Words About Video Games

41 Games: Day of the Tentacle

The story is goofy. The characters are often obnoxious. But when it comes to puzzle design, the adventure genre has not been surpassed.

It was illuminating to play this game's remaster early in the year and then play Thimbleweed Park after it. You can see the threads that connect them: multiple characters, an intricate web of puzzles, and a heavy reliance on mad science to explain how the world works.

But Day of the Tentacle neatly sidesteps so many of the problems that plague the much more recent (i.e., it came out this year) Thimbleweed Park.

For one, its three characters are always in separate times and places, so you're never left scratching your head as to why you need so many of them, or who you're meant to do X or Y with. Nor do you have to remember where you last left a given character so you can swap inventory items. (In fact, the remaster lets you speed up the process of item delivery considerably.) The writing is better at nudging you in the right direction; I rarely felt in need of a hint to proceed.

The number of locations is also smartly handled. You don't have to learn a whole town and countryside. You have to learn one mansion, in three different time periods. This gives the designers plenty of real estate to play with for puzzles, while giving the player a familiar logic and layout to work with.

For another, the madcap comic setting lets the puzzles be strange and delightful. The bit with the quarters and the washing machine is, without question, my favorite puzzle/gag in all of video games.

It also has real wit: Day of the Tentacle's versions of the US Founding Fathers are hilarious and irreverent, as they squabble over what should go in the Bill of Rights, or whether the room is too hot or too cold, or George Washington insists, very pointedly, that he only chops down *cherry* trees.

Sending a character to that time period who thinks he's probably heard of these guys somewhere is a good touch, too: it makes sense that he'd have no problem tricking them in order to get what he needs to save the world, and it also allows the designers to drop hints to the player about how to solve these culturally-specific puzzles without breaking characterization.

(This was another problem with Thimbleweed Park; because in most cases, any character could do any thing, the characters, except in very specific interactions, often did things without regard for whether it fit their characterization.)

Playing Day of the Tentacle gives one the feeling of pulling at different threads to untangle a particularly devious knot. You don't always see where it's all leading, but you usually can see the next few steps in front of you. The result when it all clicks in place, and you see how solving one puzzle gave you what you needed to solve another is revelation.

In other words, it's play. Pure play. It's not there to trick you, or outsmart you, or teach you anything. It's there to surprise and delight. And at that, it succeeds more than any adventure game I've ever played.