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Old Skies preview: trying something new

Ols Skies, video game, box art, woman, Fia Quinn, city, device, time-travel
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The first talk of AdventureX in 2019 was hosted by Dave Gilbert.

Shortly after Pete and I arrived at The British Library on 02 November 2019, we headed into the main theatre to take our seats. The presentation which followed, titled Post-launch blues: how a jam game saved my soul¸ was an inspiring discussion about not being afraid to change your mind.

The Wadjet Eye Games founder explained that he and artist Ben Chandler felt they’d taken the 2D point-and-click as far as it could go and wanted to try something new. But he was torn after Unavowed was released in August 2018 and turned out to be both a critical and financial success. Should he move his company in a new 3D direction or stay where they were?

After several months of indecision and the worst case of writers’ block, he decided to break the cycle by entering the annual AdventureJam. The plan was to make a 3D adventure game anonymously under the pseudonym Solomon Gilernie and the result was Old Skies: a story made in two weeks about a time-traveller in search of a fugitive. It may have been only a short project created for a niche jam, but it turned out to be just what Gilbert had needed.

He and Chandler decided to take advantage of the skills they’d gained and expand upon that story idea to make a full 3D title. Although they had to admit that things weren’t working out as planned and returned to Adventure Game Studio and 2D point-and-click roots, they felt in a much better position. It’s now three years later and the team have just released an Old Skies demo in time for this month’s Steam Next Fest.

Old Skies is proof that we should never be afraid to try something new. And if it doesn’t work out as planned, we shouldn’t be afraid to change our minds, either.

I jumped at the chance of an early peak when I recently received an email from Emily Morganti with the kind offer of a preview key. The demo shares protagonist Fia Quinn’s first case as a ChronoZen agent: she’s tasked with taking famous doctor James Anderson back to the past so he can visit the diner he frequented as a student. Things take a bad turn however when he chooses to remove the device which allows him to return to the present day and makes a run for it, and it’s up to Fia to track him down.

As we’ve come to expect from narratives about time-travel, there’s plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong and the universe to cave in on itself. The doctor’s contributions to science make him one of the most important men in history and so he must be found before there’s irreversible damage to the timeline and many people die. Over the course of an hour, I guided Fia through several New York City locations while solving paradoxical problems with a mixture of deduction and futuristic technology.

The puzzles displayed in the demo are a mix of styles. The first involves figuring out how to remove a padlock from a door using a blend of inventory items and information obtained from ChronoZen’s historical archive. This database is put to further use later on, when the clues Fia discovers can be combined to create search terms to retrieve records. There’s also a challenge which makes use of the player’s observational skills, in which a computer password can be deduced if you’re observant enough.

Several of these reminded me of puzzles from Wadjet Eye’s earlier releases. In fact, there are a few nice touches which will delight fans. The protagonist’s helpful sidekick Nozzo appears as a floating hologram being projected from the future, and he immediately made me think of Joey Malone from the Blackwell series. And when travelling between destinations, you’ll see a scrolling screen showing Fia chatting to whichever character she’s walking with. It’s just like the great subway transitions in Unavowed.

The dilemma presented at the end of the demo makes player’s decisions feel they have consequences. This isn’t mentioned on the Steam page description however, so we’ll have to wait to find out just how much impact they’ll have. The developer has said that Fia can die – but time-travel gives her an easy way out so you can try again and again. This could make for some interesting puzzles, where it’s necessary to put her in dangerous situations so she can grab information and then return to put it to good use.

It would be remiss of me to write this post and not mention the visuals. Although I was present for Gilbert’s AdventureX talk and therefore should have been prepared for something different, I was taken aback when I started the demo for the first time. Gone are the 2D pixels we’ve come to expect from Wadjet Eye. The backgrounds still look as gorgeous as they ever did, but the characters now sport a hand-drawn look which is almost reminiscent of 1990s cartoons.

Fans of the developer will find this a little jarring at first because we’re so used to seeing a pixelated artwork from them. But it slowly grows on you, and underneath the new polish and sparkle, you can still tell it’s a Wadjet Eye project at heart. It will be interesting to see how this new style is used throughout the chapters in the full game which are due to span seven eras of history. These will take the player from the speakeasies of Prohibition, to the gangs of the Gilded Age, to the dreadful morning of 11 September 2001.

Old Skies is proof that we should never be afraid to try something new. And if it doesn’t work out as planned, we shouldn’t be afraid to change our minds, either. There’s no reason to feel like you’re giving up long as you can say you’ve given it your best shot. As Gilbert said at AdventureX in November 2019, sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you expected but you’ve got to take what you can from those experiences: there’s always something new to be learned.

He also said he’d be back at the event one day to tell us what it had been like working on Old Skies. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say, and to play the game in full when it’s released ‘soon’.

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