Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Poker For Dummies

Some months ago, there was a cryptic trailer from downloadable games purveyor Telltale Games. It suggested that, unlikely as it may seem, it was indeed possible for characters like Team Fortress's Heavy, Sam and Max's Max, Homestarrunner's Strong Bad and Penny Arcade's Tycho to feature in a single media item that wasn't terrifying and poorly written erotic fan fiction, and that such a project was actually underway. Fairly quickly, the internet realised that the trailer showed each character holding playing cards, and that this meant a poker game instead of the epic universe merging adventure for which we all hoped. The official reveal reinforced this notion- the game was to be called Poker Night at The Inventory.

The game was released a couple weeks back, now- I don't know exactly when because I am not a professional reviewer who knows such things. Exactly as promised, it features the four fine fellows, playing poker, in a club by the name of The Inventory. The player assumes the role of a fifth gambler, imaginatively named "The Player", who joins the table for some cold war action. Wait, sorry, that was last week. You play Texas Hold 'Em.

I must admit, I was not intimately familiar with poker. The extent of my knowledge was that some dudes with grim expressions sat at a table and attempted to rob one another with the veneer of a gentlemanly card game over proceedings. As such, it might have been a rash move to preorder this game the moment it became available. I can't rightly recall why I did so, now- perhaps I was still expecting that incredible and hypothetical adventure game, perhaps I just wanted to see those characters together, or perhaps I had some eldritch premonition of the nature of the finished product and decided I wanted in on that. Regardless, it turned out to be a wise decision.

The actual gameplay is fairly unexceptional. You are playing poker, single player poker. As such, there is nothing spectacularly innovative in the way the game actually plays out. There are a couple interesting additions to the gameplay- winning tournaments unlocks new tables and decks, as well as items for spectacularly entertaining multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, but nothing to drop the jaw. What makes the game interesting, then, is not the actual game. No, Poker Night's strength comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from who you are playing with.

The handful of people who read this post may or may not know the characters featured in Poker Night, so I will explain. We have Max, of the Sam and Max series of games- a rabbit, bipedal, capable of speech and of questionable sanity. Also at the table is Strong Bad from Home Star Runner- a small but macho man, dressed or possibly formed as a Lucha Libre wrestler. The third player is Heavy Weapons Guy, the minigun toting Russian bear-man from Team Fortress 2. Finally, there is Tycho Brahe, from excellent gaming webcomic Penny Arcade- suave, eloquent and profane. They are all humourous characters from gamer culture, and they come together marvellously- the dialogue interactions between them are hilarious. I was more familiar with Tycho and the Heavy than with the others, but, though knowing the characters is helpful, the comedy is not exclusive- anyone can laugh at Max's explanation of his learning the game (involving, apparently, a mobster and a tire iron), or the Heavy's constant hunger for "sandviches". Very quickly, I settled into the game, despite not really knowing how to play, just listening to these fours' banter. It's not just dialogue, either; in a genius move, the personalities extend to the playstyles. Hyperactive Max makes brave bluffs, too excitable to fold anything but the worst of hands, while cool-headed Tycho plays conservatively, with the occasional big bluff to grab some riches. All this contributes to a sense that you are really playing with these characters, their joking and taunting immersing you in a game that on first glance is unremarkable.

I know just enough poker to know that Tycho's smug smile won't last long.

This is an interesting concept, and, to me, an exciting one. This game is entertaining despite the actual gameplay being unspectacular, if solid. To my mind, this is a vindication for those (myself included) who feel that games offer new prospects as an art form. While I'm sure the core rules of Texas Hold 'Em predate the proud state of Texas, this game adds a new dynamic to the experience. I've long thought that, properly formed, video game characters gain an extra solidity as the one experiencing the game, unlike the one reading or watching a story, is interacting directly with them. In Fallout 3, just watching the Lone Wanderer's childhood friend exile him from their home wouldn't have anything like the effect as actually having that happen to you as the player. Similarly, though watching these four characters play poker would doubtless be enjoyable, I think the extra complicity required of the player in proceedings adds something rather wonderful.

Admittedly, there is not enough of the funny dialogue, and on a couple of occasions I have felt certain that I have lost a hand I should not have, but that could be because I don't know a damn thing about poker. I gotta say, though, these flaws really aren't enough to make this unique experience worth missing, especially at the low price.

So! I suggest you give Telltale Games' Poker Night at The Inventory a look, if only to utterly refute my weird ideas about it in the comments section. Go get it!

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