Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ben There, Dan That! - Review

Ben There, Dan That! is an indie point and click adventure game that tells the story of a typical day in the lives of Dan Marshall and Ben Ward. After escaping from a Peruvian jungle in a prologue sequence (in which Ben uses an absurd, jury-rigged assortment of inventory items to revive Dan's lifeless corpse), the two pals start a new adventure of repairing their television so they can watch Magnum PI. Just as they finish this task, they're abducted by an alien spacecraft and have to solve a series of inventory-based puzzles to escape in time to catch the end of the episode.

Created by Dan Marshall and Ben Ward, you play as their in-game personas in an adventure that spoofs, references, and pokes fun at the tropes and conventions of classic adventure games. It's a very intelligent, self-aware game that breaks the fourth wall in both subtle and ludicrously obvious ways. It's a game that had me laughing at the written dialogue and interacting with everything, trying all possible combinations of actions to find more bits of hidden lines and easter eggs.

Plenty of games try to parody their own genres and source material, but it's pretty rare that they ever come off as clever or as effective as in BTDT. Ben and Dan are written like a pair of adventure-savvy simpletons who seem vaguely aware that they're in an adventure game. Every so often one of them will realize the absurdity of their actions ("What use could you possibly have for a severed zombie hand?" ~ "Hey, you never know when it might come in useful. I might need to grip something"), and they have to justify it to themselves with some kind of astute explanation.

You control Ben as the primary character, with Dan following you around offering commentary and dialogue. Using the mouse, you point and click on the screen to interact with things. Right-clicking cycles between your actions: Look, Use, Talk, Walk, Item, and Dan. Using Dan on something will try to get him to use it, or allow Ben to consult Dan's opinion on things. For the most part, each action triggers its own unique set of lines for each and every hotspot, meaning that it's often very rewarding to try nonsensical things just to see how Ben and Dan will react to your commands.

Gameplay basically consists of a series of room escapes with inventory-puzzles. Once on-board the alien spacecraft, you gain access to doorways leading to alternate dimensions of London; one version of London that's become a zombie graveyard, a London that's been annexed as the 51st state of America, a London where everyone has lame and underwhelming superpowers, and so on. In each of these dimensions you find objects and use them in creative ways to solve different puzzles, which grant you keys to unlock new dimensions as you progress towards acquiring the two halves of the key leading back to your own dimension.

Although several items get used in non-standard ways, BTDT doesn't stray into the realm of absurd adventure game logic. Each item should have a pretty obvious use once you've encountered a hurdle and know what needs to be done. At one point you need to cross a molten river of lava; later on, you find a crowbar, which you can use to pry wooden slats off a Fish n Fries cafe, and then you can use the planks to cross the lava. Pretty straightforward and logical. Perhaps the most obscure puzzle requires you to use a can opener to cut down a lightpost, but by that point you're near the end of the game and have already used most of your other items, anyway.

Along the way you end up in increasingly wacky, bizarre scenarios. Meeting a trio of video game journalist moonshiners plotting to destroy the earth because they've run out of good games to play; discovering that dinosaurs of the future are writing a sequel to one of Dan's first indie games, Gibbage; entering a doorway shaped like an over-sized cow head and coming out from an ordinary cow's rear end; murdering a priest with a bible to steal a doll from his zombified child.

You inevitably end up murdering a number of innocent people with improbable inventory items. As grave as that sounds, they're actually about as light-hearted as murder can be. When you need to get past the priest, for example, you consult your inventory looking for something to persuade him to stand down. Using a bible on the priest, Ben walks up to him, declares "Hey bible-basher, bash this!" and smacks him over the head with it, killing him instantly. The two chums squabble with each other over whether it was necessary to off a priest, ultimately coming to terms with the fact that the priest was in the way of their objective and that, if nothing else, at least they can continue their adventure. It's cartoon violence at its best.

The game ultimately takes an adult approach with its premise, as evident by some of the sexual humor you can encounter. Using Dan on himself causes Ben to say "I'm not using Dan on himself. Who knows where that'll lead," and Dan promptly responds "Wanking." It's the kind of joke that makes you grin at its subtle commentary on the game mechanics (acknowledging that it's even possible to use Dan with himself), and then it makes you laugh out loud when Dan crushes the subtlety of the initial punchline. It's crude adult humor, and it's executed well. Using a can opener on an attractive woman yields equally explicit, amusing dialogue.

Everything they say and do is with a tone of dry sincerity. These two are used to going on such bizarre adventures and so they feel completely natural and comfortable wherever they are. As startled and perplexed as they often are at their discoveries, they take it all in stride and just roll with the punches as they would with any adventure. This carefree, nonchalant attitude towards their absurd surroundings and actions, while also being deathly serious about getting home in time to catch the end of Magnum PI makes everything amusing and endearing.

It's also great when they manage to break the fourth wall, either subtly criticizing your actions while remaining in character, or sometimes turning to the screen and speaking to you directly. At a few points in the game, the voices of the creators manifest themselves in their characters, as Ben asks Dan about his level design (among other things). There's one major easter egg with the museum gift shop, where you can reach an unfinished portion of the game, which you don't want to miss.

The entire experience lasts about three hours and ends with a bit of a surprising reveal, which leads directly into its sequel, Time Gentlemen, Please! If you're someone who really appreciates good humor, then Ben There, Dan That! will be well worth your time.

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