The 2009 AGS Awards

Awards are nice. They make people feel special for receiving them and make other feel important for giving them. I’m sure we can all agree that awarding a group as noble as indie adventure game developers with digital trophies is the least we can do to thank them for their contributions to our pleasure. One particular awards event that just so happens to be right around the corner (ed. on Saturday, February 27th) is the AGS Awards for 2009. While there are Aggies for all sorts of categories such as best story and best puzzles, and quality games are by no means underrepresented, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss the mack-daddy of them all: the award for Best Game Created with AGS for 2009, the true Game of the Year of ’09. What surprised and impressed me about the nominations for this year was the incredible balance of strengths. Each game was really the best of its kind in the last 12 months, but there can be only one, so let’s dive right in.

!

The first of Ben304’s two nominated games this year, ! puts you in the metal shoes of the titular robot as he sets off on a surrealistic mission to stop the evil Count Can’t from unleashing his devastating laugh upon the city. This game manages to thrive within the unique limits imposed by the developer. It has only 5 colors and takes place all on the same screen. While that might not sound that impressive, you might also like to know that the screen contains 6 panels, each with its own intriguing puzzle. That, I think, is really Ben’s strong suit. The man makes puzzles like no other, and ! is no exception. The puzzles have a nice difficulty curve, even though I fell off at the end because the final puzzle was too clever for me. To quote Count Can’t out of context, these challenges are “so damn gangsta, it’s a crime.” Overall, Ben’s strongest competitor in the puzzle department is himself with…

Shifter’s Box – Outside In

Shifter's Box - Outside In

So if you take take the rad puzzles of !, stretch them out a bit, and throw in a bit of optimistic philosophy and a hint of the Wizard of Oz, you would get Shifter’s Box. The very normal Sally encounters the trans-dimensional box and is thrust through various gorgeously drawn, puzzle-filled worlds with no way to get home. As in !, the majority of the fun comes from the puzzles and, to a lesser extent, the humor. I suppose you could say that Shifter is a more “serious” game than !, but you could also say it has 20% more flustaluphianism and you’d be saying just as much. When you start trying to cram these type of games into arbitrary labels, you really miss the point. Games like Shifter’s Box and ! are meant to be short, fun challenges and don’t need to be hyper-analyzed. Besides, no “serious” game would sport a dashing Victorian narrator in a top hat, right? Whoops, there I go on a crazy tangent in furious response to a hypothetical question. Let’s just move on, shall we?

The Marionette

If Ben304 has the monopoly on puzzles, auriond leads the story department with The Marionette. This horror mystery tells the story of Martin, an artist with a troubled past, and his strange journey toward atonement. This game really stands out for its unique, hand-painted graphics and serious, mature story. That’s not to say that it’s all talk and no walk, it’s got some nice gameplay too. One thing I respect is that even you pick up enough diaries and notes to choke a goat, they all have a surprising bonus use besides exposition material. It’s also got a compelling cast of interesting characters, including the protagonist, Martin, who is one of the deepest, yet most flawed player characters I’ve ever encountered in a game. In contrast to Ben Chandler’s fun puzzle games, Marionette practically begs for analysis. The wonderfully crafted environments are filled with symbolism and the different endings each provoke different deep questions. It’s artful and subtle, relying on tension and unstated oppression to build up genuinely powerful horrors. On the whole, it’s a really depressing, immersive experience that certainly belongs among this year’s worthy contenders.

The Marionette

McCarthy Chronicles – Episode 1

This horror mystery, not to be confused with the other horror mystery nominee, is definitely a fan favorite this year. McCarthy Chronicles creator Steve “Calin” Poulton “Leafshade” has his name on literally half of the award categories for his very first game, and judging by community response, he stands to win quite a few. The lowdown: disgraced detective Rick McCarthy gets caught up in some serious shit involving curses, demons, and full voice acting. Yes, McCarthy Chronicles is the only talky nominee, which certainly adds to the immersion. The word most people bandy around when describing it is “atmospheric,” mainly when defending the game against those who challenge its actual game-ness. While it’s true that none of the very few puzzles are particularly difficult, McCarthy deserves some praise for going in a very different direction than most adventure games. If you want to know more about McCarthy you could look, oh, I don’t know… HERE.

Time Gentlemen, Please!

Now, so far, these games have got several genres and playing styles covered, but the Nazi dinosaur demographic is still grossly underrepresented. Thankfully, Time Gentlemen, Please! by Zombie Cow fills this glaring void. The sequel to 2008’s Ben There, Dan That, TGP is easily the funniest nominee this year, but also features plenty of clicky-clicky-puzzle-solvey. This game is more self-aware than Skynet and never ceases to poke fun at adventure game tropes. The protagonists, Ben and Dan, use their quick wits and excellent chemistry to undo the mess they made in the first game. The fact that this is the only commercial nominee this year could be a weakness or a strength, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, the price barrier limits the number of people will play it. But on the other hand, the relatively high production values show, and being listed on Steam increases exposure. It’s my opinion that Time Gentlemen’s top notch humor and quirky puzzles most definitely make it a solid contender for the title of Best AGS game for 2009.

***

Now if you’ve actually been paying attention, you’ve no doubt noticed that I haven’t shared my pick for Game of the Year with you, oh astute reader. That is because my choice is none of your business and my business should not affect your choice. I’m merely trying to help you formulate an informed opinion, not trying to shove my ideas down your throats. I’m not Seth MacFarlane, for Pete’s sake. Also, while I really enjoyed all the nominees this year, none of them are what I’d call “transcendentally great,” which is basically my highest measure of gaming success. A game reaches transcendence when you can’t stop playing it, when your only complaint is that you want more. The game must immerse you and challenge you mentally. Whether its purpose be to scare you, amuse you, or confound you, it must accomplish its goal absolutely. Adventure games, in particular, must put you in the shoes of the protagonist; a well-written game can make you forget about your character’s bottomless pockets. While most of these games came close in different ways, there’s not one I could pick for being transcendentally great. But by its very definition (provided by me), TG is in the eye of the beholder, and if you’re lucky, one of these nominees could have reached out and captured you.

Now go vote. Pool’s closed. Tune in on Saturday for the exciting conclusion!

Personal note: Be excellent to each other, and… party on Drew!