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Best GameplayAggie Award Winners

Puzzles are an integral aspect of adventure gameplay, but not the only one. Good pacing, rich exploration, and variety of activities are all factors in player enjoyment as well, all suitably integrated into the storyline. The best games seek the right balance of these elements for the most rewarding gameplay experience, whatever the approach.

» Aggie Awards - category overview

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The Aggie award winners:

Outer Wilds (2019 winner)

Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds takes exploration as a mechanic to its extremes. Want to find out more about your cozy home planet of the Hearthians or the mysterious Nomai race and the strange statues they left behind? Explore. Wonder why the sun is going to explode in a fiery supernova in 22 minutes, killing you and everyone else in the universe over and over again until someone prevents it from happening? Explore. Using just a few simple tools, like a signalscope that helps you zero in on mysterious sounds in the distance, a translator, a remote camera, and your space ship, you’ll traverse a wildly imaginative set of worlds, each with its own distinctly different means of interaction, all while gradually uncovering clues to a multilayered story. Though you can, and will, die a bazillion times (that’s an actual scientific count, not an exaggeration), you’ll remember what you learned when resurrected each time to try again. This combination of rich, non-linear open-world exploration and puzzle-solving does involve some repetition, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with the Best Gameplay experience of 2019.

There are hundreds of games that cast players as a homicide detective investigating a murder, but of those, only a paltry few manage to make you feel like you’re actually solving a mystery rather than watching your character put the pieces together. Many games are seemingly afraid to leave you to your own devices, instead spoon-feeding you clues and conclusions – or at the very least nudging and winking very broadly – until you arrive at the only viable decision remaining. Return of the Obra Dinn isn’t one of those games. Lucas Pope, in his own typically atypical way, has made one of the great detective games of all time, earning the year’s Best Gameplay award in the process.

Return of the Obra Dinn not only allows you to solve its central mysteries through your own cleverness, it outright refuses to lend a hand. As an insurance adjuster investigating the unexplained deaths aboard the long-lost-but-recently-found eponymous merchant vessel, you are given a ship to explore, a notebook, and… a magic stopwatch that can show you a frozen tableau of the final instant of a dead person’s life (as magic stopwatches do). With only these tools, it’s up to you to explore the boat and pick apart each blood-spattered scene of the crime, marking down your deductions about every corpse’s identity and manner of death based on the visions provided. The game’s smart distribution of clues both subtle and overt lead you on an intellectually thrilling chase after the truth, and with patience and perseverance it’s possible to correctly identify every member of the crew – and man oh man, is it ever satisfying when you do.

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Ron Gilbert’s long-awaited return to point-and-click adventure is a bold affirmation of the design principles he first defined in his 1989 manifesto “Why Adventure Games Suck and What We Can Do About It.” That document – and the success of the games it influenced – defined the Golden Age of adventure game design. Since then, those rough edges have been gradually sanded down and modern adventures polished into a pristine sheen with none of the hair-pulling frustration of the genre’s early days, often at the expense of the challenge that made them so rewarding in the first place.

Like Maniac Mansion did in its day, Thimbleweed Park offers a course-correction, but instead of pushing away from traditionalism, it redresses the overreach the genre has made in confronting common headaches. The real problem was never the amount of freedom provided or the complexity of puzzles, but in how adventure games deliver feedback and communicate with the player. Recalling the most beloved classics of old, Thimbleweed Park gives us a huge world to explore with multiple protagonists, smartly layered objectives, assorted characters to converse with and countless items to acquire, successfully pulling it all off through well-written clues that actually respond to player choices. It’s a master-class in traditional gameplay design that serves as one of the best arguments for restoring some of what we’ve lost along the way, and for that this staunchly old-school classic adventure wins our Best Gameplay Aggie Award over some impressively innovative challengers.

Obduction (2016 winner)

Although not a sequel in the iconic puzzle-adventure franchise, Obduction is very much a spiritual successor that represents a glorious return from the creators of Myst. It has all the hallmarks of a great Cyan game: a fascinating alien world brought to life with incredible detail, filled to the brim with strange machines and multilayered puzzles that can only be connected through diligent exploration to fully make sense of them all. And tying the experience together, an intriguing backstory that builds a sense of wonder and mystery to keep you striving ever onward, anxious not just to solve another puzzle, but to learn what’s happened in this eerily deserted world of purple rock formations, twisting railway tracks, and squishy, pock-marked spheres. While it stays true to its predecessors’ legacy, it confidently marches into new territory with wonderful new ideas.

Obduction is all about learning the rules of the strange world(s) in which you find yourself trapped. The game gives you room to roam and experiment, but you must pay careful attention to learn and piece things together. You’ll need to master everything from base-4 alien mathematics to the mechanics of swap seeds that teleport spherical portions of one world into another. And like the best puzzles games, these mechanics become more and more familiar at roughly the same rate that the obstacles become more complex and devious. The wonderfully tactile controls give weight to interactions with myriad buttons, wheels and levers, and the minimalist interface and presentation stays out of the way, allowing you to focus your mental energy on such things as tracking the relative positions of six or seven different teleportation bubbles at once so you can figure out how to maneuver a mine cart from point A on one world to point B on another. When you solve a puzzle in Obduction, it’s not because the game made you feel smart, it’s because you ARE smart. For so thoroughly engaging our grey matter in such an entertaining fashion, Obduction wins our Best Gameplay award. (Take THAT, Myst haters!)

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Who says they don’t make ‘em like they used to? The epic saga of the adventuring quartet of Wilbur, Evo, Nate and Critter continued in 2015 with The Book of Unwritten Tales 2. Developed by German studio KING Art Games, the sequel offers an impressive twenty-plus hours of thoughtfully-crafted, traditional point-and-click gameplay. Its cohesive quests involve collecting and using objects to bypass obstacles, repair items and devise contraptions. Tasks range from making potato chips to building golems, and while they are not unduly whacky, most have clever little twists to keep you hooked. Many segments require taking control of one hero or another, but some allow tandem play between two or even three characters. There are also several standalone puzzles to solve, some well-structured while others rely on experimental trial-and-error. Progress is broadly linear, with two or three active mini-quests at a time, and there’s rarely a shortage of things to do.

This is not a particularly easy game, with some lateral thinking frequently required and no in-game hints or a diary to keep track of the to-dos, but the literal hundreds of objectives flow logically from one to the next in an organic progression that makes them feel intuitive. The joy of TBoUT2’s gameplay is not merely about the puzzles, either, but the overall user-friendly interactive experience. Objects are described in great detail, and many can be dismantled further into useful components. Hotspots are deactivated once exhausted, and used items are discarded from the inventory. This, combined with the intelligent cursor that highlights only likely object matches, all but eliminates random clicking and being browbeaten by tiresome default failure responses. Chapters that involve extensive commuting, sometimes between entire continents, are equipped with maps that allow teleportation, further reducing unwanted filler. For being a true-blue classic adventure with hours of well-engineered quests – a rare treat in this era – The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is this year’s Aggie winner for Best Gameplay. Take THAT, puzzle-free games!

A great puzzle challenges you, forcing you to turn it over in your mind and examine it from every angle, yet it eventually yields to your determination and cunning, and the elegance of its solution makes you wonder why it took so long to figure out. There’s only a small margin for success – not so easy that you breeze through, not so hard that you become frustrated. The Talos Principle hits this sweet spot time and time again, taking a set of seemingly simple building blocks (pressure plates, beams of light, crates) and turning them into a smorgasbord of brain candy that constantly stretch your abilities and imagination.

Smooth and responsive controls ensure that you’re never fighting to put your ideas into action, and the game ramps up the difficulty slowly but smartly, adding mechanics one by one, each one stacking new layers of complexity and cleverness on top. The collectible stars scattered throughout the environment lay at the end of some of the most fantastically devious puzzles we’ve seen in years, trials that require immense patience and creativity to overcome, yet they are completely optional, giving the determined player even more to tackle while allowing others to escape unscathed. And all this from Croteam, the Croatian developer best known for the guns-blazing Serious Sam shooters. Who knew they had it in them? Well, now everyone will know by the Aggie Award for Best Gameplay on their mantel.

Controversy alert! It’s true that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons doesn’t play the way we’ve come to expect of traditional adventure games. There’s no pointing-and-clicking, no dialogue trees, and no inventory, and there is some running, jumping, and even flying. But Brothers is all the better for blazing its own trail, a shining example of how puzzles and light platforming can be melded together with a captivating story. Controlling two brothers on their quest to find a cure for their dying father, the gameplay mechanics are fundamentally linked to the main characters. To guide the respective brothers simultaneously – and you’ll often have to – you use the left and right analogue sticks and triggers on a gamepad (or two separate key clusters on the keyboard, though that’s not the recommended way to play). It sounds simple on paper, but it takes some getting used to in practice. Stick with it, however, and you’ll begin to feel a deepening connection with the pair. These are brothers, and you’re responsible for keeping them together through thick and thin. When a simple trigger pull elicits a strong emotional response, you know you’re playing something extraordinary.

Each brother has his own talents and strengths and it is this that makes up much of the puzzle-solving. Whether it’s something simple like helping the weaker swimmer cross water or overcoming more sinister obstacles like defeating a creepy monster, there’s seemingly no task that these brothers can’t do when they work together. The game often rewards you with quiet moments too, allowing you to spend time playing ball with a fellow villager or sitting on a bench to soak in the view. Brothers is never overly complicated, but that’s not the point. The gameplay works in perfect tandem with the story, keeping you fully entertained while pulling you along. There is some dexterity required to succeed, but if you’re looking for an adventure that’ll offer a gameplay experience like no other, you’ll find your match in this year’s Aggie winner for Best Gameplay.

Resonance (2012 winner)

At a glance, Resonance looks like countless games you’ve seen before, what with its low-res art style and point-and-click controls. But you only need to spend a few minutes with this indie gem from Vince Twelve to realize that even though it includes all of the typical hallmarks of adventure gameplay – storytelling, character interaction, puzzle-solving, exploration, and use of inventory – it doesn’t play quite like any other game. For much of the time, you’re able to switch between four main characters, deciding who will work together and when, providing an unusual amount of freedom for a relatively linear storyline. Then there’s the role that memories, both short-term and long-term, play in the puzzles. In Resonance, you can collect memories just like you’d collect inventory items, and then use these to elicit new observations from your playable character, to move forward in a puzzle, or as prompts in conversations with others. As opposed to the virtual bulging pockets of most inventory-heavy adventures, these memory systems provide a vast and believable combination of interactive possibilities.

And of course there are the puzzles themselves, well designed and relevant to the story, with solutions appropriate to the protagonists’ personalities and motivations. With a map of Aventine City at your fingertips and control over four people who take different approaches to problem-solving, Resonance offers up one clever puzzle after another with steps that can often be tackled in the order you choose and, in several cases, with alternate solutions. This flexibility gives an incentive to replay, as do the multiple endings – and that’s a good thing, since some late story revelations will give you an entirely new perspective on the earlier parts the second time through. It’s very much a traditional point-and-clicker, but rather than resting comfortably on genre traditions, Resonance puts a new spin on the mechanics we’re used to, making it a shoo-in for this year’s Aggie for Best Gameplay.

Portal 2 (2011 winner)

It’s no secret that our classification of Portal 2 as an adventure game has garnered some controversy: some consider it “merely” a puzzle game or believe that the portal “shooting” mechanics and a few timed jumps preclude the game from being considered anything but an action game. Certainly it doesn’t fit neatly into previously defined categories, but we believe its focus on space-bending, brain-teasing gameplay perfectly integrated into an extraordinary game world to explore more than qualifies it for inclusion in our hallowed halls. No matter what genre you think it is, there’s one thing that few dispute: it’s really, really, really good. One of the best games ever made good, in no small part thanks to its innovative, utterly immersive approach to puzzle-solving, which is more than enough to earn it this year’s Best Gameplay Aggie.

For a title that really only includes two ways to interact with the environment (pushing buttons and shooting portals), Portal 2 has a remarkable depth of gameplay. That’s because you’ll use those portals for everything from teleporting yourself to transporting crates through tractor beams to destroying turrets to splattering gels that help you slap the laws of physics right in the kisser. Test chambers may be simple in their grey and white tiled appearance, but each one is packed with scintillating possibilities and challenges, and as you branch out into the massive, crumbling ruins of Aperture Science, Valve managed to add exponentially to the formula without breaking the sublime, almost magical balance and pacing. At first your brain my ache as you try to work out a solution to the latest environmental obstacle, but before long things that seemed physically impossible become second nature as you adapt to the game’s bizarre but comprehensible internal logic. And then the impressive co-op mode adds still another layer of complexity as you and a buddy fling each other across gaps and through walls to reach the end together. All told, even if you don’t consider it an “adventure game”, its brilliant gameplay ensures that Portal 2 is a thoroughly unforgettable adventure, period.

Creating a fully immersive experience is always a tough challenge for any developer. We’ve all heard the debates: what’s more imporant – story or puzzles? And we all know the answer: BOTH, working in fully-integrated harmony. Yet even then, gameplay is so much more than those two alone. Exploration needs to be inspiring, character exchanges must be engaging, and interaction should be both relevant and rewarding. The best games understand this, and seek a balanced blend of elements for welcome variety, proper pacing, and sustained interest. You might think an “interactive novel” like Last Window: The Secret of Cape West would favour story to the detriment of all else, but you’d be wrong, as this gripping noir-tinged mystery is deftly supported with equally compelling player participation, making it a worthy winner of our Best Gameplay award.

Exploring the Cape West apartment building means frequently conversing with its other memorable residents, and deftly navigating sensitive subjects becomes an obstacle in itself. You’ll need to pay close attention, too, as each day closes with a reflective quiz that recaps the details of the investigation. The other puzzles provide interesting challenges as well, each seamlessly integrated into the plot and usually involving manipulating objects in clever ways. More impressively, the game frequently uses the unique control features of the Nintendo DS to their fullest. Even the simplest act of tapping directly to knock on a door draws you into the game world, but the many standalone puzzles make even better use of the touch screen. Actions range from delicately fishing out a lost ring to shaking money out of a piggy bank and hurling furniture around. The shoulder buttons, microphone, and folding platform itself are also put to good use in situations where the player’s actions perfectly mimic in-game activity. This constant variety of both challenges and means of personal interaction is more than enough motivation to keep investigating right up to the bittersweet finale.

What do scary-face competitions, locket-powered soul transferrals, gastro-intestinal protuberances, and the Cyrano de Bergerac of manatees have in common? Easy: they’re all elements (though just a few of the many) that combine to make up the wacky obstacles of Tales of Monkey Island. Telltale series has yet to disappoint when it comes to gameplay, and Tales is the latest Aggie Award-winning example. Episode after episode, we were presented with a host of characters to chat with as much for gags as the information required, imaginative new locations to explore (with less recycling than other episodic series to date), and puzzles that demanded logic while still remaining firmly entrenched in the ridiculous world of Monkey Island. All this in a very user-friendly format, with an adjustable hint setting allowing nudges from Guybrush for anyone stuck too long, or none at all for those wanting a tougher challenge.

But what really made this series soar was the sheer creative variety of scenarios players had to resolve: matchmaking for seemingly star-crossed lovers; assembling cryptic components of voodoo spells; navigating jungles by wind and sound; acting as your own attorney in a courtroom opposite the plaid-coated, fast-talking Stan the salesman; escaping a mad scientist’s lab with the aid of a trained monkey; digging for buried treasure and burying slightly-less-valuable treasure of your own; joining an exclusive buccaneer brotherhood; and clashing blades with pirate hunter Morgan LeFlay on board your newly-commandeered ship. And doing it all with one hand tied behind your back (or “cut off” is perhaps the technical term), culminating in a classic Monkey Island final fight with the ultimate villain, LeChuck. It’s a wonderfully diverse, offbeat experience that always felt fresh, making Tales a worthy successor to the classic adventures we all know and love.

After the delightful rebirth of the Sam & Max franchise with Season One, it was difficult to imagine how another full season of episodes only one year later could avoid resulting in a bit of a letdown. All doubts were put completely to rest, however, when Sam & Max: Season Two delivered episode after episode of pure adventure enjoyment once again. The episodes balance the same simplistic gameplay design that is wonderfully nostalgic to veteran adventurers and perfectly accessible to rookie gamers, but surpasses the first season by significantly improving the difficulty (or lack thereof) that was a common complaint of the original episodes.

Not content to merely be outside-the-box, the new season's challenges frequently fall outside the space-time continuum altogether, even passing from life to death and back again. The puzzles are consistently imaginative--particularly in the spectacular Chariots of the Dogs--at a level that was never attained in the first season. The minigames feel fresh and new, exploring is always amply rewarded with hilarious commentary, and the overall creativity quotient (read: insanity factor) has been ratcheted up significantly. It seemed too good to be true that Telltale could outdo themselves with Season Two but they did so, creating a gameplay experience that is without peer in modern adventure gaming for that one element all too often forgotten: fun.

Readers Choice' Award winners:

While a traditional point-and-click adventure in most respects, the strength of Whispers of a Machine’s gameplay lies in its protagonist’s inventive nanotech abilities. Vera Englund, though fully human, has also undergone augmentations that let her scan for physical and biological evidence, monitor witnesses’ heartrates and identify lies, and enable her with near-superhuman brawn. Players must figure out how to use these skills most effectively, and as the story progresses there are even more powers to acquire that vary according to previous dialogue choices, allowing for differences in puzzle solutions during replays. Cagey use of inventory, interpreting code-like messages, and knowing the precise time to take certain actions add even more variety to the investigation, making for a very well-rounded (and now reader award-winning) adventure experience.

Unavowed (2018 winner)

Instead of emphasizing a series of progress-hindering obstacles, gameplay in Unavowed is highlighted by choices that actually have a tangible effect. At the beginning, you select a personal history for the main protagonist, which opens up one of three entirely different playable flashbacks. Later you’ll pick specific companions for each mission and leave others behind, thereby changing the approach to your goal. And during each quest is a moral decision that has a notable impact on the game’s ending (which itself offers several distinct variations). Of course, along the way you will still collect and use inventory items, tap into the physical and supernatural skills of your teammates, interpret clues, transport between dimensions, and come up with some creative solutions to finally get your way. It’s not a puzzle-intensive journey, but a consistently engaging one with no unwanted filler, and for that Wadjet Eye secures the reader choice for best gameplay experience.

So we’re agreed: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That could be the motto for Thimbleweed Park, the delightful SCUMM-styled throwback with just enough modern conveniences to make it accessible for today’s gamer. But this is no mere nostalgia vote, is it? While so many developers continue to shorten, streamline and simplify their games to disappointing degrees, the long-overdue reunion of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick serves up a complex story to unravel, an oddball collection of locals to interact with (and occasionally, control), an entire town to roam, and thoughtful puzzles whose solutions you can’t lazily brute force. There were some impressive new approaches to adventure game design this year, but what other game served up a generous 15-plus hours of pure point-and-click adventurey goodness? None!

Kathy Rain (2016 winner)

Ouch! The Myst haters strike back. Okay, not really, as Obduction came in a very respectable second. But when it comes to Best Gameplay for you readers, there’s nothing like a finely-tuned, good ol’ fashioned point-and-clicker like Kathy Rain. With the world opening up as the game goes on, inventory obstacles provide the bulk of the challenge throughout, but dialogue choices also are important, used to distract and/or to provide key information and clues. Riddle-solving in a cemetery, computer hacking, plus an alcohol additive puzzle and gussying-up an audio file are other highlights. And then there’s Kathy’s handy stun gun (every heroine should have one!). If and when you do get stuck, Kathy herself will offer up a hint to get you back on track. Who could ask for more?

Technobabylon (2015 winner)

When it comes to adventure gamers, there’s nothing like old school! The latest sci-fi adventure from Wadjet Eye may be set in a futuristic world of high technology, but the game itself is a retro point-and-click chock full of traditional gameplay elements we all know and love. With plenty of interaction across diverse locations, a wide variety of interesting characters to converse with, and a host of puzzles to solve – some of them only by entering a virtual space known as “The Trance” – Technobabylon hit the sweet spot of adventuring goodness, and now has the reader Aggie to prove it.

Story and gameplay? Tesla Effect is a throwback to the days when it wasn’t one or the other, sealing the deal for readers with some good old-fashioned Tex Murphy adventuring. The series has consistently featured a wonderful variety of tasks, and this game is no exception. From witty dialogue options to logical(-ish) inventory combinations to sequencing challenges involving baseball cards, sacred symbols, and nuclear reactor cooling rods, Tex’s latest adventure provides dozens of ways to think both in and outside the box. A dollop of stealth and a dash of death-dealing traps add even more flavour to the puzzle mix. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?

Oh dear. United in our selection, and not a dialogue tree, inventory item, or mouse cursor to be found! But we adventurers are becoming a more adventurous lot, and both staff and readers alike clearly embraced this unique platforming adventure that combined epic exploration, cooperative (yet single player) puzzle-solving, and lots of physical exertion for its two silent protagonists. And what a diverse range of runners-up! We adventure gamers really are spoiled for choice.

Resonance (2012 winner)

Whew! If The Walking Dead won this one, there might have been rioting in the adventure community streets. But Vince Twelve's innovative take on classic adventure staples won our readers over as well. Resonance's unique memory inventory increased player interaction significantly, and with four playable protagonists often needed in tandem to solve clever cooperative puzzles, there was no shortage of compelling gameplay to support its similarly riveting story.

Portal 2 (2011 winner)

So we’re agreed then. No more inventory and logic puzzles! Okay, no, we all love the genre’s tried-and-true conventions, but for a welcome change of pace, there was no topping the ability to defy gravity in a series of mind-bending, physics-altering puzzles set amidst the colossal mechanical maze that is Aperture Science, caught like a lab rat between duelling computer A.I.’s. An old-school epic fantasy adventure sure gave it a run for its money, though, in a close finish for the readers' best gameplay selection.

Heavy Rain (2010 winner)

While some criticize Heavy Rain for being more movie than game, it seems many welcomed the change from traditional adventure fare, albeit only by a whisker in the closest five-way race of all. Emphasizing exploration, dialogue, decision-making and dramatic action sequences, this game gave players a range of freedom rarely experienced. And with its context-sensitive control scheme, everything from car chases to bringing in the groceries felt natural and rewarding, immersing you further into its multi-layered storyline.

Machinarium (2009 winner)

Sick of taking a back seat to dialogue-heavy titles, the wordless Machinarium stepped up big time in the gameplay department, as the puzzle-centric robot adventure delivered where it counts to the readers. Often head-scratching, occasionally hair-pulling, but always engaging, this isn’t a game for the faint of brain, but who can argue its gameplay credentials when even the hint system is its own minigame.

A Vampyre Story (2008 winner)

Sam & Max may have conquered one vampire in 2008, but they proved no match for A Vampyre Story's Mona and her bat pal Froderick. The game's wacky inventory puzzles and stunning degree of optional interactivity withstood a fierce fight from the dog and rabbit and the more casual competition of... brace for it, traditionalists: Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst.

» Aggie Awards - category overview

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