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Mini-Review: Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse - Episode 5: "The City That Dares Not Sleep"

The Narrator The penultimate episode of Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse ended on a shocking cliffhanger as Max was corrupted by otherworldly forces and transformed into a city-squashing, dream-consuming beast.  Telltale Games has pulled out all the stops and readied a few surprises for the final installment of this season of the series as old characters return, the devil appears at last, and at least one beloved member of Sam and Max's world dies a terrible, terrible death in "The City That Dares Not Sleep" for the Sony PlayStation 3, PC, and Apple iPad.  The only way to save Max is for Sam to physically enter the beast's body and perform a little impromptu brain surgery, but nothing is ever that easy.  Sam will have to explore key areas of Max's innards to solve the problem.  Beware the extensive spoilers ahead!

I'm going to jump ahead and skip past the opening act of "City" in which Sam and a now-pregnant Sybil Pandemik trick the demonic Max into eating the Freelance Police DeSoto in order to kick off a Fantastic Voyage homage.  Instead I'd like to focus on what I declare to be the best moment in all of The Devil's Playhouse itself in which the title of this season is explained at last in what I am sure will go down in history as the best breaking of the adventure game fourth wall of all time.  See, all previous episodes of The Devil's Playhouse have focused around a chest of psychic toys known as The Devil's Toybox, so it's only natural to assume that the devil himself would show up at some point to claim it.  Indeed, the devil does appear in "City", but only to film a documentary on the destruction caused by Max's rampage, and when questioned about the toybox, the devil casually dismisses his ownership of it and claims to have never seen it before in his life.  Shortly after this, he returns to Hell without a trace.  So if the devil is not actually involved with the toybox or, apparently, a playhouse of some sort, then what does the title The Devil's Playhouse actually mean?

The Narrator Recall that all throughout The Devil's Playhouse we've seen a new omniscient character, The Narrator, appear at the beginning and end of each episode to sum up events and tease future happenings as if each episode were part of a Twilight Zone type of anthology series.  The Narrator appears again in "City" with a challenge to the player to determine which Sam & Max character will betray the Freelance Police before the end of the adventure.  He also promises to check back with the player at this episode's midpoint for one more summation.  Sure enough, just as Sam is about to open the door to Max's brain halfway through the episode, The Narrator interrupts the action to take the player step by step through the possible suspects for the role of ultimate villain one last time (calling attention to antagonists General Skun-ka'pe and Papierwaite) when... well, see for yourself:

As it turns out, The Narrator is not just a Rod Serling-type construct, but an actual character in Sam and Max's world.  He's actually Max's superego, and while he becomes an active part of the storyline after this reveal, he's never more impressive than he is during the expositional scene where he explains his role in things to Sam.  I've enjoyed plenty of gaming moments that break the fourth wall over the years, but this is the first one that I can recall that goes above and beyond being a fun gag or shout out.  The Narrator's place here is as an actual long-running component of the story, and the moment where Sam opens the door to the brain and appears in silhouette behind the Narrator has quickly become one of my favorite video game scenes of all time.

The City That Dares Not Sleep Moreover, The Narrator explains the meaning of the title The Devil's Playhouse, telling Sam that if idle hands are the devil's playthings, then an idle mind is the devil's playhouse that brings dark thoughts and impulses to life in one's daydreams.  The Devil's Toybox was complete misdirection in the end.  Once The Narrator explained the metaphor, I started to realize that every episode of this season has involved the consequence's of Max's id doing whatever the hell it wants.  Ultimately, each episode has involved Sam & Max's efforts to repair the damage caused by Max's impulsive actions on some level.  I am supremely impressed at how well everything has come together in the end, and while I could go on for a while about the puzzles and jokes in "City", nothing impressed me more than the amazing reveal and subsequent explanation.  Those two elements completely overshadowed everything else that "City" had to offer.

So many elements in previous episodes that I had believed to be missteps at the time (such as the episode-long excursion with Sammeth and Maximus) were actually necessary events needed to fully set up all of the twists and reveals needed for the endgame.  Plenty of loose ends and dangling plot points end up resolved before the final scene to provide a satisfying conclusion.  I was firmly on board the Sam & Max train prior to "The City That Dares Not Sleep", but now that I've experienced the final episode and come to see how deep of a story was being unwound and foreshadowed while I was busy thwarting space gorillasrecovering lost brains, and disposing of Samulacra dogglegangers, I have to say that I can't recommend all five episodes of The Devil's Playhouse enough.    I cannot wait to see what Telltale Games has in store for us in the future.