Saturday, November 28, 2020

Rainy Days In New York City


One thing you can say for point&click adventure games, they take amazing screenshots. For a start, the developers have done most of the work for you. Almost every scene arrives with your characters artfully arranged in naturalistic poses. Just so long as you don't move them about and end up with one facing a wall and another staring moodily at a light fitting.

Then there are all the pull-outs. The items you examine, the faded photographs and handbills, oil paintings and matchbook covers, each close-up lovingly re-created in period detail. All you have to do is click. No framing the shot, no swinging the camera, no scrolling into first person and out, no need to remember to hide your pet or your mount or do the dance with your entourage of followers and companion animals until all of them line up, momentarily out of shot.

Okay, I have some questions about which decade we're in. I mean, there's this running gag about an addictive game called Trollgate that Donny plays on his phone but these guys just got killed a few weeks ago? Maybe it's an old picture. Like fifty years old...


Best of all, no being photo-bombed by some barbarian in neon pink armor with shoulder-pads the size of twin aircraft carriers just at the crucial second before your jittering mercenary decides it's time to strike a martial pose right in front of whatever the hell it is you meant to get a picture of, only now you fricken' don't care any more...

As for commentary, it comes as standard. These shots caption themselves. Lines of dialog all neatly displayed and handily arranged so as to complement the composition, never blocking anything that matters.  No need to jab at the keys in the hope of catching that bon-mot before it scrolls offscreen. Everything hangs around long enough to ponder, consider and, if you so desire, record.

Kind of takes the skill out of it, doesn't it?

Unavowed, like most of the point&clicks I've played these last couple of years, is weirdly beautiful although it takes a while for that to come through. When I fired the thing up for the first time it gave the exact same impression all these games tend to give. 

... but then isn't this the dog that just got killed? Oops! Spoiler!

It looked like rough sketches stretched too thin. The colors looked too bright, too dull, too garish, too muddy. Not right. The textures looked false, scratchy, artificial. The characters seemed like cartoons, awkwardly animated, mannequins come to some kind of glitchy half-life.

And then, in no more than a few minutes, you're in a world. Not looking into it but in it, inside, living there. All the flaws fall away leaving a purity that comes from function fitting form. When we talk about virtual worlds this isn't what we think of but perhaps we should.

Yeah, maybe. Until you want to take a doll out of a wardrobe and the game doesn't want to let you. 

Oh, the game teases you. Tells you the doll's there. Doesn't show it, just has someone else report it then dismiss it. You don't need it. Leave it be.

Except you damn well know you need it because you're in this world and you're unravelling the mystery and you're already two damn steps ahead of the blasted game. Yes, we do need that doll! Why would you even mention it otherwise?

And then, hardly any time later, we learn about college student who lived here, how she'd had that doll nineteen years, which has to be pretty much the whole of her life, and that woman's dog chewed it all  to hell and she was so goddam angry... We even know the doll's name. It's Arabelle. 

Like a doll someone had owned and loved for all their life and even taken with them when they left home? Nah, not seen anything like that.


So we go back and try to take it but no, we don't need it, except yes we do. Of course we do! And then the guy in the protection circle tells us he needs something important to each of the violent, disturbed souls so he can send them to rest. Hey, do you think? Could it be?

Yes of course it could. It is. You know it is! But can you pick the doll up? No! Because you haven't danced the dance. So go finish all the other stuff first and then come back and finally, finally, the dumb game lets you do the thing you knew you had to do half an hour ago, the moment you knew there even was a doll.

Frustrated, much? Oh, yes, I have been. Frustrated by the exigencies of the form and the implementation thereof. It's a circle yet to be squared in any adventure game I've encountered. Sometimes they let you shovel everything into your capacious pockets regardless of contentious propositions like weight, volume or sanity. Other times you can only pick up things that count and only when they count. 

Some developer must have tried every point on that curve and none of them is ever quite right. Unavowed is right at the extreme end of pragmatism. There are very few intereactable objects and even fewer that allow you to interact with them before you have a good reason. There's the odd knife or screwdriver that lets you slip it into your jacket for later but even then "later" is almost always looking you in the face.

I've finished the first three cases out of seven and so far I've seen one interactable item that I couldn't figure out a use for. That outdoor water faucet in back of the Eddings house. What's that about? Other than that every hammer's found its nail.

Maybe we'll be back. Unavowed is a game that loops. It doesn't seem entirely linear although it doesn't have that go and come I remember with mixed emotions from the Broken Swords. If I had to guess I'd say we won't be turning on that tap. 

Guys? I've got an idea. I mean, it's a little left-field, I know, but could we pick the team first?


Maybe it's there for another. Someone who wasn't with us this time. Unavowed is about teams that break and re-form. You're always having to choose, leave someone on the bench, bring in your specialists and hope you made the right call. 

Only it doesn't maybe matter as much as all that because Unavowed is forgiving of errors. So far I haven't encountered a failure state. When it looks like you left the teammate you needed sitting in the subway car it always turns out there's another way to crack the egg using the spoons you brought along. Sometimes it's messy but you get it done.

I'll say the same thing for the game. The mechanics are messy. Just how many bullets do those two cops have in their guns, anyway? We must have been locked in that storage unit for five minutes or more before I figured out how to get free (no thanks to you, Eli) with the two of them shooting non-stop the whole time. And that motor-boat chase that came after? That was kind of ludicrous. If you can't do a convincing chase scene with the game engine you've got then why put one in?

Then there's the subway car. Rember I mentioned that? How is it we can leave someone on the train while we spend maybe a few hours hanging out in bars and alleys, breaking and entering and brokering deals that go sour, then get back on the same train and find whoever we left right there in the same carraige? 

How, exactly, does that work? Did he just sit there the whole time on the off-chance we might come back and swap him out for someone? Did the entire New York subway system go on hiatus so he'd be exactly where we left him or is it just an amazing co-incidence that we just happened to get done with what we were doing right as he came around for the who knows how manyeth time?

Or, indeed, the living, if this train system's anything to go buy.


For that matter, why the hell leave the decision on who's in the team until we've all got on the train? We have a headquarters. We had a meeting there to decide what we're going to investigate next. We have one of those meetings every day! Why not pick the team at the meeting so whoever's left can get on with something useful in their lab or practice throwing fireballs or hacking up the target dummy? Then, when we want to swap someone, we'll know where to find them without having to hope they'll be on the right train!

There's forgiving and there's immersion-breaking. It's not as though I want to be on a timer to fail. God knows I hate games doing that. There just ought to be a more convincing way to ease past the unbelievable. Like bullet time, maybe. Go into ideas mode where the action slows to a crawl because you're operating at the speed of thought. Where the ideas you try that don't work are framed as thought experiments not actual things you did.

I just think a lot of this stuff could have been done better. Aren't these the sort of things people notice in a play-test? I certainly found them pretty hard to hand-wave away. But, hey, it's not my job to fix this stuff. I just think it could be fixed and quite easily.

Another thing I'd like fixed is the railroading. It's nice to have dialog options but when all of them are different ways of saying the same thing, y'know, those aren't options. 

Too many times already my character has had to express attitudes that I wouldn't have had her express if I'd been writing her lines. In any situation where a choice is offered I'd like the chance to choose, at minimum, between yes, no and maybe. Or I don't care. That's always a good get-out. And just to make it even more frustrating, sometimes there's a "Say nothing" or "Keep quiet" option. Couldn't we have one of those every time?

Yes, these metaphorical choices are supposed to speak to my state of mind. I get it. Only, I'm not really all that bothered, y'know? And I'd kinda like to be able to express my lack of feeling.

I get the difference between a written character and a played one. I understand this isn't an rpg, that the central character isn't mine, but if I'm giving up agency I want consistency in exchange. Either give my character a coherent personality and don't pretend I have control of how she thinks and feels or give me all the tools to create a personality for her. If she has to react one way and one way only for the plot to work that's one thing  but if you're going to tell me how she feels about it as well then don't pretend I get any say when I really don't. It's annoying.

Those are my main gripes so far and they're common to most adventure games I've played. Unavowed handles the inconsistencies better than many and it's because so much of what it does is so good that these mechanical shortcomings stand out.

None of them materially affected my enjoyment. It's an excellent game with gorgeous art, interesting characters and a compelling narrative. Even at this early point I'm more than usually motivated to imagine re-playing it to see things from the perspective of one of the other characters, perhaps taking different decisions along the way. Usually I don't much find that an appealing prospect but here I think it could be.

Some day a real rain will come. Or, better yet, leave.


With the negatives out of the way, next time maybe I can focus more on what it is that I like about the game. I just hope it stops raining soon. There's a point in every game where continual rain goes beyond being atmospheric and just starts to feel miserable. And don't get me started on how everyone just stands there like it's a sunny day in spring! Talk about not having the sense to come in out of the rain. I know Eli's a fire mage and he never gets wet but everyone else must be drenched to the bone...

Okay, enough kvetching. Let's go play some more.


  1. If you enjoyed Unavowed, and the whole Logan ghost medium schtick, consider the Blackwell Bundle at 70% off before the Autumn sale runs its course. Same story universe, five game epic saga, tons of entertainment. It’s a steal.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I've just bought the bundle. I also noticed that My Time At Portia is 66% off and there's just 24 hours left in the Kickstarter campaign for the follow-up, My Time At Sandrock. If I'd noticed that was going on I'd have done a post about it but it's a bit late now.


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