Release Date: October 2008
Was that me complaining not long ago about the "death" of the classic adventure game? Yeah, I think it was. What was I thinking? I guess what had me upset was the abandonment of the adventure game in the late Nineties by some of its fabled founders, most notably LucasArts and Sierra Online. Lucas is now doing all those Star Wars shoot-em-ups where you get to play the Dark Lord or something. And earn a lot of RPG type points in the process. Yeah, that's why evil sorcerers go into the world domination biz -- to collect game points. You know what RPG games should give away instead? Green stamps. About a half century ago every largish food outlet in the country gave away pages of stamps when you bought groceries. Then you ran home, laboriously pasted them into books and used them to buy mostly cheesy stuff at what they called reclamation centers. I think they retrofitted the reclamation centers into rehab centers for substance abusers, but otherwise the whole green stamp thing was stamped out decades ago. I think it's well past time to bring 'em back. Only the modern innovation would be that you earn points to buy stuff on eBay. So you blast a whole bunch of rebels or jedis in the latest Star Wars game and you get a bunch of points you can redeem to buy used toaster ovens online. Everybody wins.
Anyway, getting back to my original point, I've suddenly realized there's now a wealth of adventure games out there. Not only that, but a wealth of excellent adventure games. Not only that, but a veritable cornucopia of free, excellent adventure games. The game that most recently drove this point into my pointy little head goes by the name of Ben There, Dan That.
BTDT is a "pointy-clicky" adventure that follows the zany, vaguely sci-fi exploits of Ben and Dan, two struggling independent game designers who room together somewhere in London. The plot has a couple of boxy, buggy aliens conspiring to take over the world, but first feel it imperative to get roomies Dan and Ben out of the way. Actually, the plot, though fun, isn't really the point in this game. What's really going on here is the game designers, coincidentally named Dan and Ben, are having a whale of a good time reliving all their favorite LucasArts adventure games. Lest anyone miss the inspiration for this romp, the game proper begins in a living room dominated by huge posters of LucasArts' greatest adventure hits. BTDT most closely cleaves to the shenanigans of Day of the Tentacle, with time travel and other astrophysical goings on going on. Dan and Ben are, in real life, respectively, Dan Marshall and Ben Ward. Mr. Marshall would appear to be the mad genius primarily behind BTDT. The game's website provides all you could wish to know about Dan and his gaming exploits.
The game's graphics more resemble late Looney Tunes than late LucasArts, but are more than adequate. All the characters look like postage stamps with matchstick legs and the animations have been, as the characters in the game themselves point out, restrained by budget. But you're not going to be playing this game for the cutting-edge technology. What shines here is the writing and, of course, all the inside jokes about independent gamers and all things LucasArtsy. Be forewarned, however, as the one quality Dan and Ben have not carried over from the best of Lucas is the PG rating. BTDT borders, in fact, on being R rated, I'd say. There's a fair amount of genuine cussing and an awful lot of talk about wanking and other generally unacceptable behavior. Being, apparently, British, Ben and Dan also frequently indulge their fondness for bashing all things American. For a couple of guys who obviously grew up insanely addicted to Star Wars and American television it does seem odd that they don't cut the USA a bit more slack culturally. Oh well. Apparently our movies and TV are great but our beer is unforgivable. On the other hand, there's so much snarking around in this game about everything, including religion, that I don't suppose any of the victims should feel too singled out.
The BTDT website itself describes the gameplay as easy to average difficulty, and I agree with that. They do also provide an equally well-written "hint-through," which I applaud as walkthroughs are not my thing. It took me about a half dozen hours to complete the game, and I am extremely methodical. You might get through it in half that time. Which means you'll probably have missed what's most amusing here -- reading the blurbs. One of the things that made the LucasArts’ adventure games great was, of course, the hilarious writing in such classics as Day of the Tentacle,Sam and Max and the Monkey Island series. Some of the best jokes were to be found by doing the most improbable of game activities. Ben and Dan have, if anything, upped the ante. In fact, my only complaint with this game is that some of the dialog balloon exchanges, while amusing, carry on way too long. That is, Ben and Dan often get off a little too much on their own cleverness. Someone actually trying to progress through the game, as a game, is going to have to do a lot of clicking away of multi-colored dialog blurbs.
In short, Ben There, Dan That is really more of an homage than a game. While both aspects have been well done, I would say that this game is primarily geared for LucasArts and classic computer gaming fans. Newer players are likely to be perplexed at about half of what's going on.
There is some music in this game, modest though its specs are, and it is not only good but appropriate. I also thought the somewhat sparse sound effects were also well done. As I say, the game is on the short side, but it's also free. Well, sort of. It is what the designers themselves have dubbed "donationware." I suppose this differs from shareware in the sense that the authors really don't expect to get paid, whereas the shareware guys do. I do wish there were a simpler way to remunerate hard-working, inventive independent gamemakers like Dan and Ben other than through PayPal. It's not that I don't trust PayPal, it's just that the whole payment scheme is too haphazard. One might even label this sort of thing "guiltware." That is, only the super-guilty (or super-honest) people ever fork over any cash. But when a game is downloaded by, as the BTDT website claims, over ten thousand people, there should be some sort of unavoidable cash reward for that. Other than in-game advertising banners I'm not sure what this should be. Bill Gates once floated the idea of everyone paying pennies for email. His idea was that this would be an insignificant cost for most of us, but would be prohibitive for spammers, who send out millions of emails. It seems to me something similar could be worked out for web surfing, and for downloading. If Dan (and Ben) got even a few pennies each time their terrific game was downloaded, it would eventually add up to significant dough.
Dan, Ben and their cohorts should certainly be applauded for their efforts, but I think perhaps the real hero here is a guy named Chris Jones. Mr. Jones is the one responsible for AGS, Adventure Game Studio, which is the game-making software that BTDT was composed in. AGS, somewhat miraculously, allows talented folks like Dan and Ben to skip most of the expense and drudgery of coding an adventure game. As I understand it, one basically supplies one's own artwork, character sprites and sounds, while AGS largely takes care of the game underpinnings. So, you say, so what? Well, take a gander at the AGS games now available, all for free, on the games pages. Full-sized games, medium-sized, small-sized. I must have played a couple dozen of these things over the past few years myself. BTDT, as excellent as it is, is only one of a hundred or more equally, or almost equally, well-crafted AGS classic adventures. Just to mention a few, there are the many Yahtzee games (5 Days a Stranger, etc.), there are the marvelous remakes of King's Quest I, II, and III. There are the Ben Jordan paranormal games. The list goes on and on. While I was looking over the site while researching this review I noticed an Indiana Jones "homage" game demo that I downloaded and played, Indiana Jones and the Fountain of Youth. It's terrific.
The classic adventure may be dead at LucasArts and at Sierra Online, but it is more than alive and well at the AGS site and many other places. Advances in technology led George Lucas and other pioneers to abandon the adventure game for the richer realms of the RPG and the FPS, but computer advances also permitted talented, hard-working folks like Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to take up the dropped baton.
By the way, I'm giving Ben There, Dan That a final score of B. You may be thinking, how can you lavish all this praise on these guys and cough up a measly B? Frankly, this is a game that is going to strike different constituencies quite differently. If you are a Maniac Mansion maniac, you are going to love BTDT. If you're easily offended, you're going to hate it. So, to be fair to all, the game gets a mean of B. However, you gamers all know who you are, and can judge your interest in BTDT appropriately. Just remember -- Green stamps. In the new green economy they're going to be even huger. And greener.
Final Grade: B