Unavowed aims to be an adventure that borrows the best of RPG narrative

It really doesn’t feel like it, but it’s been five years since Dave Gilbert released one of his splendid point-and-click adventure games, and twelve years since he worked on a brand new story, following his series of Blackwell games. Unavowed is that brand new story, due out later this year, and it’s ambitious in ways I wasn’t expecting: it’s a very traditional-looking adventure, that belies a depth of narrative RPG ideas.

The reason it doesn’t feel nearly so long since we last heard from Gilbert is that his Wadjet Eye Games has been publishing other adventure games made using Adventure Game Studio (AGS), with his hand in their development. Really superb games like Shardlight and Technobabylon. He’s also voice-directed for other great games, like Kathy Rain. Which is to say, if you see a good commercial AGS game, there’s a strong chance Gilbert’s had a hand in it. And all the while, he’s been quietly working away at Unavowed, pushing at the boundaries of what’s usually a very traditional genre.

Unavowed has you playing as someone, from one of three backgrounds, living with the after-effects of a demonic possession. Over the last year your character (male or female) has been waging horrific terror on New York City, and now, finally exorcised, it’s time to try to put things right. So you head around the city, accompanied by chosen NPCs, attempting to make good in the fight against the darkness that previously consumed you.

In that preceding paragraph there are a few statements that might have stood out, if you’re familiar with the traditional constraints of old-school adventures. AGS is an engine that sees developers tend toward that mid-90s style of point-and-click, a cursor, an inventory, and puzzles to solve. But while Unavowed certainly features all of those, here Gilbert is pushing to include the narrative elements of RPGs, bringing the strengths of two storytelling genres together. Or, as Gilbert puts it himself, tongue-in-cheek: “Ripping off BioWare.”

So yes, three different origin stories are available here, setting a subtle form of ‘class’ for your character. You can be an Actor, Bartender or Cop, each with a unique playable opening tale of how they came to be possessed, and then later influencing their approach to situations and puzzles for the rest of the game. The Actor is adept at lying, convincing people of untrue versions of events. The Bartender has a knack of getting characters to open up and talk about their feelings. The Cop is authoritative, capable of having characters do as they’re told.

Further drawing from the BioWare model of RPGs, during the game you’ll also be able to choose from a collection of characters to be in your ‘party’. There are four others in total, and you can choose two for any particular mission – the game is broken up into distinct sections, each with a character select at the start. Who you bring will, says Gilbert, directly affect how you can approach the puzzles therein. One is a former accountant, now a fire mage (fairly typical career progression), another is an athletic djinn. Then there’s a disgraced cop, friendly with members of the police you might meet, and a chap called Logan Cunningham who can talk to ghosts. Everyone in your gang can see ghosts, but only Logan can be heard by them.

So say you’ve taken the djinn and the cop, and you encounter a ghostie in a park, you’ll not have the information and options that would have been available to you had you brought Logan on this trip. But then again, if you’d not brought the djinn then you’d not have had anyone who could leap to reach that ladder, and thus scale that wall. Of course, all of this is played out as a 2D pixel adventure, not requiring any actual athletics. Gilbert’s goal is to introduce a lot more variation in how a trad adventure is delivered, importing some of the best RPG tricks, and indeed creating a game that would still be interesting to play after watching someone’s stream of it. And for those who’ve worried just at the sight of the letters “RPG”, no, there’s no combat at all.

Gilbert’s essentially made a number of differing paths through the same game, opening the adventure to genuine replayability, with so many factors affecting how you may approach any given situation. If you’d chosen a different origin, and different companions on that mission, you’d have played parts of it in very different ways. And it will apparently be even more involved, with key decisions made at various points having an impact later on in the story. Do you kill or set free this baddie? That’ll have an effect later on.

It sounds an awful lot, and of course all of it will depend entirely on the quality of the story and the writing. But then this is Dave Gilbert, and he’s yet to let us down in those areas, so there’s good reason to hope. What I’ve seen certainly suggests good things, with strong voice acting, and even background banter between the NPCs in your party.

It’s a fascinating prospect, taking all the best story elements of the RPG and working them into an adventure. And thanks to some desperately needed advancements in AGS, it looks much lovelier too – twice as many pixels are now available to artist Ben Chandler, and he’s done what looks like might be his best work yet.

Due out some point this year, hopefully sooner rather than later, there are a lot of reasons to be very interested in Unavowed, beyond simply that it’s a new Dave Gilbert adventure. Although that alone would already have been enough.

25 Comments

  1. Babymech says:

    I get that it’s a perfectly acceptable turn of phrase, but ‘later this year’ always strikes me as needlessly precise. It’s not going to be ‘earlier this year,’ after all. That said, later this year I’ll be happy to see how this RPG-adventure experiment turns out; so far I maintain that the best example of that fusion working out was Quest for Glory II.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      “It’ll be out earlier this year” still makes some sense though, dunnit. Like, it will be out early this year. Earlier than later. Not as late as later, thus earlier.

      An abbreviation of “earlier on”.

  2. John Walker says:

    Well the point is, it’s later this year, thus before next year.

    • Babymech says:

      Well, you’re a far better write-man than I’ll ever be, so I’ll stow my grievance against this phrase.

  3. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    I had no idea, what great news – new Dave Gilbert and DOUBLE THE PIXELS!

  4. Michael Fogg says:

    Interesting idea, but my first reaction is to worry that adding multiple solutions to puzzles will make an adventure game effortless and devoid of meaning.

  5. li says:

    I like a linear adventure with a good storytelling, a playthrough feels good, you get to the end of the story, you can put it aside. What I did with all of Dave Gilbert’s games I think.
    Then, couple years after I’ve been through the story, I feel like going through it again. Like reading one of my favorite books again. Which I did a few times with the Blackwell series.

    Not being able to complete a game (seeing everything of it), unless playing multiple times, sounds awful.
    Now, say I get a good playthrough, then a couple years later I want to see the story again, I have a fond memory, wanna get back to that world, but can enjoy something significantly different from my previous game and memory.. Heh, sounds absolutely great actually!

  6. KillahMate says:

    Is the chap called Logan Cunningham also played by Logan Cunningham, though?

  7. twaitsfan says:

    Shardlight was a real disappointment. Very little in that game made sense. And some of the puzzles were the worst type of point and click puzzles. In one, you needed to get a piece of chalk so you could draw on a wall to figure out a puzzle. You could easily just look at the puzzle and figure it out without the chalk but you couldn’t progress until you did the chalk part.

    I hope disavowed is better.

    • revan says:

      I liked the world and the story, but the puzzles left something to be desired, true. But David Gilbert didn’t write Shardlight, so you shouldn’t fear.

      Technobabylon was a great game though.

  8. lancelot says:

    Do you mean it’s “pushing at the boundaries” inwards? Because Superhero League of Hoboken (1994) already had a mission structure where picking different characters for a mission could lead to different solutions to the puzzles (there’s also Maniac Mansion, of course, but it didn’t have missions).

    Also, AGS has supported backgrounds with resolutions up to 640×400 since 1999 (800×600 since 2003, 1024×768 since 2008). Unavowed is 640×360.

  9. DaveGilbert says:

    Woohoo! Thanks for the preview, John!

    One minor correction:

    You wrote: “…a chap called Logan Cunningham who can talk to ghosts”

    The character isn’t actually named Logan Cunningham. The character’s name is Logan Brown and he is VOICED by Logan Cunningham. Confusing, I know. Sorry about that!

    Anyway, happy to see the response to this game is a positive one! If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask.

    • KillahMate says:

      …yeah, that makes a lot more sense :-)

    • lancelot says:

      Dave, I think you’re one of the developers who are successfully transforming the adventure game genre (Emerald City Confidential was so underrated). I have a rather general question though, do you think AGs can borrow something from open world games? As an example, Assassin’s Creed Origins has puzzles of the kind “There is a tree at the entrance of this cave; soon after dawn, its shadow will show the spot”, where you needed to find the described place and perhaps figure out what needs to be done there. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d love to see something like that in an AG.

      Even more generally (and more vaguely), would you agree that AGs underuse puzzles where clues can be gathered by observing the environment, not by reading pre-supplied texts, and where the interactions are more “free-form”? Borrowing an example of the latter from one recent game, suppose there is a portal arc which you can walk through to make something happen. But it is less obvious that you can walk through the arc in the opposite direction, and then something else happens. I very rarely see puzzles of this kind in AGs.

      • shoptroll says:

        ““There is a tree at the entrance of this cave; soon after dawn, its shadow will show the spot”, where you needed to find the described place and perhaps figure out what needs to be done there.”

        Isn’t that basically the original King’s Quest? Or The Legend of Zelda series on consoles?

        • lancelot says:

          Can’t say anything about the original King’s Quest, it’s a gap in my education :). Zelda, perhaps, that’s kinda my point, that those games have elements that can definitely count as puzzles, and those elements would’ve been right at home in an AG, especially in a casual adventure.

      • DaveGilbert says:

        I am never comfortable saying if something is “right” for adventure games or not. If a developer can make a mechanic engaging and fun, then it works! If they can’t, then it doesn’t! So there’s no reason why environmental clues can’t work as a puzzle.

  10. shoptroll says:

    Oooo… it’s cribing not just from Bioware but also the Maniac Mansion / The Cave school of design? This is dangerously close to becoming my most anticipated game this year.

  11. April March says:

    You call it ‘ripping off Bioware’, I call it ‘doing Bioware right’. My dream game is basically Mass Effect that doesn’t make you waste time shooting blue folk in my alien diplomacy simulator.

  12. Monohydrate says:

    Just a tiny correction that’s isn’t even really important, but it’s not twice as many pixels, it’s closer to four times (3.6 to be annoyingly exact).

    320×200 = 64,000
    640×360 = 230,400

  13. cpt_freakout says:

    This is awesome news. Loved Blackwell, liked Shardlight and Technobabylon (I still need to play Kathy Rain), so an AG by Gilbert with non-disruptive genre twists sounds amazing.

  14. G_Man_007 says:

    Over the last year your character (male or female) has been waging horrific terror on New York City, and now, finally exorcised, it’s time to try to put things right.

    So it’s like a demonic My Name Is Earl?