[This article contains some mild earlygame spoilers for Unavowed.]
Unavowed is the newest point-and-click adventure from Wadjet Eye Games, a developer that could fairly be described as a veteran of the genre, and that experience has been put to the best possible use in upending expectations. This is not the linear puzzle-solving romp one might expect, but instead borrows ideas from epic role-playing games like Dragon Age, Fallout, and Mass Effect, and squishes them into a new form.
The player is cast as an unnamed protagonist who, in a stroke of bad luck, was possessed by an evil spirit one year ago. Now free, but wanted by the police due to your actions while under the influence, you have little choice but to join the ranks of the Unavowed, a secret society that saved you. Hopefully you can rebuild anew, find out who you are, and track down the monster that possessed you.
As part of this group you encounter the supernatural, solve cases linked to your possession, recruit new people, and the decisions made while doing so shape your experience of the story. It’s an ambitious undertaking for a low-budget adventure game, but one that's been made to work through great writing and sheer ingenuity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s opening scene, which serves as an excellent introduction to what the player can expect.
As the game starts, your character wakes on a rooftop. Rain lashes down and a frenzied voice calls out from the shadows.
“Are you demon, man, or woman?” it shouts.
I answer that I'm a man. A lightning bolt tears across the sky and illuminates the world, to show someone holding a staff and a glimpse of the female captor restraining me.
“Tell me something about your past.”
Three options appear on screen. Each a potential backstory for my character. Was I an actor? A bartender? Maybe a police officer? I answer actor and the scene dissolves, making way for a flashback set in a theatre.
I play through this origin and the first cases over the next few hours but, curious to see what difference lies down the paths not taken, I save and exit to start again. It’s here I realise just how much of Unavowed's world changes in response to such simple decisions: not only does the location of the first flashback change, but your relationship with other characters too.
There's some clever shuffling behind-the-scenes to make each starting point play out differently, while still hooking you into the larger arc. Depending on your character's origin you’ll encounter at least one NPC that will crop up in a later case, with their mood and expressions changing depending on your decisions. Select the cop origin story, for example, and the opening ends with your character shooting their partner Vicki Santina while possessed. Needless to say, when you later meet again, this is the source of considerable tension, and it's far from the only thing that changes.
Your backstory also alters the abilities available. On the first case, for instance, you need to investigate a burned-out homeless shelter but there's a busybody cop standing guard. An actor might quickly improvise a lie, and convince the officer their sister was inside and they have to see for themselves. A cop talking to a cop is easy, you're working a case for another department. A bartender might just turn on the charm and use those hard-won people skills. Put so baldly this might just sound like multiple-choice, but the point is that this example stands for so many others, and as the subtle changes build atop one another they give each character real individuality (not to mention the more concrete distinctions like new dialogue options and unlockable skills).
Another way Unavowed customises playthroughs is through your choice of companions. The group begins with just two other characters that you can take along, the fire-wielder Eli and the jinn Mandana, but there are more to recruit over time. These can then be mixed and matched to form your party of three.
Again, the change is much more than cosmetic. The companions you choose remix the puzzles you face, a particularly great touch in a game that wants you to replay it. An example from an early scene is when you find yourself stuck in a storage locker (skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid some puzzle spoilers). In this scenario you can either use Mandana and the bestower Logan to pry open a vent inside the room and crawl to safety, or fiddle with some simple electronics and ask Eli to use his fire powers to set off the sprinklers causing the door to release. Both solutions require pretty much the same amount of effort, and ensure that a second playthrough has something to offer beyond the script deviations and the chance to stack up more achievements.
I should mention there's a couple of limitations on this character-swapping mechanic, which is that you need to take at least one of Eli and Mandana on every mission: so there's only a single slot available for other characters. Another is that, once you have selected your team, you can’t change them during an ongoing case. Left your spirit guide at home? Tough luck.
This can be slightly frustrating, especially when you encounter a situation that could easily be solved using another member’s abilities. But I don't want to be too hard on Unavowed for making an understandable sacrifice, considering the game’s enormous scope, and ensuring there's a consistent spine to wherever a given set of choices may take the player. And while you can't constantly swap characters in and out, you can engage your current companions in conversation and tease out minor hints on where to go and what to do next.
Adventure games have flirted with RPG elements in the past. The Quest for Glory series famously allowed you to build your own character, pick a class, and solve puzzles in a number of character specific ways. Unavowed doesn't feel like a pen-and-paper RPG, however, so much as an unusually flexible and engaging piece of interactive fiction. There is clearly still an author in control but, thanks to that combination of versatile puzzle design and role-playing responsiveness, the player has just enough agency to feel like they have some say over how things play out.
The majority of adventure games are, whatever their other qualities, designed to be played through in one way. Unavowed bucks this trend with style and, in the way it builds new stories out of familiar elements, shows that the point-and-click adventure genre isn't just alive and kicking: it's evolving.