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.