When I first started playing the adventure game Unforeseen Incidents, what immediately stuck out to me was the art style. The scratchy environments and shadowy characters were immediately appealing and completely sold me on the game’s world.
At its heart, Unforeseen Incidents is a conspiratorial drama telling the story of a small town, a deadly epidemic, and the hapless handyman Harper Pendrell who becomes unwittingly entangled in its plot. Pendrell isn’t cut from the hero mould; he doesn’t aspire to be a mighty pirate, an ace reporter, or the ruler of a far-off kingdom. He’s just happy to sleep all day and coast through life. That is, until he comes across an infected girl dying in the street and is asked to deliver a letter. It’s that moment alone that triggers a series of events dragging him further and further into a world he doesn’t quite understand.
Backwoods Entertainment is the developer behind the game. It's a small development studio based in Oer-Erkenschwick in rural Germany, an hour's drive away from the nearest big city, Cologne, and even further removed from the typical game development hubs of Berlin and Hamburg. Who better, then, to make a game about small town communities and their relation to the outside world?
To find out more about the game’s influences and its unique art style, I reached out to Unforeseen Incidents' lead writer Marcus Bäumer and lead artist Matthias Nikutta.
"The idea for Unforeseen Incidents is actually pretty old. We started thinking about making games in 2011," says Bäumer. "We were just studying or going to school and wanted to make point-and-click adventures because we love them so much. We like the LucasArts point-and-click adventures and the other point-and-click adventures that came out in the 90s."
It wasn’t until a chance encounter at Gamescom 2015 that production on the project began in earnest, after Bäumer managed to secure funding from publisher Application Systems Heidelberg after pitching the idea to them on the show floor. This financial support was vital for finishing the game, but also had some limitations too, which drastically impacted upon the production.
“The funny thing about that is the art style resulted from [that] restriction. The story [in the game] is really long. We are telling the game in four chapters and each of the chapters has around 15 screens, so we ended up with a story that needs for experienced adventure game players two hours per chapter, maybe longer. But we have a limited amount of time, of course, because we have a publishing deal and we have the financing deal from our publisher.”
With only one artist on the project, the team had to approach the visuals differently to produce them in a timely manner, while still keeping a consistent and engaging art style. The solution was to go for a more comic book aesthetic that the team describes as “more akin to concept art”.
“I think the art style is a result of the [time] limitation and my two biggest influences: Ian McQue and Robert Valley,” Nikutta explains over email. “Ian is a genius, when it comes to linework. So is Robert Valley, who has more of a comic/story board art style, but he combines his linework with a lot of gradients. So, I kind of mingled these two together during my studies and when we started the development of Unforeseen Incidents and [...] I managed to come up with my own graphic novel/comic book look.”
“The art style has gotten really lovely [feedback] and people really enjoy it and like it,” says Bäumer. “We have these hard-black shadows […] on all the characters, and same for the backgrounds. We also use a lot of gradients for the backgrounds. For us, it was important to create landscapes that you think, 'I’d like to be there. It looks pretty nice'.”
This scratchier approach isn’t just for aesthetics, either. It also fits thematically. The look of the environments and the characters give the player the impression that there is more than meets the eye to every location and person they encounter. This is important as you will spend a lot of time exploring the different screens, confronting a cast of wonderfully bizarre characters, and searching for puzzle items and vital clues.
To give a few examples of the type of characters you’ll meet, you will come across a lovelorn hotel clerk, a fastidious reporter, and a benevolent professor on your journey. Each of these characters have their own problems to solve and their own special relationship to the outbreak.
Bäumer looked specifically at TV shows like Fargo, Lost, Twin Peaks and the X-Files for inspiration when writing these characters. He wanted to give them their own motivations and compelling backstories and develop them beyond simply being present to espouse exposition and to act as an obstacle to the player.
It’s safe to say, he has achieved this. While playing I constantly found myself wanting to know more about the different characters I met and often exhausted the different dialogue trees to see what information I could tease out about the different locations and their residents.
Creating a coherent world was incredibly important for the team. When it came to the puzzles, in particular, Bäumer wanted to avoid “moon logic”, a common feature of earlier adventure titles where the solutions to problems were usually ridiculous or immersion breaking. He wanted the placement of items to make sense and for players to be able to apply real world logic to work things out.
“We wanted to get rid of unfair and illogical puzzles. A lot of the games that came out in the 90s were cartoony adventure games. Our adventure game is – gameplay wise – not a cartoon game. So, you don’t have combinations of items or items in hotspots that are funny or cartoony and don’t make any sense. We tried to write puzzles that really make sense and the solution to the puzzles would work in the real world, in fact.”
One example of this from the game is the puzzle where the player must find a reporter named Helliwell to deliver a message. Helliwell is undercover, but is a guest at a nearby hotel, so you need to do some sleuthing and call the different guest rooms to interrogate people to get the information necessary to identify them.
There are no ‘monkey wrenches’ in sight and you won’t need to fashion a moustache out of cat hair for a disguise (a real puzzle solution from Gabriel Knight 3). Instead, you can solve puzzles realistically through careful deliberation and an awareness of your environment.
Even Pendrell’s futuristic-looking multi-tool, which you receive at the very start of the game, is just a fancy Swiss-army knife, reinforcing this more down-to-earth approach to storytelling that the team are aiming for.
All of this makes Unforeseen Incidents a friendlier type of point-and-click adventure than the games Bäumer and Nikutta played growing up. It puts the emphasis on narrative first, with the puzzles being present only as an obvious extension of the plot. Need to find out more about a particular location or event? Then try asking around. Want parts to fix up a busted car? Why not try visiting the local scrap yard? It’s this ethos that welcomes new players to the genre, without necessarily alienating experienced adventure game players looking for a challenge.
“We don’t to give obstacles to the player that just holds them back or lengthens the playtime,” Bäumer says in regards to this. “We want players to progress in the story and […] every time you get stuck, you can just walk around and talk to the characters again and look at the items and hotspots again. There will be some hint somewhere and something that really points you in the way to go.”
It seems like there is charm to be found in every nook and cranny of Unforeseen Incident’s world: in the unique characters you’ll meet, the conversations you’ll have, and the gorgeous locations you’ll explore while trying to wrap your head around its tangled web of a plot.