The Book Of Unwritten Tales – Preview
by Mark R
In a time before meshes; before polygons and dynamic lighting, the graphic adventure was king. The first of these were a hybrid between the classic text adventures of old and the use of what limited graphical capabilities computers had at their disposal, but it was enough to allow the players’ imagination to leap off the screen and pull them in with a little nudge beyond what text alone could do for those unable to weave worlds in their minds. As time progressed, so too did the beauty within the genre and pivotal games such as The Pawn paved the way for a new breed of game where the task of visualising the fantastic lands fell upon the game designers themselves, leaving the players free to concentrate on focusing their minds to solve puzzles, piece together clues and ultimately reach whatever goals were laid before them.
As one would expect, the genre slipped from the top of the playlist of the typical gamer as modern technology afforded them the opportunity to immerse themselves in more realistic scenarios, with fewer still relying on the ability of the player to evaluate their environments and inventories in order to create weird and wonderful contraptions that would allow them to progress through the story. Some may also argue that, for the most part, the brain is no longer required when it comes to modern gaming and that reflexes and muscle memory are all that developers ask of their market, but the point and click genre would undoubtedly throw a rusted gauntlet to the ground to defend their opposing position.
The advent of polygons, meshes and dynamic lighting do still have a place within the point and click adventure genre, however, with more developers turning to the “2.5D” arena where it is neither a full 3D environment nor a static 2D backdrop through which the player must hunt for that darned elusive pixel. The Book of Unwritten Tales is one such adventure, relying heavily on the mental agility of the player, but with beautifully crafted, living environments where lighting, shadow, organic details and subtle humorous nods guide us on a journey of discovery through the eyes of various protagonists as they follow their interwoven quests as bestowed upon them by a gremlin by the name of MacGuffin.
While The Book Of Unwritten Tales may have been a hit for some two years in Germany, its recent anglicisation has opened it up to a whole new world of appreciation, and it’s really not hard to appreciate this game. Scattered screenshots across the web and teaser trailers don’t come close to doing the visuals any justice, and from the second the introduction ends and the cinematic credits start to roll with epic reminiscence of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, you immediately sense that this journey is going to be something special.
The graphics are stunning and, even as semi-static backgrounds, there is an organic nature to them. The use of colour and contrast, with each scene being perfectly set by a carefully-considered palette, jumps off the screen and is a mix of hyper realism and classic illustration. If I had to liken the environments to anything from my imagination, these are the closest I have ever come to Ankh-Morpork, but with considerably less hustle and bustle. I won’t bore you by whipping out my graphic whore’s soap box but, suffice it to say, the meticulous detail is what immediately drew me to Unwritten Tales.
What managed to actually keep me playing, however, was the fantastical approach to gameplay. As someone who often finds the narratives in video games to be somewhat lacking, King Art Games managed to do something quite spectacular by not only managing to thread an incredible amount of humour through the story, but also introduce more nods than you can shake a ‘Staff Of Ra’ at. I adore literal humour; I raise a smile when subtle references from popular culture pop up when you least expect them and, as I’ve only recently discovered, let loose a hearty laugh when the comedy turns self referential or offers blatant mimicry of something that so many of us are incredibly familiar with. During my playthrough of the preview, I would stop playing through the laughter to explain what had snagged my funny bone, “Isn’t it too much?” I was asked and, after a pensive moment or two, all I could say was “No, actually it’s not!”.
To someone not playing the game, having been told what had just cropped up, it’s understandable that they’d wonder if all these cultural references weren’t getting to the point where it was nothing more than padding the story out with lazy attempts at cheap humour. When you’re sitting in front of the screen, however, controlling whatever character you’ve since taken over, it’s a very different story. In fact, there were times they would pull what I’d call the “The Ol’ Final Destination” where my mind would think ahead to the set-up for yet another nod, but it wouldn’t appear. Nobody was digging in the wrong place, nobody’s name turned out to be Bill Door, and that wasn’t quite Danny Elfman playing in the background.
Comments from NPCs as to why anyone would entrust the safety of such an important ring to a halfling, or one of our heroes, Ivo, humming an all-too-familiar note progression as she uses a bullwhip to pull her from one platform to another all serve to weave a rich tapestry of humour to carry us through what could otherwise be a typical tale of delivering a magical artefact. It’s difficult to convey exactly how much comedic performance there is without spoiling anything, and perhaps my favourite ten or fifteen minutes was spent working through a particular problem where Unwritten Tales was at its self-referential best – discussing video games, gamers themselves and the problems faced when the Server crashes or becomes bug-laden. This, to my mind, was comedy genius and the eight hours of preview playthrough was worth it for this section alone.
King Art Games have taken something of a different slant on the point and click genre with the option of playing as four separate characters, each of which will serve their own purpose at any given time. The preview begins with the player taking on the role of the rather stunning Ivo, an elf princess who stumbles across the abduction and imprisonment of the archaeologist Mortimer MacGuffin. MacGuffin’s release from his temporary prison pulls a passing gnome by the name of Wilbur Weathervane in to deliver his “One Ring” to the Arch Mage in a neighbouring city and it’s here that our adventure begins.
The characters themselves are superbly voiced, and I was surprised not to see any familiar names on the cast list beyond that of David Rintoul from Risen, Dragon Age, Heavenly Sword and… if you’re someone who uses their television for activities other than gaming… the lead in Dr Finlay. I’ve since discovered from Mark Estdale, voice director and English script editor, that our waistcoated airship captain, Nate, was voiced by Doug Cockle who also has the lead role of Geralt in the Witcher series. I was naturally quite hesitant that the humour and dialogue would be lost in the translation from German to English, or that the studio would pull in a horde of ‘cheap as chips’ actors just to get the job done and keep costs to a minimum, but they have instead excelled in every way imaginable. It’s not just the voice acting that teases the ears from one scene to the next, however, as a haunting orchestral score immerses the player while subtle background hubbub such as whistling grass and nesting bids carry the ambience to provide a well rounded atmosphere.
As someone who leans more towards the role playing or strategy genre, I wasn’t exactly aux fait with how all these shenanigans work, where sellotaping a maggot to a lollipop stick which was then suspended between two frogs would cause some weird contraption to burst in to life but, after a while, I got there. Some of the puzzles were so damned obvious after I’d actually worked out how to do them whereas some were just… as a literal thinker, they should have been obvious, but I clearly wasn’t thinking literally enough. Whether other titles in the point and click genre give the player quite so much to think about, I have no idea, but the puzzles I encountered were taxing enough to get the grey matter churning without ever becoming frustrating.
My quick dip into the sea of point and clicks has got me craving more and, even though I’ve said in the past that I wanted to immerse myself in the Black Mirror trilogy, I’d much rather that my first real journey was one of fun and laughter than unnerving shadows and tension. The Book Of Unwritten Tales has everything that someone like me could possibly want from a game: stunning visuals, haunting score, top notch voice acting, a story that’s compelling enough to reel you in without taking itself too seriously… and an incredible sense of humour. Thinking outside of the box has never been so hilarious, or beautiful.
The Book Of Unwritten Tales will be published by Lace Mamba Global in Autumn 2011, available on Windows PC.
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