Adventure Game Studio is a freeware game engine designed specifically for adventure games. A thriving independent game community has grown around AGS and many games I’ve written about here use the engine. It’s a great tool as it gives indie developers a structure to build on, allowing them focus their creativity on their game. What I find to be the most interesting part of AGS is the sheer diversity of adventure games that have been made using it; some very unique and groundbreaking titles have been released from talented developers.
Cruising the Adventure Game Studio website I came across an announcement of the nominees for the 2009 AGS awards. Realizing that I had already played a couple of the nominees for the main award (Best Game) and that the rest were games that I had been meaning to play, I decided to finish the list and discuss my feelings about which one I think should win.
In Shifter’s Box – Outside In, designed by Ben Chandler, you are a young girl who stumbles across a strange box. Curious, you pry it open and find yourself sucked into another world. Stuck in this strange new place you have to find a way to get the box open again and travel from world to world trying to find your way home.
Shifter’s Box was a fun experience. It has great music, sound, and while the graphics aren’t the best they satisfy the game’s needs. The puzzles in the game weren’t difficult but weren’t a pushover either. The game isn’t terribly deep (Ben Chandler is known for short adventure games) and while the length is not a strike against it, at the end, the game goes a bit too far trying to explain how the box works. Shifter’s Box is about the girl’s journey and the explanations about the manipulation of time and space felt out of place with the rest of the game.
While a great game on its own, Shifter’s Box didn’t have enough outstanding elements to put it ahead of the other nominees.
!, another game by Ben Chandler, is a bit odd. An evil villain, Count Can’t, has stolen the town square’s landmark, a giant cardboard exclamation mark. He wants it to punctuate his evil laugh to make it more powerful. It’s up to robot detective, !,Robot, to track the thief down.
Beyond the plot, what makes ! unique is its presentation. The town is shown as a single screen with six frames. Each frame is a different part of the town. !,Robot walks from frame to frame trying to track down Count Can’t. It’s an interesting way to design a short adventure game. You’re not spending a lot of time walking from place to place and yet you still get a good sense of the town.
! has fantastic music. Each frame has a different spin on the main theme song and I found myself moving about constantly just to hear them. Graphically the game is simple but its style works well. My only complaint was that the game’s puzzles aren’t the best. They were either too easy or they asked you to make unclear leaps of logic.
Overall, ! is a fun, short adventure game but ultimately didn’t have enough to it to win the best of the year.
The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1, by Calin Leafshade, is an adventure game with a filmnoir-like setting. You play as Rick McCarthy a detective who recently lost his reputation after a case went bad. Demoralized, you answer a call that lures you to the scene of a murder. The murder, gruesome and bloody, has clearly just happened and it quickly becomes clear that you are being framed for it. Narrowly escaping the police closing in on the area, you decide to follow a lead found at the scene.
The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1 has some of the best, if not the best, voice acting I’ve ever heard in a video game; especially the voice of Rick himself. His words are spoken in a soft fashion that works faultlessly with the atmosphere of the game. Mixed with a story that grew with intrigue in perfect increments and simple but good puzzles, I was absolutely riveted. The graphics are minimal but work well with what the game is trying to accomplish. I had only a couple criticisms, such as in some cases the prose of the narrated lines becomes a bit much. But these moments are few and easily forgiven.
My main complaint about The McCarthy Chronicles: Episode 1 is what will keep it from getting my vote for the best AGS game of the year. Being the first installment of the story, the game ends on a cliff hanger and while that’s not a bad thing, overall the game was simply too short. The creator did a good job leaving me wanting more but it didn’t feel like enough of a game to win first place.
Even so, if it wasn’t for these awards, I may not have gotten around to playing this game, which would have been a true tragedy – I will race to get episode two the moment it comes out.
The next nominee, The Marionette, I’ve already talked about and loved. It was this game and the next nominee where I had the most conflict in deciding which game I’d like to see win. I’ll come back to The Marionette in a moment.
Time Gentlemen, Please! is Zombie Cow Studio’s commercial sequel to the freeware Ben There, Dan That. I absolutely loved the first game and not much has changed. The game picks up where the first left off, with the heroes traveling through time to try and put a stop to their future selves’ evil plans. Again, I couldn’t possibly try and explain the plot – you’ll just have to play – but the game is as funny as before and even wilder.
The puzzles are where the game especially shines. They have a high level of difficulty but are never frustrating. As before, the sheer amount of interactivity of objects is fantastic. Most attempts to use items on other items or objects in the world will solicit a unique quip from the duo.
The graphics in Time Gentlemen, Please! remain charmingly simple but effective. This game is hilarious (and a bit dirtier than the first installment).
I struggled to decide between The Marionette and Time Gentlemen, Please!. They’re two very different games that do very different things and it’s ultimately unfair to compare them. The Marionette leans heavily on its story with some light puzzle elements. Time Gentlemen, Please! has a funny story but its best quality is its puzzles.
Having to choose, I vote for The Marionette. While Time Gentlemen, Please! is a great game that I thoroughly enjoyed, in a way I had already seen it before in Ben There, Dan That. It’s not fair as it is a sequel, and if anything about the characters of Ben and Dan had been changed, it probably wouldn’t have been as fun. But The Marionette was new and entirely its own game. For that, I think it should win.
Regardless of the true results of the voting (I’m writing this before the winner is announced but posting after) I’m glad I played each of these games. As I said before, Adventure Game Studio lets game developers do very creative work and that was evident throughout every moment of these games. If you enjoy adventure games at all you should play each of these nominees.