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A character-driven adventure with some bumps along the way, January 4, 2022
(This review was posted on the IF newsgroups immediately after the 2005 IF Comp)
Clearly, I haven't sufficiently internalized the tropes of adventure gaming: I was stymied for quite a while in the opening of Unforgotten, because after being told that my friend really didn't want anyone to break into his belongings and read his diary, my reaction was to respect his privacy. More the fool I.
For much of the game, Unforgotten seems primarily about sticking one's nose into other people's business—the primary action is in unraveling the secrets of the family of the player's friend. Unfortunately, the contours of the central mystery—not its solution, simply the setup—are very unclear until relatively late in the game, and the author's penchant for twists make the story more confusing than it needs to be. Underneath the continual Big Reveals, there's an interesting story, but the thriller tropes wound up getting in the way of the interesting relationships.
Unforgotten's beginning is probably its weakest section; after the rather forced searching of the friend's possessions, the player is thrust into a conversation which reveals some backstory, but leaves important concepts and facts unexplained. Then without warning, the setting abruptly shifts, without the player being aware of what exactly has happened. This middle section, which contains the meat of the game, is clearer, and the player has specific goals to work towards, but just when I felt like I had my bearings, an NPC—the aforementioned friend's sister—began launching into exposition whose relevance wasn't immediately clear. Soon after, the player is thrust into two vignettes, widely separated in time and space, which are likewise fairly disorienting, and cast everything that's come before into doubt. And then there's a final big twist at the end (albeit this last one is rather heavily choreographed). I do enjoy games which are one big meta-puzzle—Jon Ingold's corpus comes to mind—but here, the twists just pile up on each other, yanking the player one way then the other. Eventually whiplash—and fatigue—set in.
This is too bad, because the relationships between the three main characters—the player character, his friend, and the friend's sister—are interesting, and drive most of the action. Foregrounding them a little more, keeping the friend around for a while longer so the player can form an attachment to him, and keeping the story more focused by more aggressively framing the problem which the player is attempting to solve, would have made for a stronger, sharper, more affecting game. As is, the wall-to-wall twists make the proceedings feel contrived, and the game doesn't allow sufficient space for the repercussions of each individual revelation to play out, which really reduces their impact.
Unforgotten does do a good job of integrating puzzles into what's a fairly plot-heavy game. The initial journal-stealing sequence, for all my grumbling, is actually well-put together; depending on how exactly the player goes about it, there are a number of possible outcomes. There's a lot of fairly intuitive sneaking around, and except for that first sequence, the player usually knows precisely what to work towards. I found one puzzle in particular to be shaky—lowering a doped pie to attack dogs on the end of a fishing rod feels far too slapsticky for this game, and LOWER PIE seemed a much more natural way of doing this than LOWER ROD—but otherwise the puzzles are well clued, even when the player doesn't necessarily know what they're meant to be doing.
One sequence does demonstrate the fact that too few games depict the player character reacting to events [much-later edit: this sequence might also merit a content warning in the more-enlightened 2020s]. There's a scene in Unforgotten where the player is controlling a little girl who, while hiding, overhears two soldiers talk about raping her mother—this strikes me as a rather traumatic event, but for all the game discloses, the girl reacts with stone-faced impassivity. I'm not lobbying for histrionics here, but any human being would be really upset in this situation, and the tension of perhaps calling attention to yourself could make for a more dramatically interesting scene.
Still, Unforgotten does pay more attention to questions of character than do most games, and its narrative shortcomings are real but not fatal. Definitely worth a play.