Thank goodness 2016 is over!
There are only two words to describe the year-that-was for adventure games: In. Sane.
We’re thankful it’s behind us, not because it was a bad year for the genre, but the exact opposite. This was a thoroughly unprecedented year for new releases. Without doing an actual head count, previous years usually ended up in the 60-70 eligible game range come year-end. This year? A ridiculous 115! And that’s with stricter parameters than ever before for what games are actually eligible, disqualifying unfinished episodic serials, ports, remakes, and more.
Quantity alone never ensures quality, of course, but there was no shortage of excellence on display either. From the many small-team indie projects to highly-anticipated new installments in the beloved King’s Quest and Dreamfall series, plus a spiritual successor from the creators of Myst, we were pleasantly surprised time and time again. Disappointed at times too, like any year, but with Aggie Awards season upon us once again, this is a time to celebrate the successes.
As usual, trying to determine “what is an adventure game?” provided an ongoing challenge too, as developers continue to push the envelope, test boundaries, and defy traditional conventions. It’s a direction we thoroughly applaud: Vive la differénce! And yet, we still need to draw the line somewhere. So we’ve drawn it the same place we do in our reviews, recognizing only those games that include puzzle-solving within a storytelling framework and without an excess of action. No choose-your-own-adventure-style story games (sorry Telltale), no dexterity-challenging puzzle-platformers (we’re looking at you, Candle), and no purely exploratory experiences (afraid not, Firewatch and ABZÛ). We love all those titles, but at least for Aggie purposes, they don’t qualify as adventure games proper. (Hey, maybe the snub will inspire more adventure-style gameplay! And if not, well… did we mention 115?!)
With so many deserving candidates still left to choose from, even paring down each category to its top contenders proved difficult. But we can’t get to one without going through five, and so we are pleased to present the 2016 finalists for the Aggie Awards!
Think we’re out of our minds? (At least, any more than usual.) Then stay tuned next week for the reader poll, giving you the chance to put your ballot where your mouth is. And of course, the big three-day awards presentation is coming soon, running from Wednesday, February 22nd to Friday, February 24th. All the cool kids will be there, so don’t wander off!
One of the core components of any adventure, the game’s narrative must engage the player’s interest and imagination. Entertaining in its own right, a good story also immerses the player in a believable game world and serves as motivation to overcome the challenges presented. While often accompanied by quality writing, the plot is a distinct feature that may or may not be ably supported by the actual dialogue.
Best Writing – Comedy
Arguably the hardest genre to write well, comedy done right has the ability both to amuse and uplift, finding humour in the ordinary and laughter in the unexpected. Often dismissed for not being “serious writing” (oh, the irony!), comedy has long been a beloved adventure staple and deserves appropriate recognition.
Best Writing – Drama
If comedy lifts the soul, then drama explores and challenges it. Though sometimes misrepresented as dry and boring or overly theatrical, a gripping drama simply engages players on a deeper emotional level. Quality writing is essential in maintaining the player’s connection to the characters, game world, and the story unfolding.
Gabriel Knight... April Ryan... Guybrush Threepwood. These names roll off the tongue of any adventure gamer as a testament to the importance of compelling protagonists in an adventure. But just as important are the villains, sidekicks, and significant supporting characters, which are often the juiciest parts. This category recognizes those who have made the most memorable contribution, regardless of role.
Kathy Rain (Kathy Rain)
King Graham (King’s Quest)
Trico (The Last Guardian)
Nelly Cootalot (Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet)
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.
A somewhat ambiguous category meant to highlight any unusual, distinctive element. A creative concept can run the gamut from story premise to game mechanics, from stylistic choice to technical innovation. It doesn’t even need to have been successfully implemented, as it’s the idea itself that deserves the acknowledgement in a genre renowned for its conservative approach.
Adventures can transport us to memorable places we’ve never been before, including those we never even imagined. Or perhaps to locales we’ve visited before, but never quite like this, making them feel fresh and new and awe-inspiring all over again. In these games, the setting is like an integral character of its own, inseparable from the story taking place within its borders.
Best Graphic Design
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this category speaks volumes. Regardless of style, this award recognizes games that are not only visually attractive but stylistically distinctive. One look at a screenshot should elicit a “Wow!” followed by “Hey, that’s from…!” This award includes both game world and character design, but not cinematics.
From “bustling” city streets that look deserted to clouds that never move, animation in adventure games is rarely a genre strong suit, often the victim of budget constraints. But richly animated adventures add so much to player immersion that any game that goes the extra mile in this area is deserving of appreciation. This category includes in-game character and ambient animations, plus cinematic cutscenes.
As a complementary element playing in the background, often a game’s soundtrack is noticeable only when it becomes intrusive, but a strong score and attention to timing can add so much to a game’s ambience. A catchy theme song can likewise make game music memorable, and an in-game musical number even more so. Whatever its particular strengths, the game that excels musically deserves its accolades, even if its impact is subtle.
Best Acting (Voice or Live Action)
Often under-valued by publishers but never by gamers, quality voice acting can enhance a player’s investment in characters as surely as poor acting can ruin it. With so much international localization, voice-overs can be difficult to skillfully oversee, but any game benefits greatly from proper direction and believable acting. This category refers to the overall quality of vocal roles in a game, not to individual characters.
Best Sound Effects
As with music, sound effects are frequently given short shrift in adventures, but effective use of audio adds a vital layer of moody ambience. You may not be able to put your finger on the reason, but some games make you feel like you’re really there, and often the atmospheric sounds have drawn you in subconsciously.
Best Non-Traditional Adventure
For a genre that’s remained largely unchanged for decades, it’s actually got a rich history of experimental titles that push the creative envelope in unique, memorable ways. They don’t “evolve” or “redefine” adventures, but rather expand our understanding of what an adventure can be with their bold vision. Purists may resist, but this award honours those games that stretch beyond traditional genre conventions to offer something completely new, or at least present the familiar in imaginative new ways.
Best Traditional Adventure
Why mess with a good thing? While innovative adventures provide a welcome breath of fresh air, the lifeblood of the genre continues to be the many games that closely adhere to the comfortable, tried-and-true design formulas. Full of inventory and logic puzzles, memorable character dialogue, epic storylines and immersive exploration, they may not have changed much since Monkey Island and Myst – or even the original Zork for some – but they’re no less enjoyable when done well.
Best Adventure of 2016
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As if!! No early taste of the whole enchilada. You’ll have to tune in to find out February 24th for the grand unveiling.