Whilst the survival of the point-and-click adventure through the mid-2000s was largely down to the efforts of European studios, thanks to the genre having historically fared better in the European market than in the US, American developers also had a role to play. Telltale Games are obviously worth a mention, considering that they were founded by refugees from LucasArts and the way the monster success of their first season of The Walking Dead really helped point-and-clicks feel like a modern, current genre that could still be commercially relevant, rather than a retro field best served by indies and bedroom programmers.
That said, let’s not discount those indie studios and bedroom programmers. After all, if we’re serious about wanting an alternative to the excesses of the higher end of the videogame industry – with their triple-A games whose content must be balanced and adjusted for as wide an audience as possible, ultimately making the industry just as conservative as the blockbuster end of movie-making, and with working practices based around hideous grind, exploitation, and turning a blind eye to abominable behaviour on an Ubisoft-esque scale – then we’ve got to stay open to the other end of the scale, with people crafting games on a self-employed basis or with a limited team with (hopefully, but not always) less hierarchical abusive bullshit than the big guns.
When it comes to US-based development houses focusing on point-and-click adventures and emerging from humble origins and the do-it-yourself scene, rather than originating with industry insiders, then the big name in both commercial reach and critical acclaim these days has to be Wadjet Eye. These days, Wadjet Eye is both a developer and a publisher – Gemini Rue, which I reviewed previously and greatly enjoyed, is one of the various games cooked up by third parties that Wadjet Eye have published.
Back in the day, Wadjet Eye had its origins as the outlet for the designs of Dave Gilbert. Gilbert got his start as part of the hobbyist community working with Adventure Game Studio (which does for point-and-click adventures what RPG Maker does for JRPGs), becoming a significant early contributor to the field at a time when Yahtzee and his Chzo Mythos games were probably the most celebrated names there. Gilbert’s pre-commercial work saw him becoming a regular nominee and winner in the AGS awards (and indeed he has been a regular winner there since, finally overtaking Yahtzee’s record of total awards won in 2018).
In fact, Wadjet Eye’s first game, The Shivah, was a polished and improved version of a game which Gilbert produced for the AGS community’s “write a game in one month” contest in June 2006. The Shivah won the contest handily, Gilbert decided to beef it up for a commercial release, and the rest is history, with Wadjet Eye continuing to produce Gibert’s designs to this day. (Indeed, before they started publishing games from third parties in the 2010s, all of Wadjet Eye’s releases were Dave Gilbert designs.)
But as important as The Shivah is to the studio’s history, it isn’t their bread and butter and it isn’t Dave Gilbert’s most famous release. His most commercially prominent and widely-recognised effort is the Blackwell sequence, a five-game point-and-click saga. (His latest game, Unavowed, is not part of the main series but is, to my understanding, connected to it.) In a way, Blackwell preceded The Shivah, since the basic concept was used by Gilbert for a rudimentary demo entitled Bestowers of Eternity in 2003 before the concept got revisited, polished up, and released commercially as The Blackwell Legacy, Wadjet Eye’s second commercial release of 2006 (coming just three months after the commercial version of The Shivah). The final game in the sequence, The Blackwell Epiphany, came out in 2014, making Blackwell a significant accomplishment in the adventure game field in the sense of being a fully-realised series with a beginning, middle, and an end, designed by the same creator and released by the same publisher throughout.
In fact, I can’t think of anyone from the golden age of adventure gaming who actually accomplished anything similar except Lori and Corey Cole and the Quest For Glory series. Every other significant LucasArts or Sierra series was either handed off to other designers at some point (Space Quest, Police Quest, Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Maniac Mansion, Laura Bow), or wasn’t trying to tell a complete story arc with a beginning, middle and end over the span of the series (King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Phantasmagoria), or got cancelled before it could put out planned continuations of the story (Gabriel Knight, Torin’s Passage), or some combination of those factors.
Even Quest For Glory has a bit of an asterisk next to it, since the Coles did not have complete creative freedom in the same way that Gilbert has enjoyed for Blackwell; they had to rapidly knock off Quest For Glory III, which threw off their plans for the series, and Quest For Glory V ended up being a more combat-oriented RPG with some adventure game aspects, rather than the more even blend of adventure and RPG elements that the previous games had been. Conversely, the Blackwell games began as point-and-click adventures, ended as point-and-click adventures, and so far as I can tell haven’t required Gilbert to knock out a “filler” entry in the series to make time.
To that extent, Gilbert’s accomplishment is impressive – but it’s one thing to successfully tell your planned story from beginning to end, another for that story to actually be good. Did he stick the landing? Let’s see…Continue reading “Blackwell That Ends Well?”