'Unavowed' is an Urban Fantasy That Gives Me Hope for the Genre
The genre has never been my favorite, but Wadjet Eye's adventure has me seeing it with new eyes.
All images courtesy Wadjet Eye Games
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
I’ve never been one for the urban fantasy genre, and that might have something to do with growing up in a very rural, very isolated place. We couldn’t walk down to the corner store, but we could drive ten minutes to the gas station. I couldn’t meet up with other kids in a community park because we didn’t have that. We didn’t have a community. And that was maybe why I gravitated to books like Hatchet and Dear Mr. Henshaw as a kid instead of The Westing Game or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In the rural South, the world feels a little bit emptied out, and I looked for fiction that spoke to that distinct feeling.
Which is all to say that when I really came into my own as a reader and started searching out books and authors I found compelling, I stayed in familiar territory. My genres were sword and sorcery or Forgotten Realms licensed fiction about brave adventurers exploring lands without the protection of states or cities. Ghosts and werewolves and vampires were meant to be in tombs, mountain-locked castles, and the dungeon you delved into to find the magic crystal. They weren’t friendly. They certainly weren’t disguised as your favorite old guy who sits on the same park bench every afternoon.
I’ve always been stuck in that track, I think, so when Wadjet Eye announced Unavowed, their urban fantasy adventure game that released last year, I was ready to write it off as something that just wasn’t in my genre. That’s the way things are sometimes, so I wasn’t stressing about missing out, but as the game came closer and closer to release I realized that I needed to get the hell over whatever genre concerns I had because it was doing something that I was fundamentally interested in, even if it wasn’t in a container that I thought I would enjoy.
There’s a tendency in all media to split the urban and the rural into two distinct kinds of experiences. It plays to the heartland, I guess, to hold the idea of “God’s country” comprised of rolling hills and dense forests up against the compromised, urine-stinking concrete compression that is the modern American city. Everyone gets to hold onto the thought that they’re the “real” America. Honest work, a plot of land, and localisms rule the rural imagination, while the dream of the melting pot, access to everything you could want, and the hardened exterior floats the urban conception of itself. And obviously, there are centuries of loaded American racial codifications buried in all of this that would take ten thousand words to even get close to addressing.
Unavowed’s urban fantastical imagination, which puts mysterious detective plots into conversation with jinn and mediums and dryads, undoes all of that. Like everything in the urban fantasy genre, it begins from the position of explaining that you’re wrong about the shape of the world. Concrete covers leylines of power accessed by magical creatures, every steam tunnel could be the hideaway for an elemental, and there’s almost certainly a gorgon stalking the city cemetery in the early morning. Whatever you’re experiencing in the city on a day-to-day is only partial vision, a mistaken identity, for what’s really happening.
The game does something similar for the adventure game genre in a broad sense. By and large, adventure games avoid huge crowds or massive debacles for more limited and specific experiences. This is to get into the places where adventure games make themselves distinct: storytelling through dialogue and puzzles. I think that lots of people might even tell you that you can cut the first one, but my point is that adventure games often have empty worlds and austere surroundings so that they can contrive some conditions that allow you do some bizarre puzzles with the minimal amount of interactions with other characters. Adventure games seem to exist to afford solitude. It’s just you, a room, your inventory, and whatever the hell you need to do with those things.
Unavowed has you wandering around the empty rooms and crime scenes and abandoned alleyways of New York. They’re beautifully rendered (and, full disclosure, I am friendly enough with the game’s lead artist Ben Chandler that we’ve discussed burrito recipes on Twitter), and their lighting and near-emptiness create a distinct feeling that’s not unlike the feelings I used to have standing out in some red clay hellhole off the side of the highway. There’s no safety net. Something could happen here, and it would recede into the memory of the place. It would go uncommented on.
Unavowed neatly jumps into doing something more interesting and fascinating than I thought it might have.
Somewhere in the first third of the game it is revealed that a small, leafy shrine in a basement is really a forward outpost of a forest creature that been previously banished from the city. Life, apparently, finds a way as long as demons and dryads can make deals, and the game purposefully plays with the player’s expectations about what kinds of creatures might appear in an adventure game of urban fantasy. This isn’t a creature that does well around mass groups of humans. Leafy green life gets stomped out in cities on the daily.
And yet the porousness between “nature” and the city means that there’s no boundary to draw, no genre conceit to keep sacred, other than the ones that are in your head. And so Unavowed neatly jumps into doing something more interesting and fascinating than I thought it might have.
I’ve always thought I had a handle on urban fantasy, and Unavowed makes it very clear that I was stuck in the same rut of thinking that powers so much of the conceptual divide between the rural and the urban. There’s mystery and silence everywhere, and the lush colors and concrete of New York do just as much to ground that reality as the thick brush and pitch-black nights of the rural South. It’s a powerful experience when a game can breach your way of thinking or make you think differently, and Unavowed does it with expert writing and beautiful art. It’s a rare thing to have happen, and I appreciate a game that makes it occur.