all’s well that blackwell

So … I’ve not blogged about anything in ages. And what better way to break a long blogging silence than a needlessly discoursive post about a series of short point-and-click adventures that began more than a decade ago.

Spoilers, as always.

I’ve always been a big fan of point-and-click adventures. They’ve never been the most mainstream subgenre, focusing on a style of gameplay that at its best involves a strange mix of lateral thinking, puzzle solving and narrative engagement and, at its worst, involves using every damned item in your inventory with every other damned item in your inventory until you discover that oh, you have to use the ringpull to fix the gap in the broken circuit but can’t use the paperclip, the chickenwire or the fragment of printed circuit board.

Like many other popular-but-minor subgenres in gaming, the point-and-click adventure had a bit of a renaissance in the 2000s as home computers got more powerful, digital distribution got more effective and the barriers to entry in game design went from “overwhelming” to merely “very, very significant.” In the point-and-click genre, a lot of the work was (and generally still is) in an engine called Adventure Game Studio, and one of the AGS projects that came increasingly to the attention of the community between its first instalment in 2006 and its last entry in 2014 was the Blackwell series. I didn’t get around playing it until this year because I never, ever get around to things in time, but anyway, 0that’s what this post is about.

The first Blackwell game—The Blackwell Legacy—actually started out as a free project released under the title Bestowers of Eternity in 2003 and seems to have been put together mostly as a hobbyist project. There’s an extent to which this shows, because even in the more swanky modern edition, the production values are a little wobbly, the plot a little rushed, and the puzzles occasionally opaque, but even in its first instalment the game gets enough right that it’s easy to see why it wound up being so popular.

The Blackwell Legacy casts the player as the somewhat peculiarly named Rosangela Blackwell (if we’re being technical, you could argue that while Rosangela is the protagonist she’s not strictly a player avatar, but let’s not split hairs here). Rosangela is a freelance journalist of somewhat poor repute and also possibly an aspiring novelist. She begins the game standing on a bridge, disposing of the ashes of her aunt who raised her until she was about ten before going Victorian-novel-style insane in mysterious circumstances and spending the rest of her life in a psychiatric institution.

Straight out the gate I should probably acknowledge that there are people for whom the core setup of hereditary mental illness as plot point, conflated with hereditary psychic powers as plot point and further problematised with the implication of hereditary mental illness as cosmic punishment for turning away from sacred ghost duty, will probably be a deal breaker. This is a legitimate response, and even the writer (Dave Gilbert, as far as I can tell no relation to Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame) acknowledged that this was a dodgy plot element, and later in the series reframed the hereditary Blackwell madness to be a result of the machinations of the game’s long-running villain rather than a judgement on the moral failures of two women.

Anyway, having dealt with her ambivalent feelings towards her aunt, Rosangela jumps through some typically adventure-gamey hoops to get back into her apartment (there’s a new doorman who won’t let you in unless somebody vouches for you, but you can’t approach your neighbour because she’s playing the flute in front of a crowd of people and you’ve got too much social anxiety to approach her, so you have to walk her dog around a lamppost so its leash gets tangled up and … you get the idea) and soon discovers that with her aunt’s death she’s inherited the eponymous Blackwell Legacy, that legacy being a Bogart-esque spirit guide by the name of Joey Malone who is bound to her family for eternity and required to help Rosangela lead restless spirits to the other side.

Rosangela’s new magic destiny and her going-nowhere career as a journalist intersect when she is assigned to cover a rash of mysterious suicides at the local college campus and, in the process of both reporting on the story and laying the students’ souls to rest, she discovers that the deaths were caused by yet another restless spirit who was just looking for a way to escape from the terrible fate that he believed waited for him on the other side. This final plot point involves an encounter with what appears to be an actual demon, an element of the cosmology which basically never comes up again.

It’s hard to put my finger on quite what works about the first Blackwell game, because it’s flawed in a lot of ways, but it has this sort of weird heart to it. If it feels undisciplined at times, it’s because it feels like Gilbert is just throwing a bunch of things he thinks are cool into a setting and then running with them. Mediums are cool. Hardboiled guys in fedoras are cool. Plucky girl reporters are cool. Ghosts are cool. Adventure game mechanics where you use notes in a notebook like they’re objects in their own right and combine them into new clues are cool. Detective stories where nobody is actually a detective are cool. It’s like that bit in the first episode of Frasier where the dad complains that none of Frasier’s furniture matches and he’s all like “it’s eclectic, it doesn’t match, but it goes together.” Umm, I should stress that I haven’t actually watched Frasier since the late 1990s so I might not be remembering that quote exactly right. Point being, the various bits of plot and world and character in Blackwell don’t necessarily match, but they go together in a way that somehow works in spite of that.

The second game in the series, Blackwell Unbound, abandons Rosangela’s story to instead follow her aunt some time in the 1970s. Notes on Wikipedia explain that this whole thing was originally supposed to be a flashback in what eventually became the third game (Blackwell Convergence) but that it spiralled in the way that development often does and wound up being split off into its own game. I think this mostly actually works to the series’ benefit—having a whole game to herself makes Aunt Lauren a bit more real as a character, and I’m kind of a sucker for stories about immortal or undead beings that cross timelines in a way that highlights how they remain unchanging as the world moves on—but it does also lead to my single biggest complaint about the series. That complaint being that the titles of the games, in order, are The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence, Blackwell Deceptionand Blackwell Epiphany. Without the extra flashback episode in the middle, that would have left the titles as Blackwell/Convergence/Deception/Epiphany, which would have been pleasingly alphabetical (I can give episode one a pass on the “Legacy” bit since, as the first Blackwell game it can reasonably claim that “Blackwell” is the key word in its title). But they ruined it. Ruined it I say.

I may be focusing a bit too much on an essentially trivial detail.

Anyway, the plot of Unbound takes the world established in Legacy and goes full Tim Powers with it. By which I mean it does that thing Tim Powers does where he takes a weird historical factoid, a fictional mundane mystery, and something peculiar and supernatural, and then weaves them all together in a way that feels far more plausible than it has any right to be. The story sees Aunt Lauren investigating the deaths of two ghosts both of whom, it turns out, had been the subject of unpublished stories by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell is a real historical figure, a writer for the New Yorker who suddenly stopped writing in 1964, but still came into the office every day until his death in 1996 (this being apparently back in the day when you could stop doing your job for thirty years without being fired). The explanation given in the game is that Mitchell had somehow formed a psychic bond with a medium who had managed to break her own connection to her spirit guide, and that therefore the subjects of his articles (he was famous for his detailed and moving portraits of ordinary people) would appear to this medium as lost souls needing to be ushered into the next world. But since they weren’t yet dead, she’d have to kill them first. Fortunately, Aunt Lauren is able to overcome the villain (who goes by the name of “The Countess”) by the judicious application of pointing at and clicking on things.

The Countess returns in the next game, now a vengeful spirit but still guided by a weird telepathic bond with somebody essentially random. I suspect that the game actually benefits somewhat from having been broken artificially in two here (despite the alphabetical names thing) because it means that it isn’t obvious at the start that there will be any connection between the previous game and this one, so when you spot the connection you feel clever, and the series looks more like it has a planned arc (rather than being largely episodic, which I suspect it actually is when you step back and look at it more objectively). Convergence is notably more ambitious than Legacy (so ambitious that it had to be split into two games) and makes a lot more use of the game’s character-switching mechanics. So for example a key puzzle involves using Joey to spy on a suspect in order to find out the password to their email account, then switching back to Rosangela and accessing the in-game email that you’ve had from the first scene to find out what the villains are up to. There’s a nice sense of the game growing into itself and becoming more sophisticated in both its storytelling and its gameplay.

The fourth game (Deception) continues to build on the mythology, telling a genuinely touching story about a number of lost and vulnerable people who were preyed upon and ultimately had their life-essence devoured by an evil magician who goes by the bathetically non-threatening name of Gavin. In the last two games the series really doubles down on humanising its ghosts, creating well-crafted and nuanced narratives with a relatively sparse cast of characters and a fairly simple dialogue system. Your client in Deception is actually a ghost himself—a former colleague of Rosangela’s from her time as a journalist who has been killed as a result of his investigations into the mysterious Gavin-related deaths, and the ghosts you save are all people who went to Gavin for help and whose lives he subsequently and deliberately ruined. Once again the game is short (although longer than the previous instalments) and it does a good job of establishing its villain through its opening acts before finally putting him into a confrontation with Rosangela and Joey in which Joey and Rosangela’s personal relationship (which has been developing steadily througout the game) plays a pivotal role.

One of the bug-feature elements of the Blackwell series that I came down on broadly the “feature” side of is that it does way more hinting in its worldbuilding than explaining. You get a sense throughout the series that there’s more going on in the world than Rosangela or Joey really understand, which has a certain logic to it—after all there’s no particular reason that somebody whose entire job is to save ghosts would know anything in particular about magic or demons or any of the other things that apparently exist in this universe. It does mean that you’re sometimes not sure what the next weird thing is going to be, or what the rules of the world are. I mean once it comes out that wizards are apparently a thing that raises quite a lot of questions that don’t really get answered (there’s a fairly strong implication at the end of Deception that there’s quite a major conspiracy of immortal spellcasters in influential positions throughout the city and beyond, a thread that doesn’t especially get followed up in the next game). But since the heart of the game is so strongly Rosangela and Joey and the ghosts, I didn’t especially mind.

The final game, Epiphany has “fitting coda for the series” written all over it. The central mystery is deeper and higher stakes, opening as it does with somebody staggering up to Rosangela, dying, and promptly having his actual soul ripped apart in front of her. It does also do that thing which I know some people really hate where the villain is obviously playing you from the start and you don’t really have much choice but to get taken in by it and act surprised at the reveal (which tastes especially bitter here because you’re so specifically working hard to save these people, and build up a genuine sympathy for them as you investigate their stories). The final reveal ties the whole series together nicely, if somewhat tenuously. It links the severed spirit guide plot from games 2-3 with the evil soul-stealing wizards plot from game 4 in something that feels emotionally satisfying even if it’s a tad more apocalyptic than the rest of the series leads you to expect. Whereas the goals in the first few games are all to do with resolving the personal stories of the ghosts you encounter, sometimes with a broader villain who you often also overcome by resolving, or at least understanding, their personal story, your goal in Epiphany winds up being to save the city from a rogue spirit guide who is trying to destroy herself by handwave-handwave-soul-engergy-rift-in-the-universe. This ends (spoiler) with Rosangela sacrificing herself to save the city and possibly the world and … yeah I’m not sure how I feel about that. Like on the one hand it’s cool that she gets the messianic ending, on the other hand I’m not totally certain that we’re in a place where it’s unproblematic that Rosangela winds up dead in a way that kind of contextualises the whole game as being more about Joey. The final scene, in which the newly-alive Joey (Rosangela goes full omnipotent in her final moments and brings him back) disperses Rosangela’s ashes in the same spot she scattered her aunt in the first game is weirdly moving. It’s just … I’m not totally sure I like giving the somewhat unreconstructed guy from the 20s the last word in a game that wears its Female Protagonist tag as proudly as Blackwell does.

So anyway, that’s my somewhat rambly, somewhat incoherent thoughts on the Blackwell series. For games some of which are over a decade old, they still hold up relatively well, and given that they’re essentially no money on Steam (disclaimer, they are not literally no money on Steam, they’re a couple of pounds/slightly more dollars each) they’re worth a look if you’re interested in the genre. There’s also a sequel called Unavowed, which is set in the same world and which, as far as I can tell, still doesn’t explain what the hell those life-energy-sucking wizards are up to.

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6 Responses to all’s well that blackwell

  1. Alice Everafter says:

    Yay! Ahem. Well this game looks pretty good. Never heard of it before. Hereditary dementia sounds … realistically depressing (but historically it’s been seen as a punishment so in a story I’d forgive it i think) and a rash of suicides I’m a bit leery about. But on the plus side there’s ghosts and it all sounds a bit Yellow Wallpaperish … I’m going to download it.

    • Alice Everafter says:

      That was short and sweet. It’s cute, she’s cute, and i’d be pretty happy if life was all point and click. I have vague memories of playing a lot of these in the 90s, (and I still have Machinarium on my phone because i refuse to cheat and i’m stuck on one of the myriad of mini-games), so it feels a bit of a homecoming/comfort/life-was-simpler-back-then experience.
      I get the mental health issue, it’s hinted at here and I’m a little uncomfortable with Judgey Joey telling me my gran just wasn’t up to it and paid for that, but it’s pretty down played in this so far, but did they really keep Auntie sedated for 25 years and bring her around occasionally to study her?! Is that a thing? Isn’t there another… thing … that stops that happening? I don’t know, maybe I was clicking through the dialogue too fast (I would never do that) and missed something, but that sounds a bit brutal.

      [Which on reflection I like. It gives the game a pleasantly unpleasant underbelly. But as you say this may be an issue for ppl.]

      I love awkward, introverted Rosa at the beginning (it me!) but it seems that once her character is established (she definitely can’t interrupt Nishanti) it’s turned on it’s head (but now she can barge into someone’s room and fake call a ghost on their phone (five times as it happens cos i did things in the wrong order and Joey kept ‘…’-ing at me)) and she transforms into Plucky Girl Reporter (ack – it most definitely not me) which she clearly wasn’t 5 minutes before. But I played the unsentimental/philosophical responses so she redeemed herself a bit 😉

      I really liked it. There are some small niggles but it’s such a sweet game it’s not a problem. It’s like an old person who takes liberties but is super charming about so you actually don’t mind giving them your last Werthers. Great recommend, thank you 🙂

      • Alexis Hall says:

        I agree the mental health stuff is tricky and I think the writer did realise that “Granny couldn’t hack it” is super problematic and victim-blamey, which I think is why he retrospectively pinned the whole thing on a villain in the last game.

        Now you mention it, I do agree that Rosa’s personality pretty much goes away the moment she’s established and I suppose a big part of that is that she sort of needs to be able to act like a point ‘n’ click adventure character and that often involves just kind of barging up to people and asking them questions / going through their stuff. But it’s a shame given that, in the initial puzzle, the game does such a good job of making Rosa’s personality part of its gameplay.

        Glad you’re enjoying though 🙂

  2. Pyo says:

    Oh, Blackwell! Love it. Just re-played it, too. Even if those games are by any objective standard probably the worst of the Wadjet p&c games – episode-y, with weird puzzles, and so, so many unresolved plot points …

    One of them is that the guy “investigating” the grandma and aunt clearly was meant to be an antagonist but then his entire arch just got cut.

    Or the “energy vampire” conspiracy thing that goes absolutely nowhere.

    But unlike most other p&c adventures I actually care about what happens. It’s great about making things personal.

    As for the ending – it’s by far the most discussed topic about the game. Some hate it, some like it. I’m somewhere on the middle ground, too. I didn’t expect a happy end for the sort of “mood” the games always had. In that regard it almost was more positive than I feared.
    On the other: Rose deserved better, and her action, while grandiose, feels vaguely meaningless too (surely the world is immediately filled with dead souls again. Someone’s always dying after all). Plus, well, all those loose ends …

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’m also quite ambivalent on the ending. Weirdly I don’t think I’d have minded it being downbeat if it had been more personal but it sort of feels like Rosa sacrifices herself so there can be a big final sacrifice and, as you say, it’s not like doing a one-time reset of all restless souls really helps much. I mean, presumably good for the restless souls right now but it’s kind of a perennial issue.

      I didn’t particularly notice the disappearance of the psychiatrist arc but, now you mention it, it does kind of stand out.

  3. Hannah says:

    Love love these games!!have you played the Nancy drew point and click adventure games at herinteractive.com?? I started playing these after I finished the Blackwell games!

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