kind of thing you’d cook up back when you were at uni, a sort of back-to-basics throwback to the days of armchair programming, and that’s because it essentially is. This is a game made by gamers for gamers. And needless to say, dinosaurs and Nazis are things all games should fucking require. It’s testament to the kind of instinctive reflex Ben and Dan have toward the internet culture of twenty-something gamers; the type of people who are fully willing to accept the awesomeness-to-Nazis gaming ratio that instantly makes any game a good 10% better than most. That might seem like a pretty nebulous point to make but the reality that Ben and Dan know their audience bloody well is the real strength of this game.
Time Gents is a compact adventure game that takes you through a six decently-sized puzzles over the course of about 8 hours. By the opening you’re given a chance to run through fairly simplistic controls before you’re thrown in to the pulp of the game. It’s a standard left-click action system that allows you to interact with the environment, however what differentiates this from most is how integrally tied every action is to the game’s massive reservoir of comedy dialogue. That really is the meat and bones of it all. Even though the game does requires the slow-going experimentation of any classic adventure games it also engages in an ongoing and highly meta running-commentary throughout that pokes fun at the model of gameplay it has adapted. This happens with both Ben and Dan acknowledging every piece of nebulous game logic in extended dialogue between the characters. So when by the first real puzzle you’ve fallen in to a rough industrial basement, within minutes you’re already ankle-deep in allusions which were custom-made for the jaded and nostalgic. “I’ll keep an eye out for any more hand panels, lightswitches or Chuckie Eggs for you,” Dan will say. You’ll get stuck trying to figure out how to pry a nail out of a board and get slapped with the mildly sardonic “I’d better use something out of my INVENTORY!” When you are left to deal with the usual tropes of old school gaming it inevitably becomes part of an overarching, self-flagellating joke.
When it’s not skating on blatant memories from the nineties it’s turning out puzzles that are new variations on old themes. From taking a page out of Monkey Island and laying out multiple-choice dialogue puzzles to trying to collect objects off of mice that dart in and out of walls. You’re dealing with standard puzzle constructs but using different methods to figure them out. The characters will talk about what’s happening around them in depth and so solving puzzles in Time Gents seems less based on random luck while flinging objects at other objects and more to do with paying attention to the characters and what they’re chatting away about.
The amount of writing that must have gone on before this game came together is truly fucking boggling, because there is as much dialogue as there are object combinations to click through. Instead of leaving you sweating blood as you spend twenty minutes trying to use a key as a spanner, they’ve stored up pages of those self-deprecating lines that double as both a running commentary for nearly every possible user-action and a genius little hint system for when you hit what seems a stunningly perplexing task. It’s a 180 degree turn-around from the days of stilted, canned responses regurgitating the same “You can’t do that” response even when you’re an iota away from successfully solving a puzzle. Ben and Dan on the other hand will hint you through it with smirking lines to the effect of “That looked like it nearly worked; I did an animation thing with my hands”. In fact it’s worth spending a good quarter of the game simply clicking through things just to see the enormous amount of work put in to the writing of it.
There’s not much you can actively dislike about the game but to be fair it’s always easy to excuse independent games for slight foibles. Yeah, the animation is a bit weird sometimes. The character animation in particular has a sort of odd staccato quality that comes off like you’re staring at your cousin’s Flash experiment. Try and ignore the mouths when they’re talking. Yeah, the audio is pretty non-existent. There’s a running soundtrack throughout but audio effects are at a real minimum and there’s no voice-acting to speak of. But those are pretty mindless criticisms, especially for this style of game. Any of those foibles end up seeming like genuine non-issues as a whole just because they underline that quirky, shaky-handed LucasArts style they’re trying to command. What did grind me a bit was the actual style of humour. Some reviewers called it absurdist or surreal and technically it is. But that’s really part and parcel of the comedy adventure game genre. A lot of the actual punch-lines that were written into the puzzles ended up just coming across as cheap gags that played like forgotten Ren and Stimpy B-sides. Take for example a side-character dead after getting shot in the cock, followed with a little animation of blood filling his nappy, or a task to get a mouse to fuck a dead mouse corpse. It’s comedy but it’s often sloppy comedy.
Even then Ben and Dan are still the kind of indie game designers that represent the impossible dream of being players first, designers second, all while actually being quite good. They’re the novelty comedy mallet that can both delicately extract the DNA out of the best parts of LucasArts’ then annihilate the classic gameplay pains out of the genre. And beyond that there really are few companies these days who attempt to carry on with the genre. Retro-styled adventure games are a spectacularly lonely niche and Time Gentlemen, Please offers a modernised variation of everything you adored about the point-and-click dynasty once dominated by the likes of Tim Schafer. And that torch has ostensibly has been passed straight down to Ben and Dan.