Blackwell Bundle (2003-2011)

The Blackwell series, about a medium helping restless spirits pass over to the other side, is one of the recent success stories of independently-developed adventure games. It started out with a free game developed in Adventure Game Studio, a now open-source game development tool. Bestowers of Eternity – part 1 (2003), which is still available for free on the AGS website, is not a particularly great game: It has no voice-acting and (at least in that version, though some reviews I’ve read suggest differently) no music, minimal sound effects, and very rough graphics. The game is much too talky, with an imbalance between walls of text (with frequent typos for good measure) and letting the player actually do something. There are few puzzles, and what few there are often don’t make complete sense, relying on contrivance instead of driving the puzzle solutions with realistic character (inter)actions. The interface is dodgy. Worst of all, there is no “drive” to the game; it just plods along without any real tension. There is potential in the story and characters, but the game abruptly ends after about an hour, just as it’s supposed to shift into higher gear.

Dave Gilbert, the writer, never released a sequel to Bestowers of Eternity, but he did release The Blackwell Legacy (2006/11), a remake of his earlier work with the same premise. Graphically, Gilbert opted for a look that, while more pixelated, is much more aesthetically pleasing and internally consistent. He also added speech and a price tag, making the game a commercial release despite still having been developed in AGS. That apparently ticked off quite a few fellow AGS developers (though he’d already done something similar earlier that same year), but probably paid off in the long run, inspiring several other developers to also hire people to polish their AGS games to a state where they’re commercially viable. Gilbert started his own publisher, Wadjet Eye Games, which by all accounts has been quite successful for an indie company. Besides Gilbert’s own games, he’s also published Gemini Rue and Resonance.

The first hour of The Blackwell Legacy, then, consists more or less of a straight remake of the earlier game, with a new storyline added and the stupider puzzles removed. But it’s a much better game, and not just because of the increased production values (though the voices and music and spiffier visuals really do add quite a lot). The puzzles are more intuitive and thought-through, and the characters behave more realistically. The main storyline is expanded and satisfactorily concluded. If I’d played this game in 2006, I’d probably have complained about the cost-to-length ratio, the fact that it takes a long time for the game to finally get to its premise, and the fact that, while it does have an ending, it doesn’t really feel all that complete. Luckily, it’s 2012, I knew there were three other instalments with a fifth to come some time in the future, and I paid less than $10 for the first four on GOG.com. That’s a very good deal and I would actually have been willing to pay more.

The setup is the same for almost every one of the games: Rosangela “Rosa” Blackwell is a third-generation medium. For unknown reasons, her family has been cursed with the power to see and talk to the dead. Not everyone who dies realises they’re dead, and it’s Rosa’s job to make the ghosts aware of their condition and to help them move on. Joey, a ghost who originally died in the 1930s, is her quippy assistant of sorts, a spirit guide who acts as a living (so to speak) bridge between the worlds. The games’ main storylines unfold essentially like murder mysteries: Rosa and Joey need to find out who the ghosts are, how they died, and what could make them want to leave the mortal plane.

On the whole, the series is quite episodic: each game’s main story is self-contained, successfully wrapping up a case of ghost therapy. But there are lingering secondary plot threads that weave throughout the series and which have, as of the fourth instalment, not reached a natural conclusion. The Blackwell story is like a television series in that way, where individual seasons have their season-long stories but are still building towards a larger mystery that won’t be solved until the final season (here: the final game). I can live with that; none of the games have really huge cliffhangers. The second and third games (Blackwell Unbound, 2007, and Blackwell Convergence, 2009) share a particularly strong connection. Originally supposed to be just one game set in two time periods, it was split into two. The two episodes share central characters besides the protagonists, including an actual real person whose life story clearly inspired the supernatural hook of both games.

Unlike the other instalments, Unbound features Rosa’s aunt Lauren, though the general narrative structure remains the same. Lauren Blackwell had the ghost-wrangling job before it was passed on to Rosa, and we learn in Legacy that it eventually drove her insane. It adds a certain wistfulness to the character. The game’s melancholy mood is heightened by its theme, which is about broken people and the endings they deserve. The other three games aren’t comedies either, but they do contain comedic moments, which are mostly absent in Unbound.

As a matter of fact, broken people in many ways form the backbone for many of the storylines. Almost all of the ghosts were unhappy shortly before they died, not just the ones that committed suicide. Joey had to spend decades tethered to essentially comatose women before finally being released to Rosa, and there are hints that he hasn’t quite come to terms with his death, either. The living don’t fare much better, from secondary characters to villains to the protagonists.

Lauren’s character, who we only really encounter directly during the shortest of the four games, is nicely and believably different from that of her niece, much more certain of her role in the world. When we get to meet her, she’s done the job for a while. She’s become jaded and cynical, shutting herself off from her family and, in her words, barely able to feel any compassion anymore. She is not necessarily a very likable person, and I commend Gilbert for going in that direction. Player characters don’t need to be likable, they need to be relatable and have a few likable traits; for Lauren, one of those traits is her rapport with Joey, which is much more easy-going than that between Joey and Rosa.

Rosa is less resigned to her fate as a medium and has more trouble adjusting, even in the fourth game which takes place quite a while after her first ghostly encounter. She repeatedly tells Joey and the audience that the family inheritance has ruined her life, and while in some ways it has, it was never a particularly fulfilled life to begin with. Some of those self-doubts and arguably self-loathing come to a head at the end of Blackwell Deception (2011), a game in which Rosa makes several decisions with far-reaching consequences.

Gameplay-wise, all four games are cut from the same cloth: the player characters are directed to move in and interact with their environment via mouse click. There are no real quick-time events; there are some practically-slow-time events which have minor effects if you stand there doing nothing, but you can’t die in any of the games just because you couldn’t think your way out of a tricky situation quickly enough. There are no mazes and only very few and very easy logic puzzles. Finding clues and putting them together mostly involves cycling through extensive dialogue trees (which border on excessive in the earlier games) or logically combining objects. A neat feature which all of the games except the third share is the notebook; Rosa/Lauren uses it to write down clues, and it’s up to the player to combine those clues to unlock more dialogue options. It’s not implemented perfectly (there are probably more minor bugs / lazy writing in the notebook screen than anywhere else in the games), but even imperfectly it’s a nice additional puzzle type. I don’t know why Convergence is the exception; there are several situations in the game which would have been well-suited for notebook combining. Thankfully, the feature was put back in for the fourth game.

The player controls just Rosa in Legacy, but the other three instalments permit control of Joey as well. He can’t do much, being a ghost and all, but he can explore locations Rosa/Lauren can’t go to, he is better at interacting with other ghosts, and he has some very limited interference powers in relation to the corporeal world. Many puzzles can only be solved by having the two work together. A nice side-effect is a near-doubling of the observations the characters make about their environment, since Joey will react differently to a look-at command than Rosa or Lauren will.

For this type of game, I almost don’t care about the graphics as long as the visual design makes it possible to discern important objects without too much pixel-hunting (though obviously the early free version looks just shoddy by comparison). It’s not even nostalgia that makes me like the late-90s look many indie adventure games have; I’ve never had much love for 3D and believe limited graphics have their own charm and can oftentimes convey more with less. Nevertheless, I should mention that the visuals grow increasingly more elaborate as the games go on. That’s an undeniable improvement for the backgrounds, but doesn’t work without reservations when it comes to the character sprites, which in the third and fourth games resemble, say, Resonance more than Gemini Rue. I probably wouldn’t complain if the series had started out with that visual style, but the shift bothers me (especially since I played all four games in quick succession), and the old character models somehow had more, well, character.

The comparatively high budget expected of commercial games is also evident in the music, which is competent and professional-sounding, supporting whatever mood a scene requires. The tracks have a tendency to end abruptly, though, so the editing could use some work. The voice work is in a similar boat; it’s notoriously patchy in independent games, but comes across as better than average here. The two main characters (three including Lauren) are particular stand-outs and I have no complaints about them whatsoever. I played the 2011 remastered release of Legacy, which switched out Rosa’s original actress for the one who voices her in games #3 and #4; having listened to a few samples of the original release, that was probably the right call on Gilbert’s part. One major lapse of judgment, however, must have occurred during production of Unbound, because the game attempts numerous times to have relatively young people voice older characters, and it doesn’t work at all. That’s especially unfortunate because one of those characters is central to the game’s mystery and reappears in later games (though voiced more appropriately).

I said above that I paid less than $10 for all four games and that it was a very good deal. The full price on GOG.com is $15, and that is still a pretty good deal. I’m a relatively fast player when it comes to adventure games, and while the individual games were short for me (a little more than two hours for Unbound, two-and-a-half hours for Legacy and Convergence, and four hours for Deception), that still adds up to eleven hours. Minor issues aside, the games offer interesting and engaging characters, decent storytelling, oodles of atmosphere, and none of the gameplay annoyances that tend to bug me about adventures. I’m looking forward to see the continuing adventures of Rosangela Blackwell and her ghost sidekick (and, maybe, another Lauren flashback?).

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2 responses to “Blackwell Bundle (2003-2011)

  1. Hi! Came here via Google Alert. I’m happy you enjoyed the games, although I am sorry you had to suffer through Bestowers in order to do so. 🙂

    • Not to worry. I suspected the commercial releases would be much better, and of course they were (I’d previously played “The Shivah”, so this wasn’t my first exposure to your work anyway). Playing through “Bestowers” was not nearly as torturous as the wait for game #5 is turning out to be ;).

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