I’d never encountered a laugh track in a video game until I played The Big Con, the debut title by Canadian developer Mighty Yell. It’s little more than an optional easter egg buried in a settings menu, yet it’s the element of the game I’ve come to appreciate most over the course of my playthrough.
While The Big Con certainly isn’t the only game cashing in on the childhood nostalgia of a millennial generation grappling with adulthood, it’s Mighty Yell’s wealth of influences from outside the gaming world that pushes this point-and-click adventure beyond surface-y reminiscence.
The irreverent story-telling of LucasArts point-and-click titles like the Monkey Island series serves as the game’s base framework, but the meat on those bones is an amalgamation of the entire media landscape that flourished outside of the games industry during the same decade. A cursory glance at any screenshot will clearly reveal the influence Nickelodeon’s Doug had on the game’s rainbow palette and expressionist character design. Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover a wealth of tropes from classic coming-of-age flicks and cheesy sitcoms re-contextualized into a surreal pop-cultural fever dream.
Maybe that’s why I find the laugh track—a feature that, on paper, should irritate me—totally charming. On one level, it’s a neat throwback to the heyday of gratuitous bonus features like big head mode, but on another, it’s indicative of the game’s willingness to transcend its own medium, breaking the conventional illusion that a player is a part of the action on screen. The Big Con is meant to be enjoyed with the same slight detachment you’d employ while plopped in front of a rental movie. The stakes are low; the vibes are chill.
The Big Con’s title may refer to a single grift, but even a simple synopsis of the plot reveals a web of intersecting scams. You’ll control flannel-clad protagonist Ali Barlow, who’s skipping out on band camp to raise $97,000 to save her mom’s video store from loan sharks. Accompanying her is nineteen-year-old swindler extraordinaire Ted, who helps Ali discover her inner petty thief en route to Las Venganza, where pockets run deep and wallets are easily parted with.
The game’s campaign is separated into a handful of increasingly large environments to explore, from shopping malls to train cars to city streets, each populated by swaths of potential suckers. Progressing to the next stage requires Ali to raise a certain amount of cash, which you can collect by performing side quests for NPCs—or simply swiping it from their back pockets.
Pickpocketing is the most unique element of The Big Con’s gameplay. Sneaking up behind almost any character and hitting a single button triggers a quick time event that will award you a decent sum of money if your timing’s right. Get caught enough times, though, and you’ll be punished in a way that’s so clever, it’s better I didn’t spoil it.
While I appreciate that this minigame is easy enough to avoid frustration and can even be turned off in the game’s options, the amount of money you can earn by robbing civilians feels a bit disproportional to what you’ll make carrying out more intricate missions like pilfering a
Furby Burblo from the mall’s toy store or gathering stock tips for a day trader. I’d wager most folks interested in The Big Con tend to be completionists and will pursue as many sub-plots as they can regardless, but pickpocketing can feel like a shortcut near the end of the game.
City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks
As mentioned earlier, though, it’s not worth stressing too much over the minutiae of minigame mechanics when The Big Con is best consumed like a movie or comic book. I spent the bulk of my play time exploring the nooks and crannies of each level and talking to as many NPCs as possible.
There are a number of running jokes to uncover—specifically one about the secret menu in a coffee shop chain and another regarding a painfully unfunny comedian—that had me laughing out loud, and plenty of cameos and easter eggs to spot, too.
The infamous “S” graffiti symbol acts as a wipe transition between cutscenes in Ali’s hometown. A ridiculous-looking mascot named Rad Ghost reminds players that winners don’t use drugs. While plotting a heist in Las Venganza, The Big Con’s largest location, I noticed a pair of loiterers who looked suspiciously like Wayne and Garth, and I could’ve sworn Warhol Basquiat were hanging out in front of one of the city’s luxury hotels. Art director Saffron Aurora’s character designs and richly detailed environments are the absolute highlight of the game, and keeping an eye out for hidden gags reminded me of watching a good episode of The Simpsons or Futurama. If there’s ever a graphic novel adaptation of The Big Con, I’d buy it instantly.
Though the game’s 2D artwork is excellent, The Big Con suffers from a few technical errors that don’t hinder the experience too much, but are occasionally immersion-breaking. Most of them are pretty unobstructive, like when a character slides at breakneck speed to their next destination or pops awkwardly into frame during conversation, but there are a few frustrating glitches. In levels that are particularly dense, lining Ali up with a particular NPC or item can be a challenge, which means you’ll likely select the wrong target by mistake from time to time.
Personally, these hiccups weren’t much of a bother considering the game’s brisk pacing. You’ll likely finish The Big Con in around 5 hours—a reasonable time frame that doesn’t feel bogged down or overly repetitive. The story feels familiar, but in a loving, parodic way that helps accentuate the winking jokes and references peppered throughout. For an experience meant to mimic a night spent in front of a rented VHS tape and a bowl of microwaveable popcorn, that’s about all you can ask for.
[A review code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.]