In the “Pleasantly Understated Credits Sequence” that begins the 1993 point-and-click adventure game Sam & Max Hit The Road, a collage of strange black-and-white images are presented: Sam and Max getting hit by a train, Sam and Max aiming a gigantic floppy pistol, Sam and Max beating up a clown. In the center of this madness is an empty highway rolling ever forward toward the horizon. This one simple animation grounds the whole scene; it is a madcap adventure of cartoon violence, yet it has a firm (albeit outlandish) basis in the real world.
This remains true, or true enough, even as the world opens up and it becomes clear that Sam and Max occupy a strange plane of existence. This is, after all, a game where anthropomorphic animal detectives are on a mission to track down missing Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) and the giraffe-necked girls that love them. Sam & Max Hit The Road is primarily remembered for its characters and its adorably violent sense of humor. But its spaces are equally important to its legacy. You can’t go on a surrealist road trip with a talking dog and a homicidal rabbity thing unless you have a surreal road.
To that end, the game takes a journey through the world of American roadside attractions. These highway-borne amusements—built around concepts like “The World’s Largest That Thing” or “Hall of Amazing Bits What My Pa Found in the Field”—are sometimes perceived as empty shells where shysters ply their trade. That’s not quite right, though. They come from a place of naïve exceptionalism—the idea that because an object confounds everyone in a two-mile radius, it must be some incredible gift to share with the world. (Today, this would be known as The Tumblr Effect.)
These places are incredible gifts. Even the ones that are just shabby curios, surrounded by a wall of pomp and hot air, are singular experiences of anticipation and desire, providing disappointment worthy of a diner conversation five miles later. Of course, some of them are truly amazing, too. Hit The Road understands this, and it approaches the roadside attraction with the wide-eyed wonder of a child who does not know where the showmanship cedes to reality and honestly couldn’t care less.
This is most vivid in Hit The Road’s Mystery Vortex, an amalgamation of the Mystery Spots and Ripley’s Odditoriums that dot the American countryside. Odditoriums are exactly what they sound like—branded “museums” of objects with cultural cachet but little academic or artistic value, like shrunken heads and the Derringer that didn’t kill Abraham Lincoln. Mystery Spots are wooden houses where compasses bug out and balls appear to roll uphill. In Hit The Road, these Midwestern staples are combined into a place where chairs float and sometimes you walk on the ceiling. Also, since the plot must move forward somehow, there’s a recently unfrozen Bigfoot here, as well as the eponymous Vortex itself.
The most famous real-world Mystery Spot, in Santa Cruz, has for decades peddled the idea that cones of buried alien metal might well be responsible for the strange phenomena experienced there. Max hypothesizes a similar explanation for the Mystery Vortex, only to be disheartened when he finds he is 100-percent correct.
In reality, the Mystery Spot and places like it are powered by cunning tricks of perspective, turning everything on an incline and blocking out points of reference so you can’t tell which way is up. All the illusions are easily explained, but does knowing the secret shatter the illusion or deepen the wonder? In Hit The Road the answer is always, ultimately, the latter. So for the Mystery Vortex, the discovery that the whole thing is powered by enormous subterranean magnets leads to your controlling the place with those magnets. You turn them on and off to navigate a puzzle inspired by another real-life perspective-based illusion, the Ames room, which makes people appear to get larger and smaller as they move around.
So all of the action here is based on reality, albeit the deceptive reality of the roadside impresario. Even the trappings are correct to the inspiration. There’s the obligatory Dali melting clock. There’s a plasma lamp—those are still impressive, right? The greatest oracle of the modern age, the Magic 8 Ball, is bolted haphazardly to the ceiling. There’s even a jaded gift shop attendant, the kind who undermines the experience by reminding you that for her, this is just another day.
It’s this attention to authentic detail that gives the spaces in Hit The Road their power. The Mystery Vortex, despite being a whimsical cartoon construct where the laws of physics are defied, is more notable for how fantastical it isn’t—how few of its details were invented by the game’s writers. If you happen to visit some of the weird roadside attractions referenced in Sam & Max Hit the Road after playing the game, it contorts the mind, like you’re living a cartoon. Suddenly Sam & Max feels more real, and accordingly, life feels more surreal.