Ben There, Dan That! (2008/11)

Dan Marshall is a game designer (once) sharing a flat in London with good friend and former schoolmate Ben Ward. Dan’s first game is called Gibbage, and despite its relative lack of success, he’s also started work on another project, an adventure game.

That’s the more-or-less true real-life story of how Dan Marshall (also responsible for Privates) developed Ben There, Dan That!. It also happens to be the set-up for the game, which features the characters of Ben Ward and Dan Marshall, flatmates in a bad part of London. The game doesn’t do a whole lot with this device, but it’s certainly not the only metatextual or breaking-the-fourth-wall reference. This is a point-and-click adventure game, and there are numerous references to its progenitors by companies like Sierra and LucasArts, from the subtle to the extremely overt.
An example for the latter would be a giant poster of the protagonists of Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993) stuck to the window in Ben and Dan’s flat. Both the banter between the characters and the gameplay mechanics owe a great deal to the classic game about the Freelance Police: In a reversal of the actual role in crafting the game, Ben is the player character, with Dan tagging along to provide witty quips and occasionally to help him out, much like Max could be used by Sam.

The game is quite short, clocking in at a little more than three hours for me. It is also very easy. I was only really stumped once, at the very beginning, when I hadn’t figured out the inventory yet. There are a limited number of locations and inventory items, the puzzles are quite obvious, and the characters, who acknowledge from time to time that they know they’re in a game, give helpful clues. From what I’ve read, these clues were a little less on the nose in the original version of the game (which was free), but I’ve only played the “Special Edition” which I got in a bundle (and which is not free, though still available very cheaply on the developer’s website).

This is not a game one plays to be challenged, though. Its appeal lies in its zany dialogue and absurd situations. This is established in the opening scene, which has Ben resurrect an expired – and decomposing – Dan by shooting him into a Peruvian cottage with the help of an oversized rocket and a rubber chicken. (The Special Edition, incidentally, includes a rather daffy 6-minute illustrated audioplay explaining how the two ended up in Peru in the first place.)
With Dan successfully come back to life, the two protagonists want nothing more than sit on their couch and watch television, but they soon find themselves kidnapped by aliens, forced to hop into other dimensions (like a dimension where dinosaurs are the dominant species, or one where Britain became the 51st state of the U.S.) and collect artefacts that can help send them back home.

In comparison to the “plot” that follows, much of which feels a little improvisational, what I’ve described so far is practically down-to-Earth. If that description (which doesn’t scratch the surface of the wacky nonsense the player encounters) sounds like it may tickle your fancy, and you don’t mind crude graphics (and sometimes crude humour), you may want to check Ben There, Dan That! out.

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