I had the pleasure of seeing Dave Gilbert speak for the first time at Rezzed in April this year. When asked how he felt about mainstream distribution platforms showing less interest in the adventure genre, he said: “It creates a great opportunity for indies to serve that niche, and do reasonably well if they do it reasonably well.”
And his development studio, Wadjet Eye Games, is one that does it very well indeed. It has gone on to create and publish a range of adventure titles with a huge following of fans after being founded in 2006. If you’re a genre fan who hasn’t yet played their latest release Unavowed I’d recommend doing so; it manages to retain what we love about point-and-clicks while adding in some new RPG elements and party mechanics to make it feel new and modern.
But Unavowed was released over a year ago in August 2018 and there has been little news about what the developer has been up to since. This is what Gilbert was at AdventureX to talk about last weekend and it was great to see him take the stage once again. Shortly after we arrived for the first day, we headed into the main theatre to take our seats for his presentation titled How a Game Jam Saved My Soul, and what we heard was an inspiring talk about not being afraid to change your mind.
During a conversation with business partner and main artist Ben Chandler in 2017, they both realised they felt as though they’d taken the 2D-pixel point-and-click as far as it could go. Unavowed would be their sixteenth game in this style and each release was getting harder to ‘elevate above the noise’. After being asked by writer James Dearden to help make Technobabylon’s sequel in 3D, they decided it was time to try something new; and perhaps they could use the skills gained to make a game themselves afterwards.
But when Unavowed was released the following year and turned out to be both a critical and financial success – and Wadjet Eye Games’ bestseller so far – Gilbert was left with what he called ‘a bit of an existential crisis’. He was torn: did he move his company in a new 3D direction or stay where they were? Fortunately he had some time between projects to figure this out and finally he made an executive decision: Chandler and he were gaining all this new knowledge and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.
The game is called “Old Skies” and it’s about a time traveling lady named Fia (voiced by the incomparable… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Dave Gilbert 🛫 AdventureX (@WadjetEyeGames) July 01, 2019
Several months went by however and Gilbert was experiencing the worst case of writers’ block he’d had in his life. The pressure he put himself under to meet or exceed expectations after the success of his last title caused him to feel like he was ‘washed up’, and he realised he needed a way to break out this negative feedback loop. The annual AdventureJam appeared with the answer: he decided to make a short 3D adventure game and enter the competition anonymously under the pseudonym Solomon Gilernie.
The result was Old Skies, a story made in two weeks about a time-traveller in search of a fugitive. It may have been a short game created for a niche jam but it was just what Gilbert needed to stop the cycle. He said in his presentation: “This experience was so transcendent for me, that I spoke to Tom Cole and I thought it would make a neat topic for my next talk at AdventureX. So here I am. If the talk was given back then and the story ended here, that would be a wonderful, positive note to end on. But sadly, life doesn’t always work out that way.”
Gilbert then revealed that Technobabylon 2 had been put on hold, the first time he had spoken about it officially. He told the audience that he didn’t want to go into detail but shared that Dearden is going through some health issues and taking some time out to deal with them, so there’s no timetable or further news at present. He said: “I wish James all the best. We’ve become very good friends while working together so all I really want for him is for him to get better.”
This break in schedule left a gap for Gilbert and Ben Chandler, and they decided to take advantage of the skills they’d gained to make a 3D game of their own. Why not take the idea for Old Skies and expand upon it? But slowly over the next few months, the fun of making it began to change: “The difference of making a little jam game with pre-bought assets versus making a fully viable commercial product from scratch were – duh – two very different things, and it wasn’t long before we realised we were in way over our heads.”
It had been over a year since Unavowed had been released and the team were still experimenting; did they keep learning things, or start making things? They both confessed to each other that the situation wasn’t working out around six weeks ago. They changed path once again, choosing to return to Adventure Game Studio and their 2D point-and-click roots, even though that meant unfortunately dropping the Old Skies design because it was so closely tied to being a 3D title.
Gilbert feels he finds himself in a much better position now despite the rollercoaster he has been on lately. Whenever he finds himself stuck in that negative feedback loop now, he remembers what he was able to accomplish in just two weeks for AdventureJam and realises he can overcome any obstacles in his way. The team are actually finding that the tips and techniques they learnt for 3D are actually helping them in their 2D world so the experience has been invaluable.
We should never be afraid to try something new. And, if it doesn’t work out as expected, we should never be afraid to change our minds as either; as long as you can say you’ve given something your best shot, there’s no reason to feel as though you’re giving up. As Gilbert said himself, sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you expect it to but you’ve got to take what you can from those experiences: there’s always something new to be learned and insight to be gained.
He ended the talk by saying: “In a year I’ll come back again, and I’ll tell you how that went.” I look forward to it.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.