SAN FRANCISCO – A few years ago, former BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler just about split the Internet in half when she said she'd like to play through RPGs without combat. Her reasoning was that building up relationships among her party members and the world around them could be a lot more interesting than simply trading blows with enemies.
BioWare hasn't given up combat just yet, but Hepler's comment got adventure game designer Dave Gilbert thinking: What if it could?
The result would probably look a lot like Unavowed: Gilbert's latest point-and-click adventure title, which I got to try for myself at GDC 2018. It has all the hallmarks of a modern Western role-playing game: a diverse, interesting cast of party members; multiple ways to customize your protagonist's identity and backstory; and a story that can change considerably depending on your choices.
What it doesn't have is combat and leveling up your characters' abilities – an omission that some gamers will find liberating, and others will find irritating.
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From the moment I started, I saw the similarities to a BioWare adventure. You start by choosing your character's sex and name – easy enough – but you then choose one of three distinct backstories. Depending on whether your character used to be an actor, a police officer, or a bartender, the first level of the game plays out very differently, as you discover the circumstances under which you became possessed by a demon.
Yes, the main thrust of Unavowed is a conflict with the supernatural. Your character was, up until recently, under the control of an otherworldly power, and forced to commit atrocities in its name. As soon as Unavowed's prologue ends, you start dealing with the fallout right away.
Since the game doesn't feature any combat, your protagonist will have to rely on his or her wits instead. However, while you'll need to hunt for useful items and solve a few devious puzzles, Gilbert wants to keep the focus on character interactions and story choices, not on the mind-bending brainteasers from adventure gaming's heyday.
"I'm not a puzzle guy," Gilbert told me. "I never have been."
Even so, I admit that the game's first major puzzle took me a while to figure out. When two of my party members (a well-dressed demon hunter named Eli, and a sword-wielding acrobat named Mandy) found themselves at odds with a skinless demon, I had to sneak up behind it and rig up an elaborate system involving a breaker box, a spool of copper wire, two drainpipes and a puddle of water in order to shock it into submission. It was a clever puzzle, and, thankfully, more thoughtful than frustrating.
Later on in the game, choosing which party members to bring with you can have significant effects on how levels play out. One character, Logan, can speak to ghosts; Mandy can climb to high places. Gilbert assured me that no matter which characters you take with you, though, you'll always be able to solve the puzzles, even if you have to undergo some extra steps. He didn't like the idea of forcing a player to take certain characters on specific quests.
Buoyed by solid writing and some decent voice acting, the characters in Unavowed have already piqued my interest. I think I could spend an entire game with them – even though I would admittedly miss the combat and character-building that usually goes along with party-based adventures. For those who feel like combat is a necessarily evil for a good character-driven narrative, on the other hand, Unavowed might be just what they've always wanted. The game will be out on PCs before the end of the year, but there's no price information available yet.