In 1996, a little independent company called Hue Forest Entertainment released an unassuming adventure game called Amber: Journeys Beyond, which remains their only published title. Amber casts players in the first-person role of an unnamed protagonist who, by means of various ghost-hunting equipment scattered throughout a haunted house in North Carolina – including the hi-tech device called the Astral Mobility By Electromagnetic Resonance – must enter the minds of three restless spirits who inhabit the mansion and help them move on. Inspired by Myst, the game was not a commercial success, unfortunately, and it took several years to garner the attention and praise it deserves, and even then its popularity was short-lived, undermined by serious compatibility issues as the years passed. But that takes nothing away from the quality of the game, which set the early standard for the many indie horror developers today.
Each story is told through a different graphic style that instantly conveys the mood related to its particular ghost, from the faded photographs that make up the memory of a woman who died during World War II to the strangely distorted perceptions of a gardener obsessed by UFOs, or the watery images that form a child's sad reminiscences of a distant, snowy winter. Despite an ending that is perhaps a bit too abrupt, Amber’s crisp graphics, polished interface and streamlined but elegant gameplay created a memorable cult classic, capable of capturing the gloomy, sorrowful ambience of the best Victorian ghost stories with rare sophistication. Years before the ghost-hunting adventure became the popular sub-genre it is now, this game showed what a small indie team could achieve in a solitary first-person horror, and to this day it remains perhaps the best of them all.
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You can use up a lot of appendages counting the number of adventure games classified in some branch of the “horror” genre, including many that are too timid to be genuinely frightening, and others that try so hard with stereotypical “scare” clichés that they wind up as unintentional comedies. However, the number of truly scary psychological horror games can be counted on very few fingers, and one of the greatest is the uncompromising and horrifying 1995 Dreamers Guild adventure I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Based on a short story by Harlan Ellison (who wrote all dialogue for the game despite not owning a personal computer), the game follows the post-apocalyptic quest of five humans, imprisoned and tortured in their own private hell by a sentient super-computer named AM, as they seek to escape and defeat their captor.
If alternating between five characters described as a suicidal loner, a distorted brute, a hysterical phobic, a secretive sadist, and a cynical paranoid doesn’t sound intriguing enough, than perhaps the disturbing imagery of people impaled on meat hooks, or mutilated children in Nazi camps will do the trick. This is an unapologetically twisted game, but one that is well-constructed with an involving and complex narrative, never resorting to cheap scares or contrived horror. While gameplay is traditional, the game features a spiritual barometer that measures good and evil acts, and factors into which of the multiple endings you'll receive. The game is also visually detailed (in all the worst ways for those with weak hearts) and has outstanding voice acting. It may not be a game that anyone would consider “fun”, but if you can handle this type of relentless psychological horror, you will be hard-pressed to find many adventure games that do it as well.
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Konami’s Shadow of Destiny opens with a violent death: your own. No, it’s not the shortest adventure game in history, but it’s surely one of the most unusual. Playing as hapless murder target Eike Kusch and armed with a pocket-sized time-travel device, you must stave off successive murder attempts by repeatedly turning back the clock – sometimes by a few minutes, sometimes by a few centuries – with the goal of changing the past in ways that impact the present and thwart the killer. Though it’s a relatively short game in a single playthrough, few adventures offer Shadow of Destiny’s replayability, due to its branching story threads and eight different endings. And even fewer games will leave you mulling over the story’s implications and questioning its true meaning long after you’ve finished, as this one surely does. With each replay you learn more about what’s going on and only after seeing all of the endings will you truly understand this intriguing narrative puzzle.
One of the very few adventures being developed and published by a mainstream game company at the time, Shadow of Destiny (or Shadow of Memories in Europe) is a multi-platform game first released in 2001 for PlayStation 2, then ported to PC, Xbox (only in Europe), and nearly a decade later to PSP. The PC version was poorly marketed and hard to find even when it first came out, which is likely the reason this game is such a little-known gem even among adventure game fans. The blocky 3D graphics are dated now and the awkward keyboard controls can make it challenging to play, but Shadow of Destiny’s unique storyline and clever time-travel gameplay more than make up for any technical shortcomings, earning it a spot on the list and hopefully some long-overdue public attention.
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The balance between entertainment and eduboredom has always been an extremely fine line. Among the few adventure games to successfully strike the perfect balance between learning and fun is Sierra's 1993 classic Pepper’s Adventures in Time. It seems crazy Uncle Fred used his time machine to send a little dose of the 1970s to colonial times, and the result is the Liberty Bell being transported around by Hare Krishnas, and a pre-Revolution Ben Franklin telling people to “chill out” while the British governor taxes the people silly. In making sense of all this absurdity, the game features one of the most brilliant devices in modern educational gaming. History has been twisted by the mellowness, but clicking the “Truth bubble” on something tells you whether it really existed in that era. The amount of information contained in those responses is phenomenal, and will appeal to anyone with even a remote interest in American history.
All the while the game is teaching, however, it never stops being an engaging adventure with consistent story development as you attempt to restore the period to the way things were meant to be. It's certainly not difficult by any stretch of the imagination, but there are plenty of puzzles. The colonists all have a great deal of humorous dialogue brilliantly written by Lorelei Shannon, bringing plenty of local flavour to the landscape. And of course, how can you not laugh at the spectacle of a laid-back Ben Franklin? (Until you manage to send lightning through his body, that is.) A promised sequel never materialized, but Pepper’s Adventures in Time proved that when done right, there may be no better way to teach foundational concepts of history than a delightfully simple adventure game.
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In the eternal LucasArts vs. Sierra debates, Legend Entertainment is often unfairly overlooked, as their games were consistently smart, entertaining, and superbly produced. One of the best examples is 1997’s excellent Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. In this adaptation of Spider Robinson's sci-fi stories about Jake Stonebender and his friends at Callahan's bar, the universe is about to be wiped out unless something can be found that proves it deserves to survive. Naturally, only a down-and-out folk singer who can’t pay off his tab is the one to discover what that is. Before he can do so, however, he’ll need to stop an alien race from sapping the world of testosterone, save an endangered strain of orgasmic Brazilian chocolate from extinction, and rescue a lovesick Transylvanian vampire, among other tasks. They’re as daunting as they are diverse, but for Jake it’s all in a night’s work. And hey, no pressure or anything.
Between quests you return to the cozy confines of the pub to solve word riddles and chat with the witty, pun-loving locals, which adds a delightful sense of camaraderie to the game. The real delight here is the script, including constantly hilarious commentary on absolutely everything, with plenty of interactive opportunities to experience it, much of it simply for fun and flavour. And yet beneath the bizarre objectives and clever comedy, there’s a real underlying depth to Jake’s own life story that perfectly complements the otherwise whimsical tone. So forget Cheers. Callahan’s is the place to be for good friends, flowing drinks, plenty of laughs, and a whole lot of heart. Plus a darn fun adventure to boot!
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