Sam & Max Hit the Road was the first game that made me realize that games can be deeply weird and funny, satirizing everything from truck stop diners to egocentric country singers to America’s obsession with the grotesque. I was probably 10 or 11 the first time I played it, and its assortment of oddball characters and colorful, surreal artwork has basically informed my taste and, frankly, outlook on life ever since.
Twenty-plus years later, Convict Games’ debut effort, Stone, is giving me similar vibes, even if its talking koala private investigating protagonist isn’t as life-changing as his dog and rabbit counterparts. What it does do, however, is offer a fresh take on two genres that are near and dear to my heart: adventure games and stoner noir.
Greg Louden, Convict’s “head convict” and Stone’s writer and director, recently walked me through the game’s first half-hour or so. The game opens with the hungover Stone, still in the Hawaiian shirt and pink flip flops he presumably wore the night before, walking up to an anonymous phone call saying that Alex, Stone’s love (according to the game’s trailer), has been kidnapped, so Stone sets out to discover who kidnapped the androgynously named Alex and why, starting with retracing his steps from last night.
Anyone who’s seen movies like The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice will instantly recognize Stone‘s influences. The talking koala himself is basically an Aussie-fied, anthropomorphic version of Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello, right down to his sideburns and his stumbling, droopy-eyed approach to detective work. His apartment is littered with beer cans and cigarette butts, and the first task you have to complete as Stone is finding his car keys, which are conspicuously located on top of a pile of dirty dishes in his kitchen sink. Stone is less Humphrey Bogart and more Elliot Gould’s version of the famous hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe. He’s scatterbrained but chemically chilled, quick-witted and slow moving, a keen detective with simultaneously too much and not enough on his mind.
Stone trades the lush, 2D backgrounds of the adventure games I played as a kid for a more modern yet still stylistic 3D world, but the basics of its point-and-click adventure game format remain the same. I spent most of my time with the demo hopping from one self-contained environment to the other, looking for clues and talking to Stone‘s similarly anthropomorphic side characters and trying to piece together the mystery of just what the heck happened the previous night and uncover the mystery of who would have wanted to kidnap Alex. Later in the game, players will be able to jump back and forth between locations in the game’s world map, creating the opportunity to revisit places and potentially discover clues they might have missed the first time. There’s a large cast of quirky characters, but like any good stoner noir, old ones will pop back in now and then when you least expect it.
Interestingly, Stone includes a few dialogue options during exchanges that let the player approach characters in a more aggressive or friendlier manner. Louden said that these options can affect the gameplay in some way, though it won’t have an impact on the ending or anything as narratively complex as that. Coincidentally, the first character I encountered, a cockatiel bartender named Cockie, wasn’t too keen on my gruff approach to questioning her, which forced me to find another way to convince her to talk. If Stone had acted more charmingly in the beginning, it’s possible that Cockie would have been more forthcoming with her answers. It might not be as complex as a Telltale Games dialogue tree, but it definitely adds a bit of replayability to what Louden estimates will be a three- to four-hour experience.
Another interesting touch that adds straight-up value to the experience are the hours of actual movies you can watch in the game. Stone introduces this concept early, letting players turn on the hero’s TV, only to be treated to an Australian silent film from 1915. Louden said that there are several films that are in the public domain that players can watch at any point in an in-game movie theater or on Stone’s couch, including Night of the Living Dead. Likewise, there will be over 20 licensed songs from various genres that Stone can play on whatever music player happens to be in the scene, whether it’s on a jukebox or his personal record player, though the main bent is towards giving underground hip-hop artists more exposure. Plus, pressing play and hearing music set the backdrop is yet another nod to cinema, giving off a major Tarantino vibe along the lines of Jackie Brown.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot the first time I sat down to play Stone. The phrase “hip-hop stoner noir” that the developer’s using to tag the game’s title seemed a little too on-the-nose somehow, even though I’ve admittedly never played a hip-hop stoner noir. But that changed once I actually started playing the game. Suddenly, I was getting to act out the kind of movie that I’d be happy just watching, let alone playing. Convict’s punk-rock attitude towards game development (there are only five people working on Stone) colors every nanometer of the game’s world, whether it’s in the goofy character designs, the genre-soaked tributes to the underdog, or the simple decision to include entire films in the game.
When I asked Louden, who previously worked on Quantum Break and the upcoming Control at Remedy Entertainment before quitting his day job to start his own studio, why make a game like Stone, he told me that he wanted to make a game that bigger studios couldn’t, due to the imposing commercial demands of the video game industry. The fact is that major publishers probably aren’t going to greenlight a strange, film-nerd-friendly neo-noir adventure game from an untested new studio. Stone is, above all else, a labor of love, and it’s one that I’m now unexpectedly anticipating when it launches this fall on PC.