LucasArts Time Machine: Day Of The Tentacle

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This one is going to be tricky. Everything I am about to write is, in a way, largely redundant, because I already wrote an In Praise Of post about Day Of The Tentacle back when I still wrote In Praise Of posts, and I also reviewed the Remastered version when it came out in 20161. I think it is a strong contender for the best adventure game ever made, it’s probably also the smartest adventure game ever made, and Day Of The Tentacle is the one game in this series that I actively go out of my way to replay every few years. Because of this, it’s also the one game in this series where I have the entire solution already memorised. I don’t need a walkthrough to beat Day Of The Tentacle. I’ll never need a walkthrough to beat Day Of The Tentacle.

And this is a bit of a problem, since I have come at all of the previous games from a place where I can remember maybe 20% of the ones I’ve played before, but I am mostly playing them completely fresh and so can get a good idea of how frustrating (or not) the puzzles and game structure are. I don’t have the luxury of that viewpoint with Day Of The Tentacle; to me, all of the puzzles just make sense2 even though I am reliably informed by people who are going through it for the first time that they find several parts of it to be confusing and counterintuitive. Playing through it for the eleventh or twelfth time with an eye on how well the game breadcrumbs its puzzles does make me think that that most things in Day Of The Tentacle are either pretty well-signposted, or else can be worked out using normal human logic despite the time-travelling premise — there’s nothing here on the order of the sodding crab sandwich in Fate Of Atlantis. Still, it should be kept in mind that I am hardly a neutral observer where this game is concerned, and I couldn’t be objective even if I wanted to. I love Day Of The Tentacle too damn much for that.

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Now, that all being said, it was definitely interesting coming at Day Of The Tentacle having played LucasArts’ prior body of adventure game work beforehand, since there’s a couple of things that I think it does particularly well in light of previous attempts that did not. For example, it’s the first LucasArts adventure game that was designed to be fully-voiced from the start — by modern standards the actors put in a performance that’s good rather than outstanding (although nearly every line that comes out of Dr Fred’s mouth is excellent) but which fits the Saturday morning cartoon nature of the game, and most of the jokes are written with voice acting in mind and leverage this magical thing known as “comic timing” that the previous games could not, and so it holds up pretty well today. By 1993 standards, however, Day Of The Tentacle is nothing short of exceptional. Loom and Fate Of Atlantis both had voiced versions released after the original text-based ones, but because they were afterthoughts that were solely trading off the fact that people wanted full multimedia experiences that would make use of their expensive CD-ROM drives rather than anything actually designed for voice-acting from the get-go, both of these prior attempts were extremely ropey to the point where I wouldn’t have played with the voice acting on even if I’d had the option. By contrast I can’t imagine playing DOTT without voice acting since it adds so much to the experience, and it set the standard for future LucasArts adventures which all had a similar quality of voice acting; it was one of the big selling points for their games that made them feel so much more polished than the competition.

That goes for the art and animation too, which have weathered the 27 years since the original release astonishingly well thanks to their highly stylised nature. Day Of The Tentacle is a full-on cartoon and it leverages this to good effect, with all of the comedy Wile-E-Coyote animations (eyes bulging, necks stretching, falling off of high places and leaving person-shaped holes in the ground, that kind of thing) that Monkey Island 2 arguably overused feeling perfectly at home here. The background art for the various locations inside the mansion is full of crazy, irregular shapes and oversized cartoonish proportions on otherwise normal objects, which is a style that I don’t usually enjoy but which works here, and which has insulated Day Of The Tentacle from aging like the more realistic backgrounds in Fate Of Atlantis did. And something that I hadn’t realised before doing this series was that Day Of The Tentacle was the last hurrah for the interaction verb UI; the intro sequence is a good indicator that it might be outstaying its welcome with LucasArts, as this gorgeous full-screen cartoon suddenly loses the bottom third of its screen area to a comparatively ugly interface, and after DOTT LucasArts ditched it in favour of some alternative approaches starting with Sam & Max. It still works perfectly well here and I do have a soft spot for the specific iterations of it that were used in DOTT and Monkey Island 2, but this time around I got a definite sense that it was starting to be left behind by the ridiculous pace of technological improvement in the ‘90s PC market and that it might be time for something new, which is not something that I think I would have said if I hadn’t just played through eight games that used it in a row.

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It’s also been interesting to see what Day Of The Tentacle has in common with Maniac Mansion, which it is ostensibly a sequel to. The answer is: not all that much, really — it keeps the character switching mechanic and the concept of exploring a single mansion location, but while it also recycles characters such as Bernard and Dr Fred they might as well be from completely separate universes since all they really have in common are the names. However, where Maniac Mansion had multiple characters exploring the same mansion — which is unexpectedly complex, since many of its puzzles involve having characters positioned in separate locations doing some finicky timing-based puzzle — Day Of The Tentacle introduces a hard border between its three protagonists by separating them into three different time periods at the beginning of the game. Hoagie explores the mansion in the past, Bernard explores it in the present, and Laverne explores it in the future, and despite the potential complexity that all time-travelling shenanigans inevitably invite I actually think this makes Day Of The Tentacle a far simpler game. To compensate for being split over three different timestreams the mansion has been made much, much smaller — it’s a grand total of sixteen screens — and it’s got more or less the same layout in each one, meaning you can learn the spatial element of the game very quickly. This stands in stark contrast to Maniac Mansion’s messy sprawl, or even a more recent attempt like Monkey Island 2 which spreads the action out over multiple locations on three different islands — Day Of The Tentacle is, ironically, a much more logically organised game, where all you really need to worry about is figuring out the solutions to its cause-and-effect puzzles.

Even here I think Day Of The Tentacle is quite forgiving. Most of the conventional puzzles are heavily signposted if you just listen to the dialogue — one of the categories for the Human Competition is Best Laugh, so you need some way of making Dead Cousin Ted laugh. The inflatable clown Oozo laughs sarcastically every time he hits you, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of brainpower to figure out that the two are related somehow; all it then requires is figuring out which item will let you extract Oozo’s voice box, and that is a problem that’s entirely solvable using real-world logic. The puzzles based around accomplishing something in the past to change something in the future are a little more complex, but even here the game drops some very heavy hints. In general if something is present in two different time periods there’s some way of using it to transport an item between the two; for example, the washer-dryer exists in the present and the future version of the mansion, and you have in your inventory a sweater that is explicitly stated to be soaking wet the moment you pick it up as an additional hint, so it’s just a matter of sticking the sweater inside the dryer and finding enough quarters to keep it going for a hundred years. That last part is where things really do start to veer into the cartoonish, but once you have your giant pile of quarters there are only two things in the game you can potentially use it on and one of them won’t let you, so you can at least predict the correct interaction even if the usefulness of the outcome isn’t immediately clear.

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Still, I can’t deny that Day Of The Tentacle has a little more scope for being confusing and frustrating than, say, the first half of Monkey Island; it can’t quite match that paradigm of consistent internal logic despite Monkey Island being almost as absurd and Day Of The Tentacle deploying a few of the same tricks to try and keep things legible. Hoagie’s adventures in the past have the same kind of deliberately anachronistic energy as he torments the signers of the Declaration of Independence with joke teeth, exploding cigars and a fake fire alarm, while Bernard is trapped in the extremely relatable3 personal hell of a hotel that’s in the middle of holding a convention. Laverne’s jaunt into the future is where the game wobbles very slightly; I feel like the designers knew it too because she spends the first half of the game stuck in a tree and then has to overcome the further obstacle of making a tentacle disguise before she can achieve anything meaningful. This feels like it’s trying to hide the fact that the future is much less elaborate than the other two time periods — or at least, most of the puzzles in it are solved by doing stuff in the other two time periods, and so Laverne has the least amount of work to do. This is probably a good thing as the future is where things do start to tread on the wrong side of the “cartoon logic” line, with a couple of rather unpredictable outcomes like what happens when you push the mummy out of his room, or when you toss the cat into the prisoners’ cell, and so Laverne’s gameplay being mercifully brief in comparison to Hoagie and Bernard at least ensures it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The thing that surprises me most about Day Of The Tentacle after all of these years, though, is that it is funny. This is hardly a first for a LucasArts adventure game, which have all attempted to be funny with varying degrees of success — Monkey Island is masterful, Zack McKraken is painful, and Loom’s wisecracking protagonist just came off as an asshole — but what stands out about Day Of The Tentacle is that out of all of the ones I’ve played so far it’s the most overtly humorous, and arguably the most successful. I think the overall joke quality in Monkey Island is higher, but DOTT makes up for it with volume; nearly every single line in the game is either a joke or the setup for one, to the point where the plot is essentially an afterthought. That’s not to say that it’s irrelevant, since while the game might be light-hearted nonsense your goals are always clear (in fact Dr Fred explicitly lists them during the intro sequence), and that’s quite important for preventing DOTT from becoming a confusing mess like Zak McKraken or (as a sneak preview of what’s coming next) Sam & Max Hit The Road. Instead, DOTT manages to thread the needle of being confident enough to be funny without trying too hard and subverting its own internal structure in the process — this is all the more impressive because I have a longstanding hatred of humour that involves either of the words “wacky” or “zany” in its description, and at first glance DOTT appears to fall squarely into those categories.  The thing is, though, while DOTT might be an absurd game, it is also a clever one. If it was all cartoon effects and fourth-wall breaking humour it’d be dangerously close to insufferable,but the core of the time-travelling puzzles balances things out nicely and it’s smart enough not to let the jokes get so out of hand that they suffocate the game.

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I am conscious of my own bias here; perhaps that’s the nostalgia talking, and perhaps somebody coming into Day Of The Tentacle for the first time in 2021 would find the game insufferable. My bar for that is higher than most people’s, though, and while playing through DOTT as number eight of a twelve-part series of adventure games did expose a few rough edges that I previously wouldn’t have noticed, it still holds up remarkably well today. I think my replay of the first Monkey Island did enough to raise my opinion of that game that it’s sitting on the same level as DOTT in my head, now — I will probably not be quite so blase about throwing around phrases like “greatest adventure game ever made” when talking about DOTT without putting some sort of qualifier in front of it, anyway –  but my replay of DOTT didn’t diminish my opinion of DOTT at all. It’s still an all-time classic.

  1. Which is a pretty decent piece of work, and it would have been the one I played today if I weren’t specifically trying to play the version that was originally released in 1993.
  2. Yes, even the one where you read the science textbook to the horse to put it to sleep.
  3. Particularly for me, as I jumped from academia into data engineering and cloud computing and all of those are very overfond of making you attend conferences to listen to people who are really in love with the sound of their own voice.
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One thought on “LucasArts Time Machine: Day Of The Tentacle

  1. Herman says:

    I played through it for the first time ever about a year ago, and in the end I needed a single one worded hint from a friend. I did know two or three directions of solutions from “cultural referernces” (wine and cherry trees), but I think it would have been fine without those.
    I also played through the first Monkey Island a few months ago, thanks to your review, and there I did get stuck, and used a walkthrough a few times. But DOTT I found much funnier, and so I had much more patience with it.

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