The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 – A sense of modern history

Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.

Part of gaming’s varied history is the point-and-click adventure, a genre among the first to explore story-rich game narratives. These games were pioneers during a time when games were more about playing than telling stories. As time went on, more genres could expand on their stories, growing more nuanced narratives intertwined with their mechanics. Adventure games slowly ceded to action-adventure, and role-playing games became the main bastions of story-rich games, while logic puzzles turned to more active mechanics. Overall, more genres began to evolve new ways to approach narrative, and the adventure games of days past quietly declined in popularity.

There is a certain majesty that follows history, though. Ancient castles, national landmarks, and historical wonders all have a refined beauty and an enduring sense of importance that seems cooked into the stones and pressed into the creaking rafters. The past, for all of its flaws, has a richness that’s difficult to ignore, and has a way of creeping into the future in subtle ways. For the same reason that ancient landmarks and architecture are preserved by national efforts, games too will peer back into its histories to relive old mechanics in modern ways.

Elven princess and queenSuccessfully funded via Kickstarter, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is King ART and Nordic Games’ love song to the classic point-and-click, an amazingly beautiful and well-acted follow-up to a game that intuitively grasped the roots of why point-and-click adventures are so well-loved by fans.

The first thing that will strike you upon starting the game is just how beautiful it is. A full, bright world is worth a lot of praise all on its own, but environments glow to life with the appearance and disappearance of light sources, characters cast long shadows on their surroundings, and scenery flows naturally from place to place. Rather than feeling like a cobbled-together mix of static screens, the world in BoUT2 is believable and tangible. In a genre largely dominated by pre-rendered or hand-painted backgrounds with sprites overlaid onto them, having fully-3D models interact with the scenery seamlessly, and having items appear as though they belong there, does a lot to make Book of Unwritten Tales 2 feel fresh and modern. Instead of every important or interactive item being easily apparent due to being lower resolution or brightly colored against the background, items seem to fit in the world. Everything there makes sense, without feeling unnecessary or extravagant.

The point-and-click adventure genre has always leaned heavily on pop culture and referential humor in general, but Book of Unwritten Tales 2 manages to largely play its references well, squeezing the more overt and extravagant ones into one or two line jokes, never using them as large set pieces or keeping around long enough to really overstay their welcome. In which a wizard rides a broom.Some references may seem a little overt, especially those that are placed at nexus points where players will find themselves crossing through repeatedly in order to move between the various puzzle areas, but most of the humor manages to stay squared away in their locations, free to appear and disappear as they’re appropriate rather than linger forever to be needled by countless nostalgic quips and witticisms.

For the most part, puzzles have a clever and clear solution, and most require very little fiddling, which is also a testament to The Book of Unwritten Tales 2‘s excellent pacing. Point-and-click adventure, as a genre, tend to be notoriously slow-paced and laborious, filled with plenty of backtracking as you attempt to use every object in your inventory with every element in a scene, or interact with absolutely everything in the hope of finding that one thing that will help you progress. Thankfully, the standard tactic of rubbing every item in the room with every item in the player’s inventory is something that Book of Unwritten Tales 2 manages to avoid almost entirely. For a game that has characters in two entirely different parts of the area trying to accomplish to distinct goals simultaneously, the fact that everything flows together as well as it does is quite remarkable.

This makes it all the more tragic that Book of Unwritten Tales 2 still falls victim to some of the ingrained problems which have dogged the genre for decades. Part of the reason that so many other genres have supplanted point-and-clicks is that the genre is plagued by so many little foibles that seem minor on their own, but combine to cause frustration. A very well-paced point-and-click is still slow-paced by the nature of the design, and that slow pacing plagues the goings-on of every scene. Even when the solution to a problem is clear, the characters will still be required to walk from one scene to the next, through slow pans of camera, to cover enough ground to be able to double-click the exit, snap to the next zone, only to fetch a single item, pocket it, and repeat the entire sequence in reverse to get back.

Not exactly Hogwarts.Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is quite self-aware of these problems, and even lampoons them on multiple occasions, but being aware of its own problems doesn’t change the fact that they’re still annoying. A braver, and nobler move would have been to address those problems directly and attempt to circumvent them, rather than effectively throw in the towel and attempt to poke fun at them. It’s the little things, like how the narrative often isn’t bolstered by the puzzles, but hindered by them, and the characters being aware of it makes it feel even more contrived rather than organic. When the puzzles do make sense, they’re largely excellent. When they don’t, they veer to closely to being obtuse, hindering progress and causing frustration. All the beautiful graphics and standout voice work in the world won’t change the fact that it’s too easy to become stuck in an area with no clue as to how to move forward.

The biggest failings happen during dramatic moments. Key characters will have their big moments, but the gravity of the situation is lost when the characters and events take extra time to make jokes at the genre’s expense. When something big and dramatic happens, the sense of urgency bleeds out as characters have to set up seesaws with rats and rulers or gently poke their way along the side of a rock to find the one tiny bit of space to presss to get the character to move glacially toward safety while hurtling through the air at terminal velocity – something which happens right at the start of the game. The lack of urgency is further hampered by the docile and uninterested soundtrack, which seems happy to set a tone for the scenery rather than the events taking place therein.

Further issues come up with the rare but occasional bug, though admittedly many of these could well be fixed with a couple of simple patches at a later date. Audio sometimes fails to trigger on cue, characters say their lines out of sequence, and sometimes the beginnings of lines will disappear in dialog chains, leaving players to guess at how the conversation got there. Most of these pass by without issue, but on occasion dialog will occur with no setup, and story events seem to take place without much reason. There are also a few visual bugs that will sometimes make characters seem discolored, or items appear in the inventory either missing their associated graphic or with placeholder images.

That said, damage control is still damage, and the reason that point-and-click as a genre has filtered out and been replaced by other alternatives is because they need to work a lot less hard to mitigate the slow pace, occasional frustrating puzzle, and distant sense of urgency. A great game for genre fans, a decent game for others, but one that can never seem to escape the flaws of the point-and-click genre. It may not win any new converts to the genre, but Book of Unwritten Tales does a fantastic job at being a very good example of a point and click game, with just a few small scratches marring what is an otherwise impressively polished adventure.

Thoughts?