The Silver Aggies
In previous years, these “honorary” Aggies went to the best adventure games that didn’t win any of the main awards, but this time we’re doing things a little differently. (Spoiler alert: Sorry Quern, Phoenix, Deponia, Shardlight and more!) Because this was such an excellent year for “almost” adventures, we felt it only right to devote a whole spotlight to recognize them. Whether choose-your-own-adventure-style story games driven by player choice, exploratory experiences with no room for puzzle-solving, or puzzlers that require a high degree of platforming ability, these are games worthy of attention for any adventure gamer willing to push beyond traditional genre boundaries. (Probably these should be the Bronze awards and the others given Silver for an Olympic trifecta, but little Aggie here didn’t have time to get into the salon for a tan. Maybe next year!)
ABZÛ cares not for convention. Forgoing puzzles or even a particular story to follow, this wonderfully relaxing creation from Giant Squid instead focuses on the beauty of underwater exploration. And why not? The natural mystery of the ocean is all you need, though there’s also unnatural havoc being wreaked upon the seas that threatens their survival if you do not succeed. You’ll swim through giant kelp, ancient ruins and murky depths as literally hundreds of marine species glide gracefully past, sometimes sweeping you along. Every nook and cranny will fill you with a sense of wonder thanks to the gorgeous art design: one moment you’ll be awed by vivid colours as the sun beams down on a lovely coral reef from above, the next you’ll be intrigued by the eerie darkness of the sea floor as you dive from one submerged ecosystem to another. Accompanying this breathtaking aquatic sojourn is Austin Wintory’s emotionally powerful soundtrack, blending playfulness, melancholy, and menace as needed. Put on your diving suit; it’s time to go swimming!
Burly Men at Sea
With Burly Men at Sea, husband-and-wife developers Brain&Brain have created an engaging choose-your-own-adventure Scandinavian folktale. The story-centric experience follows a trio of fishermen who discover a mysterious map promising a journey into the unknown. The storyline diverges as players make decisions throughout, providing not just different endings but the opportunity to encounter new people, creatures and obstacles along the way before trekking back to the village to start the venture anew, Groundhog Day-style. The sharp script delivers both atmosphere and humor, and the distinctive minimalist graphics and excellent instrumental soundtrack help to round out the game with modern, indie-inspired flair, making each playthrough a pleasure to experience. If you are looking for a unique interactive experience, Burly Men at Sea is certainly one of 2016’s best choices.
More action-y than adventure games, and more adventure-y than even most puzzle-platformers, Candle is a true genre-blending title. An epic journey through vast, eye-poppingly detailed watercolour locales, this is the story of Teku, a masked lad with a magical blazing arm, and his quest to rescue a kidnapped Shaman. Offbeat inventory challenges, whimsical minigames, multi-stepped concoctions, plus the spark and glow of Teku's candlelight combine with leaping, fleeing and sneaking as our unlikely hero prevails over (and sometimes fails) the many obstacles that rise up against him. Bizarre creatures, ruthless tribesmen, and tetchy mystics become friends or foes – confessing secrets, dealing carnage, and revealing that Teku’s actions might ultimately deliver far more than he ever dreamed. Can an entire civilization be saved by the wits and courage of a rough-hewn hero with his single, flickering flame? It sure is a whole lot of fun – and a fair degree of challenge – to find out.
Slipping into the boots of a lonely man going through a midlife crisis might not sound like an appealing use of your gaming hours, but Campo Santo’s Firewatch was one of the year’s most refreshing destinations thanks to its striking setting, believable characters, and achingly poignant story offered up on an extended hike through the Wyoming wilderness. Yes, there is a lot of hiking: with compass and map in hand, navigating Henry the volunteer fire lookout through the Shoshone National Forest provides the bulk of the action in this 3D open-world experience. But this isn’t a game about walking. It’s about talking, and listening, and ultimately establishing a connection with Delilah, the woman on the other end of Henry’s handheld radio. The writing is funny, cutting, and true to life, laced with subtle choices that put the tenor of Henry and Delilah’s relationship into your hands. The beauty of their fragile bond is adeptly mirrored in the natural beauty of the real-world setting in which it develops. With little to do beyond talking and exploring, and virtually no puzzles to be solved, Firewatch is less an adventure game than a narrative experience – but what a rare, moving experience it is. We should all be so lucky to spend a summer alone in the woods, searching the horizon for signs of sparks.
Thanks in part to Limbo, Playdead’s stylish debut contribution to a then-burgeoning sub-genre, we’re all familiar now with the puzzle-platformer experience combining side-scrolling action with thoughtful problem-solving to overcome environmental obstacles. Not content merely to rest on their laurels, however, the Danish developer has upped the ante with their sophomore title INSIDE. Without a word, this game takes the “show, don’t tell” storytelling philosophy to its extreme, creating an incredibly immersive world to explore while raising more questions than it answers along the way. Something is very, very wrong in this surreal, highly-industrialized, partially-submerged place, and as a young boy with only limited abilities to run, climb, grab and jump, it’ll be no small feat to survive its many hazards. With slick animation, sparse but haunting soundscape, challenging but logical puzzles, and a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere that serves its simple premise perfectly, INSIDE is a thoroughly engaging, seamless experience from its startlingly abrupt start to its fantastic last act surprise.
Rather than challenging players with traditional puzzles, Osmotic Studios’ unique “privacy invasion thriller” Orwell aims to provoke thought about contemporary issues and the potential outcome of our choices. After a market plaza is bombed in a devious terror attack, your skills as a digital investigator are needed to identify the perpetrators. Taking place almost entirely within the eponymous fictional surveillance OS, it’s up to you to monitor the electronic communication devices of suspects and subsequently decide which information ends up being permanently recorded, which can potentially lead to serious actions against them. All this is achieved through a surprisingly streamlined and easy-to-grasp interface, making it simple to jump into as an operative for this figurative “Big Brother”. Far less simple is choosing how you will utilize the data available that could either save lives or put others at risk. But that’s your responsibility in this very timely and memorable exploration of government oversight.
Under the cover of darkness, five teens break into a deserted military base to party, drink, and contact the dead. If Oxenfree’s premise reminds you of a campy horror film, you’re going in with exactly the right expectations – but you might still be surprised by just how scary this game can be. With a cartoony aesthetic and impressively authentic dialogue, it treads an entertaining line between lighthearted and downright freaky as Alex and her four (sort of) friends traverse an island that’s crackling with weird radio signals and energy glitches, trying to stuff the paranormal genie they’ve unleashed back in the bottle. But as effective as the scary bits are, they’re not the best part of Oxenfree; that honor goes to its funny, crass, completely believable cast of teenagers. Each member of this posse will remind you of someone you knew in high school – the blue-haired cynic, the brainiac, the soulful delinquent, the quiet girl, the pouty bitch – and if you ask the right questions, by the end of the night you’ll make contact with the true self each is trying to hide. (If you don’t ask the right questions, well, there’s always a second playthrough!) While the logistics of its ghost story can be confusing at times, Oxenfree’s excellent dialogue, voice acting, and audio design more than compensate in a game that shines brightest when you’re trying to communicate, whether it’s with the dead or with your friends.
That Dragon, Cancer
We’re not going to lie: you’ll need tissues for this one. That Dragon, Cancer brilliantly combines reality and allegory in a charming, ingenious, but heartrending experience. Based on a true story, Joel Green is diagnosed with terminal cancer as an infant. His struggle to survive and the reactions of his family and doctors are presented as flashbacks in hospital rooms, a park and playground – as well as surreal encounters in oceans, chapels and the darkness of night, symbolizing the fears, prayers, and pain of the people around him. Stylized 3D graphics create vivid outdoor landscapes that contrast with the interiors of the pediatric cancer ward. Though light on actual puzzles, this game provides plenty of interaction as you manipulate the environment to soothe Joel or entertain him, plus simple arcade-like sequences, including Joel in the form of a valiant knight, finally able to fight his evil dragon. Though certainly not “fun” in the traditional gaming sense, given its tragic subject matter, it’s a courageous, deeply moving, groundbreaking work of art created by Joel’s father that reaches a level of tenderness and transcendence that is rarely achieved in an interactive medium.
The Walking Dead: Michonne
Telltale’s Walking Dead formula may be familiar by now, but Michonne, a three-part miniseries intended as a stop-gap between full seasons, presented something different – and poignantly powerful – thanks to its titular heroine. At the heart of this tale is a strong, brave young woman who has been through so much emotional and physical pain that she is now just trying to get through the world a day at a time. Yet Michonne’s past continually comes back to haunt her, jeopardizing her sanity even as the living and undead threaten the safety of her and her grounded shipmates from all sides. It’s Michonne’s dramatic journey that’s the real pull here, as player choice determines how she’ll deal with her crises of both conscience and danger. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Walking Dead game without some zombies, and there’s hordes of them to smash (or sneak?) through in tense action scenes with punchy pacing and shocking violence. Brought to life with striking graphic novel-style visuals and pitch-perfect voice acting, Michonne proves that there’s still plenty of life left in the series.
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Next up: Best Non-Traditional Adventure... the envelope, please!