Rediscovering Modern Adventure Games

One unexpected consequence of spending so much time prepping The Pale City for release—it’s inspired me to want to do more gaming again! (In combination with a very good sale on GOG around Christmas.) Most importantly, I’ve only had my laptop with me while waiting out the Corona Virus in California, which means… no AAA games! This is actually a very welcome development, because it helped me get back into a kind of game I haven’t played in a long time: adventure games, whether point and click, walking simulator, or any of the other weird permutations that have come up over the last few years.

Adventure games and I have a difficult, sometimes rough history. I played Full Throttle (one of the old Lucas Arts point and click games) as a kid, back when you had to actually close windows and open DOS to start a game. I loved it then, and was surprised as an adult to see how well the writing and visuals help up. A few years ago I played Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and Primordia, and both loved them and was driven insane by the puzzles. (Not to mention some utterly failed attempts at Myst.) I’m just not very good at puzzles and don’t enjoy them very much. But very interesting things have happened in the genre over the last few years and helped them push their storytelling in some very interesting directions. A few years ago I played Gone Home, Night in the Woods, and a few others and loved them, so it was great to see what’s come out since then.

Adventure games are also dear to me because, in weird little ways, they had a lot of little effects on The Pale City. I love the use of environmental text, which is really important in The Pale City—and adventure games do it a lot better than anyone else.

1: Kentucky Route Zero

Finally done! There’s not much more that can be said about this game, but it was striking to see how much I still enjoy surrealism. A lot here recalls modern experimental literature or film, but the game also feels very fresh at a time when (for me) even the most radical avant-garde art just feels… tired. The game brings together an incredible usage of images, music, and space for an experience that’s constantly twisting, but just structured enough so it feels like a narrative with realm emotional and thematic weight. It all just feels very fresh, modern, and relevant. I’ve been extremely interested in Kentucky Route Zero for years (their trailer was even the inspiration for my trailer for The Pale City), but I had always assumed the finished game would be a disappointment—sort of like Sword Brothers: Sword and Sorcery, which had a lot of atmosphere but was ultimately pretty forgettable—and I’m very glad I waited so long to play the whole thing as a unified experience.  

Heavens Vault

Really an incredible game and one of a kind experience. It takes place in a bizarre, mind-bending universe where you sail between islands in space, all connected by interstellar rivers. The whole thing has a profound, otherworldly mood, which is complimented by the lore—which struck me as genuinely unique and fresh. The writing is also extremely good, at least in the first half, where you take place in long, 15 minute conversations that (rarely, I think) do an amazing job capturing what actual conversation feels like. The system is a little bit like Oxenfree, but the story is just much more interesting… at least until the end, where a lot of what it was building sort of deflates. Even the translation mechanic turned out much more interesting than I expected.

Unavowed

The only real point and click game on this list. It’s much less ambitious than the others, but I still liked it. “Urban fantasy” is a popular genre for novels, but I barely ever read it—probably the last the last book I finished like this was American Gods, and that was a long time ago. But something about the graphics, delivery, and the narrative really made this game work. I especially liked how the game took very intense, high-stakes encounters with demons and otherworldly beings and used them to create funny, adventure-game style puzzles. Also, I don’t usually enjoy detective stories, but the case-structure felt really nice and had a really great rhythm. I also played Gemini Rue immediately afterwards but didn’t like it nearly as much, largely because the system in Unavowed felt so much more refined—just one click to explore the environment!

What Remains of Edith Finch

See the source image

Just really, profoundly awesome—not the story, exactly, which seems a bit silly by the end, but the moment to moment experience of playing it. You play as someone exploring an empty house, so I had assumed this would be like Gone Home. I couldn’t have been more wrong! It’s hard to say how without spoilers, but I’ll just settle for saying this game isn’t what you expect it to be, and it’s almost unbearably clever from moment to moment. I’ve always been a big fan of “walking simulators” where something actually happens—especially the Stanley Parable and Amnesia: a Machine for Pigs (which, in weird ways, inspired a lot of the monologues in The Pale city), so it’s cool to see the evolution has taken over the last few years.

On Games as Escapism

Playing adventure games turned out to be the perfect escape from the stress of trying to publicize The Pale City! If all of these games have something in common, it’s a great use of space. Every single room is carefully designed and very clearly connected to the story, and they respect the player’s time by constantly giving you real narrative content. For some reason I may never have the old, pure love for the genre that I do for RPGs, but I’m very glad that games like this exist, and I’ll look forward to coming back to them even if it takes me another five years.

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