Last year saw an adrenaline rush on many fronts in the adventure game genre, and not just because we got a brand new Monkey Island game. In 2022, adventure games have spread their wings beyond the often stereotypical hero’s journey limits, and it’s nice to see more games getting experimental and weird, and even quite vague with their endings at times.
It was also a great year to see how the various games’ approaches to role-playing, choice, characterization, and exploration gave the genre greater variety and nuance. A fortune-telling isn’t just about following a narrative thread of discovery, but a metaphorically rich medium for exploring emotion, revelation, and, if you’re lucky, some really good jokes. Here is an overview of my favorites this year.
In a year of exceptional adventures, there is one still fresh in my memory—norco (opens in a new tab). There has been such a wealth of fantastic writing and thoughtful reviews around the game, including zone-specific commentary (like @roaringblood, who lived in the next town and did a great live stream), that I know Norco will survive the lingering bouts of short-term memory that plague the industry as a whole. With some distance from my last playthrough, I’ve come to think of it as some sort of bizarre time capsule (filled with menacing little Garretts, of course) – a vital artifact that will linger over the years before we let’s not all get swallowed up by climate change, and just brilliant fucking writing. Norco is a modern fable that takes the player deep inside the decay of capitalism’s worst excesses, told with heart and soul and perhaps most importantly, without completely losing their sense of hope.
When I remember a brief conversation earlier this year where someone half-kissed about the idea of a point-and-click GOTY, I’d like to stick with the same answer: grow up and play a real game , such as Norco.
As an avid fan of The Name of the Rose and similar monastic mystery novels, Repentance (opens in a new tab) was obvious to me. His careful attention to history and historiography goes well beyond writing and into his wonderful works of art and presentation in illuminated manuscript form. The breadth of Andreas’ journey through time is a narrative feat, his occasional historical puzzles are an absolute delight, and if you like sly contextual humor, Pentiment’s quick wit is a treat. It’s not just another period adventure, but an unqualified leap into the practice of storytelling, myth-making, and the role and impact of authors.
It’s admittedly a lot slower than some of the other games I mention here, but getting to know Tassing (and the game’s quirks) comes naturally once you start exploring.
It was also a fantastic year for narrative RPGs which I also consider to be an integral part of the adventure game canon. sleeper citizen (opens in a new tab), for me, was a deeply personal journey that I quietly absorbed in the dark by the light of my monitor (I hoarded all the DLC to play for fun on the break, like a treat). I quickly developed a strained relationship with checks thrown into the game as I struggled to survive, but over time, as I painstakingly cultivated relationships and built routines and found ways to thrive despite my contraband body, I didn’t want to quit (and you don’t have to).
It’s a quieter flavor of adventure that’s about exploring the intangible parts of personality – place, belonging and identity – and does a magnificent job of integrating the player into the practical realities of their world.
Betrayal at Club Low
Another dice roller I loved was Betrayal at Club Low (opens in a new tab)– to be fair, I’ve yet to come across a Cosmo D game that I haven’t devoured in one sitting, and Club Low is no different. Like most of his other games, it’s a surreal exploration of weird city life at the intersection of art, performance, and music; I play a lowly pizza maker/secret agent, tasked with infiltrating the titular club and rescuing another spy. There’s plenty of power dancing, postures, pizza delivery, and physical checks that really hurt, all wrapped up in the loose fictional universe of Off-Peak City. Club Low, however, seems like his most engaging work to date simply because the dice checks forced me to get big or go home.
The game is, of course, less about pie making and more about the microcosm of the club world and what it reveals about the city and its people. Club Low is an essential insight into the larger enigma of Off-Peak City, a place that constantly invites inquiry but denies us the satisfaction of exploration.
AI: The Somnium files – NirvanA Initiative
AI: The Somnium files – NirvanA Initiative (opens in a new tab) was another unconventional adventure that captured my heart; the second installment refined its puzzles and escape room-style mechanics into a more cohesive experience. This is a murder mystery investigation gone mad, in which Tokyo’s secret mastermind advanced investigation team enters people’s dreams to solve heinous crimes. It’s nearly impossible to explain the intricacies of the game without sounding like a lunatic, but it’s a deep, chaotic dive into conspiracy theories and bizarre half-body serial murders where nothing is really what it seems.
As with the first Somnium game (which I’ll admit had a stronger main plot), it’s a character-driven story that hooks you with irrepressible charisma and verve, and there’s nothing wrong with it. other like that.
Along with these delicious digressions, 2022 also comes with some great point-and-click adventures. The highly anticipated Hob’s Barrow excavations (opens in a new tab) was a popular horror treasure trove that did not disappoint – Wadjet Eye continues to release quality adventures with consistently excellent voice acting and direction. Who can say no to a controversial dig in a burial mound in rural Victorian England where you may or may not tamper with unnatural forces? It’s a slow creeper with captivating pixel-art scenes that have been seared into my memory. On the other end of the horror spectrum was the utterly entertaining Nightmarish frames (opens in a new tab), which comes much closer to the classic point-and-click approach to humor and self-awareness. It is set in Hollywood in 1985, featuring an arrogant screenplay protagonist who becomes involved in a bizarre scavenger hunt for a cursed movie. I loved every LA pixel, and its heartfelt homage to film and movie culture as a whole, right down to the 80s trivia arcade machine.
I also had feelings for capricious strand (opens in a new tab), a contemplative narrative game set in an alternate version of 1970s Australia aboard an airship-turned-hospital. It’s dialogue-driven and focuses on immersive character studies through the eyes of a young aspiring writer. There is a limit to the exploration side of the adventure – the ship is a compact, finite space, and the only way to expand the small floating world around you is to learn more about its patients and history, by choosing carefully what to pay attention to. He also has a stellar voice from Australian icons, including the legendary (and instantly identifiable) Michael Caton, who dominated my school movie nights as Daryl Kerrigan in The Castle.
Finally, a shout out to a few short kings. The duration of an hour and a half Gibbon: Beyond the Trees (opens in a new tab) is not quite a conventional “adventure” and has no dialogue, but tells a strong and cohesive story about the plight of the gibbon in the face of human greed. It takes a second to get to grips with the controls (especially using the keyboard), but it’s a great example of a short, moving narrative that relies on the momentum and fluid swing/jump/throw mechanics of the gibbon to tell a larger story about the gibbon’s vulnerability and relationship to its increasingly perilous environment (it also feels extremely, so bad when you miss a jump and “die”).
There Rocks a Skull: Grim Tidings (opens in a new tab) is an amazing little gem that distinguishes between story-driven exploration and some really dark role-playing elements. It’s a beautiful piece of existential horror wearing a pixel art mask. Set in the small town of Pareildes, the player lives in a sun-bleached desert outpost with a trainless station, where one by one its inhabitants perish under a ravenous sun. It takes less than 2 hours to complete, but in this compact time frame the game offers an intense abundance of narrative detail with devastating economy. Highly recommended for fans of alternative horror (with great sound design to boot), or if you’re just looking for a dark, well-written story.