Wadjet Eye: Streamers "pushed me to make the game that I've always wanted to play"
With Unavowed, founder Dave Gilbert aimed to make a point and click adventure game that can't be spoiled by YouTube videos
For devotees of point and click adventure games, the name Wadjet Eye carries a great deal of weight. The New York City-based studio has been developing and publishing some of the finest work in the genre for the last 12 years, but its next game, Unavowed, will be altogether more ambitious than anything that has gone before.
That much is clear, founder Dave Gilbert tells me, from the amount of time it takes to compile the build he's been showing around GDC.
"It's at the stage where it takes a long time to compile, because it's so darn big," he says as we wait for the game to load. "It's the biggest game we've ever done - by a lot."
Unavowed is bigger in terms of sheer scope, its 125 unique locations towering above the 70 found in Blackwell Epiphany, the fifth game in the series, which launched in 2014. It's also there in the resolution, which is twice that of any game made by Wadjet Eye to date. More than anything, though, it's there in the structure, which borrows the party dynamics and branching narrative structure from role-playing games to create a point and click adventure that Gilbert believes will be distinct from almost any game in the genre.
"It's no secret that, if you watch a stream of one of my games, you've pretty much got the full experience"
The idea came from an interview given by Jennifer Hepler in 2012. At that time, Hepler was a writer at BioWare, and she lamented the absence of an option to skip fighting and combat sequences.
"What Jennifer said in an interview was that, in combat-oriented games, they usually let you skip the story in the cut-scenes to get back to the combat, but you can never do the opposite," Gilbert says. "This is the opposite. She got a lot of awful, unnecessary flack for that statement, but I thought it was a wonderful idea... Unavowed has the narrative aspect of those games, without the combat."
Unavowed has three possible origin stories for its protagonist - actor, police officer and bartender - each of which has a unique opening sequence and a distinct ability that can help with solving the game's many puzzles. Additionally, Unavowed has a party system, which allows the protagonist to take one character from a small group with them, all of whom have unique strengths, weaknesses and abilities, and situational dialogue of their own.
"Each of these missions have to be re-done five different ways. [The amount of extra work] was insane, Gilbert says. "This is a game that can't be small, because not only do I have to design each section five different ways, there needs to be quite a lot of them in order to justify the mechanic of having different party members."
While the end product may ultimately justify the effort, Gilbert makes no secret of the difficulty involved in creating Unavowed - or his reason for breaking away from the more traditional, linear point and click adventure.
"This was a huge challenge - and maybe too much of a challenge, because it's taken way too long"
"There's a lot of different ways to do things," he adds. "My main goal with it was streamer culture, really. It's no secret that, if you watch a stream of one of my games, you've pretty much got the full experience. My thinking was if you have something like this where you don't get the full experience from watching a stream, that might make you want to still buy the game afterward.
"This isn't something that's going away, so it's something that you have to work with. At the very least, it's got me out of my comfort zone, and in a way it's pushed me to make the game that I've always wanted to play... I've been thinking about this for a very long time. When Jennifer Hepler gave that statement, which was before streaming culture, really - before Twitch, at the very least - there were YouTubers doing Let's Plays, but they weren't that big of a thing then.
"I knew I wanted to mix things up a little bit. I've been known for doing a very specific thing, and I wanted to do something new. This was a huge challenge - and maybe too much of a challenge, because it's taken way too long - but it was something I know I can do."
While it has several unique qualities, Unavowed is still very much in Gilbert's area of expertise, "but with more layers." Those layers will help provide value that cannot be captured in a single video, and help the game to stand apart in the increasingly crowded PC market. The business has "gotten harder and gotten different" in just the last five years, he says, to a degree that makes traditional point and click games tougher and tougher to sell.
"I rode that wave after the Double Fine Kickstarter, where suddenly everyone was talking about point and click adventures, so everyone suddenly wanted to talk to me. It was cool, and I rode that wave towards Blackwell Epiphany coming out in 2014.
"I sometimes wonder 'Have we taken this as far as we can? Have we reached a plateau? What else can we do?'"
"A year later, towards 2015, some of those Kickstarted games started to come out, and they kind of came and went. Suddenly I'm having to work my butt off to get people talking and writing about Technobabylon... Especially in this genre, it was harder to get noticed. And I consider myself as someone who's paid their dues. I've been around. I'm hubristic enough to say that."
Unavowed may prove to be just the first Wadjet Eye game to employ a branching narrative. Gilbert is reluctant to commit to pushing the idea further due to the amount of work involved - "It's probably a little above my pay-grade at the moment" - but he recognises the need for the studio to adapt in order to stay creatively relevant and commercially viable. The next game will be a sequel to Technobabylon, for example, and it will mark Wadjet Eye's first step into 3D graphics.
"I sometimes wonder 'Have we taken this as far as we can? Have we reached a plateau? What else can we do?'" Gilbert ponders. "It's no secret that I sorta resent it when people call our stuff a love-letter to Nineties adventure games, or a nostalgia-fest. That bothers me, but I can't deny that it looks like that. It does look like that. Those are things that I can't really reconcile.
"I have all of these ideas and theories about narrative and how it should work in an interactive way, and I was straining with it in this game. I would love to have that focus, but maybe with a different type of gameplay style. I don't know. Normally I have something waiting in the wings after a project is finished, but aside from Technobabylon 2, I don't have that here. Because this has just taken up too much of my mental energy.
"I'm curious to try new things, and prototype for a while... Unless Unavowed makes a million dollars, in which case I'll, y'know, do the next one.
"I'll make the sequel. Alright. Done."