How Wadjet Eye’s Unavowed merges RPGs and point and click adventures

I’ll always be excited when a new Dave Gilbert game is on the horizon. Since I first played The Shivah [official site] in 2006, a murder mystery more concerned with the Jewish faith than gangsters and gumshoes, I’ve felt I’m in safe hands with almost anything Gilbert puts out under his Wadjet Eye label. That includes games that he publishes as well as those he creates, and while I haven’t adored every single release, I’ve always found something to admire. With Unavowed [official site], his next game, Gilbert is incorporating ideas from the RPG world into a point and click adventure, and the combination could lead to his most interesting release to date.

The highlights of Wadjet Eye’s back catalogue are found in the Blackwell series [official site], Gilbert’s own quintet of New York stories, which show a city haunted by the ghosts of its own past (and its own popular culture), and often feel like a collection of thoughts about storytelling as well as a ghostly set of mysteries and mysticism. What are the stories people will remember about us and tell after we are gone? What tale will the manner of our death tell to those who didn’t know our life? How do we make sense of a world that often seems nonsensical?

Joseph Mitchell, one of the city’s great chroniclers, is an important figure in the games and, Gilbert tells me, in his own life. It makes sense that he’d be interested in Mitchell (“Inspired by” is the phrase he uses to describe the relationship); both men are natural storytellers, driven by a strain of humanism that values the eccentrics and the workers. It’s easy to look at a city like New York and think of so many of its people as cogs in the great machine. Mitchell was down in the engine room talking to the people elbow-deep in the guts of the thing. One of the most important aspects of his written portraits is that he doesn’t describe the job, position or role, but the person enacting it.

His most famous essays and studies focus on true eccentrics though. People not just marginalised by their social or class status but by their entire way of life. Among them is Joe Gould, who may have been something of an obsession and muse for Mitchell, and for Gilbert as can be seen in this non-fictional investigative story. Gilbert himself has something of the gumshoe about him.

With Unavowed, he is making an explicit move into Urban Fantasy. Though still set in New York, “this isn’t a story about the city in the way that Blackwell was”, he tells me. That’s not to say the scenery won’t be recognisable, and the backgrounds are more detailed and evocative than in any of the Blackwell games, but magic and monsters have come to the streets and waters of NYC, and the characters you control are effectively a fantastical RPG party.

There’s a fire mage, a sword-wielding half-djinn half-human and the next in the line of Blackwell’s “bestowers of eternity”, a person with a link to the paranormal world, whose ghost guide allows him to speak to the dead and, perhaps, release them from the bonds that tie them to our world. In total there are four companions and your own character can have one of three backgrounds, and can be either male or female. The backgrounds might colour later conversations but the main effect I’ve seen is a Dragon Age: Origins style prologue for each.

Most recently, I saw the actor background, which digs into Greek mythology, adding yet another category of fantastic possibilities. This seems like a very inclusive setting, with its djinn, muses and mages. It’s also a violent setting. The origin story sees the player character, no matter their background, possessed by a demon and forced to do terrible things, and a particular moment in the actor’s prologue widened my eyes in a way that I didn’t think this kind of pixel art could. Here be gore.

The possession leads to a six month narrative gap in which the character leaves a bloody trail in their wake, before their eventual liberation thanks to the Unavowed, who are your companions for the rest of the game. Each of those four companions has their own approach to problem-solving and even though you’ll be fighting monsters as well as investigating arcane matters, this is still very much a point and click puzzle game. One combat sequence that I saw has the team trapped on a boat that is under attack. Depending which companions are on the boat at that time, the assailant can be driven away and pacified in several different ways. All involve some combination of items and skills to find the solution rather than simply using an ability on the enemy.

And then, once the creature is pacified, you can have a chat with it and decide what to do next. Kill it or spare it – either way there will be consequences down the line.

What Gilbert is creating here, along with long-time visual and audio collaborators Ben Chandler and Thomas Regin, is, by his own admission, a BioWare style RPG using the tools of his own particular trade. That’s the tools of point and click adventures, and Adventure Game Studio more specifically. It makes sense then that the fourth member of his development party is Jennifer Hepler, formerly a writer on Dragon Age and a story consultant here.

The explicit move toward a party-based structure means that there are alternate dialogues and solutions depending on the companions taken on each mission. Add that to the backstories for the player character and the game is dense. The player character is unvoiced, avoiding the nightmare situation of having to record male and female dialogue for three separate backstories and a web of tangled interactions depending on choices made and companions chosen. There’s still a lot to see and hear though, and Gilbert hopes players will be intrigued enough to go through the game more than once to see the results of alternate choices.

I wasn’t 100% sold on the explicit turn into Urban Fantasy when I first saw the game. Even though the Blackwell series has ghosts and a demonic presence, it felt grounded in reality. Unavowed doesn’t have that same grounding from what I’ve seen, with its monstrous showdowns and magical lairs. It’s more comic book, though a brief conversation with Gilbert about Buffy suggests he is interested in at least that level of grounding. These characters aren’t quite superheroes and will have to find a way to deal with reality as well as fantasy. I love that the mission selection screen is a subway rattling along with the chosen party on board, waiting for you to select a destination.

And even though I might miss Mitchell’s direct influence in Unavowed’s world, which is more influenced by the likes of Jim Butcher, what I am 100% sold on is the idea of a designer who has worked within the very obvious limitations of a certain genre attempting to bring in ideas from other places, expanding the borders of his own chosen genre rather than jumping ship. This isn’t a BioWare style RPG; it’s a point and click adventure game taking ideas from another space and working them onto its own canvas.

That is a fascinating proposition and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

20 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    I love Wadjet Eye games so much, but the screenshots here really drive home the limitations of the engine (and genre, I guess). The characters are all in the exact same slouching pose, regardless of the situation around them.

    Watching or participating in the world’s most depressing night club performance? Slouch and stare into space. Guy on the ground in front of you? Slouch and stare into space. Raining on the pier? Slouch and stare into space. In a boat being chased by a giant sea monster? Slouch and stare into space.

    • Optimaximal says:

      Surely that’s less a limitation and more down to Ben Chandler’s art style?

      True, the idle stances could be more varied and active, but don’t forget most of the high-quality art is done by the same one guy who works on multiple varied projects at the same time.

      • Monohydrate says:

        I doubt he’s working on multiple games at the same time as this game has enough art in it to keep him busy full time. No, it’s more a limit of the artist himself. If you look at any game he’s done art for you’ll see the characters all use the same “template”. Same posture, same walk animation.

    • megazver says:

      This is a “there is only one person drawing this game” limitation, not an engine limitation.

  2. grrrz says:

    just finished technobabylon and I’m not sure I’m 100% percent on board with multiple paths scenario in adventure games, you’re always compelled to try different paths to see which one is most rewarding, which totally gets in the way of enjoying the story. besides it’s confusing somehow to have inventory based puzzle and multiple solutions, where you end up with items you don’t need. The adventure genre is anyway a bit artificial in its essence, I think it’s totally fine to have 100% linear adventure games (or very obvious “choices” at key points, like in shardlight)

    • Risingson says:

      Because Technobabylon was not as interesting in its final part. Sometimes it is not a matter only of having a good puzzle design, but to make it interesting. Technobabylon really overdid the thing of “making the last puzzle a Boss Fight but with object using”. It was not needed.

    • Premium User Badge

      alison says:

      Me too. I am a big fan of adventure games, and I will definitely buy this when it comes out, but I don’t really have an interest in replaying them. Like you, if I know there is a decision point coming then I just save and try different options till I find the story that flows the best, which feels like forced busywork. I don’t understand the appeal of going through the whole game again from the beginning just to get a different line of dialog somewhere or a new puzzle on an away mission.

      I treat games kinda like movies or TV shows, in that I only consume them a second time if I really, really loved them a lot. For games I think the only long game that has hit that point for me was Deus Ex. Plus a couple of short games like Proteus and Thirty Flights of Loving. But there must be a lot of people who do like to play the same game over and over, since there are entire genres (e.g. roguelike) where that is a core mechanic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      I guess I don’t really care if all that multiple-paths/your-decision-will-be-remembered fluff is in there, as long as the one path I do end up with has story and dialog up to Wadjet Eye’s usual standard.

  3. BlueB says:

    Ooo another Wadjet Eye game to look forward to. WE puts out the best modern point and click games – love them all!

  4. Yglorba says:

    Doing an article about merging point-and-click adventure with RPGs without even mentioning Quest for Glory seems like an unusual choice.

    • Jekhar says:

      I was about to say the same thing. In my mind Quest for Glory was a much truer RPG than the usual slashfests popular at the time. Multiple solutions for a problem, based on the skills of your character, noncombat stuff to do, etc.

      • Risingson says:

        I really think that there is a hidden guideline in RPS of not referencing games older than X years, or not be too encyclopaedic about anything. You have the QFG games as a perfect example of adventure games with RPG elements, you have the opposite example in the Horrorsoft games, but I guess that does not matter or even should be avoided as we want to sell just new games and let the past be forgotten.

        In any case, I am very interested in this one. If only the Wadget Eye productions remembered, again, that adult tone has nothing to do with not having any sense of humour or adding telenovela dramatics, then they will be perfect.

  5. Otterley says:

    Beautifully written. Looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

  6. poliovaccine says:

    I loved some point and clicks when I was a kid, but now that I’m older I don’t have the patience for their style of puzzles. Which seems backwards, now that I think of it, but hey. Anyway, I would love to see some RPG elements mixed in with the imagination and potential and rich, intriguing worlds of the classic adventure games. They can be so evocative in a single frame, implying all the rest.

    Also, donno if this has anything to do w the final game, but that screenshot gives a heavy Twin Peaks vibe.

  7. Furiant says:

    She climbed a mountain of glass. Wonder if she saw her reflection in the snow-covered hills.

  8. Alien says:

    One thing I don`t understand: Why aren`t Wadjet Eye’s games translated (for example German)? Even tiny indie adventures are translated nowadays…

    They would sell a lot better in German speaking regions (we love adventure games).

    • megazver says:

      They tried it with Gemini Rue, which was their best selling game for a long time, the German version didn’t make the translation money back.

    • April March says:

      It’s much cheaper to translate a shooter or a platformer than to translate an adventure game that might have a novella’s worth of text. I don’t recall any words-heavy indie game that was translated.

  9. April March says:

    Having your character be possessed by a demon and do horrible things during the prologue is something I’d immediately discard as an Instant Pathos: Just Add Tragedy for most devs. Gilbert is one of the few who I trust with this setup.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Ignorance is bliss for me with these games as I know nothing about how these things should be structured or created. (Little secret – it’s how I enjoy life as well Heyyooo