Handing out awards is so much fun, once again we are pleased to acknowledge a few more games that distinguished themselves in notable ways. These honorary accolades may feel like a consolation prize for falling short of the highest goals, but we don't see it that way. Their purpose is to celebrate more ambiguous achievements not recognized by the main categories, each of which contributed to the wonderful genre diversity we enjoyed last year. The statues aren't golden, but silver's not bad!
Best of the Rest: The Testament of Sherlock Holmes
Aggie spoiler alert! The Testament of Sherlock Holmes won't be taking home any major awards this year, but not for lack of repeatedly coming close. After ten years of consistently 'good' Sherlock Holmes games, Frogwares finally gave us the mystery we'd been waiting for in 2012. A cross-platform release with multiple control schemes and user-friendly features to streamline any troublesome gameplay, this game appealed not only to its existing devoted fanbase but also to a whole new console audience. But above all, the surprising story of Sherlock's apparent fall from grace was thoroughly engaging right from the start and kept the momentum up through well-crafted characters and plenty of twists and turns. Topped off with stunning visuals and an impressive orchestral soundtrack, this was Frogwares at their finest. Though falling just a little short in individual categories, the game is certainly deserving of special acknowledgement, proving that a decade in the right hands can yield impressive results from a much loved franchise.
Best Game No One Has Played: The Sea Will Claim Everything
At first glance, The Sea Will Claim Everything looks like a children's cartoon, almost gaudy with its bold colours and thick outlines. And when you look closer, you'll find reading – lots and LOTS of reading. The first commercial game from Jonas Kyratzes has "acquired taste" written all over it, but stick with it and you'll find a fantastical world full of weird and wonderful places and people. The beautiful hand-drawn picture book illustrations suit the surreal Lands of Dream perfectly, and the clever writing reveals a wealth of detail to enjoy. Add a melodious soundtrack and a story that casts you as the saviour of the Fortunate Isles from a nefarious villain, and you end up with the genre's best kept secret. If you missed it the first time around (and we know you did), don't make the same mistake twice.
Most Promising Debut: Miasmata
This year saw a lot of debuts that fill us with hope for the next generation of adventure designers. While there were many fantastic games released this year by first-time developers, one stood out in terms of sheer audacity. Miasmata is a really weird game, one that refuses to give in to gamers’ expectations of how it should be played: an adventure game without “adventure game” puzzles, a horror game without combat, an open world game without a mini-map. Miasmata is a survival game that tracks your health, thirst, and energy level. It’s a game that requires you to navigate a massive island using landmarks and fill out your map via triangulation. It’s a game that lulls you into a trance with lush scenery and then throws a freaking invincible death tiger at you without warning. It’s also the best game about botany ever made. Keep your eyes peeled for more from the talented Johnson Brothers and their studio IonFX. We know we will.
Most Nostalgic Adventure: CYPHER: Cyberpunk Text Adventure
The first great adventure games involved walls of print that called upon the player's ability to inhabit the fiction and imagine its world and the events playing out solely through text, while solving its many puzzles by responding in kind. While we had several impressive '90s-era retro adventures released this year, the Cabrera Brothers' CYPHER: Cyberpunk Text Adventure took us even farther back to the earliest genre days, but this time the text was displayed within a gorgeous illustrated frame using audio/visual elements to enhance the writing on-screen. Though far from perfect, CYPHER reminded us how intimate and immersive text adventures could be. It may not be enough to bring interactive fiction back to prominence, but it was enough to offer a welcome bit of nostalgia with a slightly modern twist.
Most Progressive Adventure: Alt-Minds
Imagine a game where you and your friends work together to solve the disappearance of a group of students. While one of you tracks down the license plate of a van, another finds the name of their colleague on Facebook and sends a message that's soon answered. Another can search the internet for a car rental agency based on a logo recalled by their apartment landlord, and the proprietor, when contacted in real life, reveals the amount of gas they used and the number of suitcases they carried, allowing you to use Google maps to plot possible target locations such as an airport or a railway station. Sound impossible? Not with Alt-Minds. Building on the already-ambitious premise of MISSING/In Memoriam, Lexis Numérique created a multiplayer, real-time mystery investigation with daily puzzles and tasks to overcome across a variety of platforms and media. Like many innovative projects, this nine-week experiment encountered some unexpected difficulties and international participation was limited, but for its sheer boldness of vision, there were no games more progressive in design than this.
Best "Almost" Adventure: Home, Dear Esther (tie)
Exactly how much gameplay does there need to be to make a game a... game? There's no definitive answer to that question, but we felt that Benjamin Rivers's Home and thechineseroom's Dear Esther were ultimately more interactive stories than adventure games. But that doesn't mean they aren't deserving of your attention. On the surface the two are strikingly different: Home uses a retro pixel-art aesthetic in dimly lit city locations, while Dear Esther was given a graphical overhaul from its freeware origins to depict a stunningly realistic island setting. Look deeper, however, and they are really quite similar. Both gam... uh, both whatevers are brilliant examples of surreal, interpretational narratives driven almost exclusively by exploration. There are no puzzles to solve and no real challenge, but piecing together their fractured, possibly tragic storylines is a puzzle in its own right that most adventure gamers would embrace.
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Next up: Best Independent Adventure... the envelope, please!