It seems like Wadjet Eye Games has been in the indie gaming news a lot lately, whether announcing new titles, or winning awards, or unexpectedly getting things onto Steam. And every time I read about what they’re doing lately, I think to myself that I really should try some of their stuff. I mean, I consider myself to be a fan of adventure games. I even already have some of their games, acquired via bundles and sadly neglected. Such is the Stack. So finally I’ve taken the plunge and played through the first of the flagship series by the company’s founder, the illustrious Dave Gilbert.
The Blackwell games are essentially supernatural detective stories. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, Rosangela Blackwell sees dead people, and it’s her inherited responsibility to help them move on, with the help of her hard-boiled spirit guide, Joey Mallone. But she needs to know things about the deceased to help them, and their shades are too scatterbrained or hostile to provide the necessary information themselves, so that’s where the detectiving comes in. This is the sort of adventure game where dialogue is the dominant mode of interaction, and that uses a notebook of gathered conversation topics more than it uses its object inventory. It even lets you try to combine topics the way you combine inventory items, dragging them onto each other in an attempt to create new insights or to point out contradictions. The last time I saw this mechanic used was in Discworld Noir, which is apparently where Gilbert got the idea from. I honestly didn’t think it worked very well there: the necessary combinations were sometimes far from obvious (because they were puzzles), and the combinatorial explosion meant that you had to wade through a great many fruitless pairings to find them. The Blackwell Legacy solves this problem by aggressively pruning the topic list. Sure, a shorter list is an invitation to brute-forcing your way to plot-essential revelations, but when you’re dealing with topics rather than physical things, that’s actually kind of mimetic. Imagining Rosangela iterating over everything in her notes, racking her brains for possible connections, makes sense in a way that a typical adventure hero trying to combine everything in their inventory doesn’t.
The Blackwell Legacy also seems like something of a Sierra homage. The whole supernatural detective thing brings Gabriel Knight to mind, as does the loving depiction of real places in a real city (New York in this case), as does the division of the game content into “days” (there are only two, but the game is careful to point them out to us), as does the art style in some of the dialogue cameos (the close-ups of character faces superimposed on the screen while that character is speaking). For that matter, the fact that it uses dialogue cameos at all is something of a Gabriel-Knight-ism; the more-often-fondly-remembered games from Lucasarts never bothered with them. Part of the reason for them was to convey facial expressions, allowing a degree of emotional expression that would be difficult or impossible to pull off at the limited resolution of the in-scene figures without doing everything in broad, theatrical gestures. Now, Blackwell was made in 2006. There might still be readability concerns due to the fact that the characters’ faces simply occupy a small area on the screen, but the need to compensate for big blocky pixels is gone. Blackwell uses big blocky pixels anyway, which by this point in history has to be a deliberate artistic choice. The map screen — yes, of course there’s a map screen, that’s how detective games work — uses fuzzy antialiasing in a way that makes it clear that when the other screens use dithering for gradients or fill patterns, it’s not because they didn’t have a sufficient range of hues. It’s so you can admire the artistry of the dithering, like a cobblestone walk in a city of blacktop. And just look at the pixel-spray foliage in the screenshot. There’s a definite nostalgia element there. And today we have a fifth-anniversary special edition of the game, making even the nostalgia nostalgic in its own right.
There’s one other chief thing that The Blackwell Legacy is, and that’s an origin story. Apparently it was intended from the beginning to be the first of several episodes (currently four), and it shows. Much of the game is spent explaining the Blackwell family history, leading up to Rosangela meeting Joey for the first time, learning of her new abilities and obligations as a medium, and reluctantly coming to terms with the whole deal. After that, you get one typical “case” in which you get to use the abilities that have just been explained to you once or twice, and that’s it. It’s pretty short, all told. It’s essentially an introduction to being a Blackwell, practically a tutorial.
And yet, it took me four or five days to complete what should have been a one-sitting game. Why?
Mainly because I kept forgetting what my options were. This game provides just enough different forms of interaction, and spaces them out with enough dialogue (its dominant mode), that it’s easy to miss the one that you need to make the story progress at a given moment. For example, if you’ve forgotten that you can combine topics in your notebook, you’ll get stuck. At one point I even forgot about right-clicking. This game has a general scheme of left-click to perform actions, right-click to examine. So for a couple of sessions, I was left-clicking on things like posters on the walls expecting to read them, only to have Rosangela tell me that she didn’t want to take them, leaving me confusedly wondering what kind of game designer makes “take” be the only verb applicable to a poster. The visual resemblance to the classic Sierra games probably hurt me here, because the interface isn’t Sierra’s at all. (Heck, you can’t even use inventory items on the environment directly here, as in Sierra’s dominant mode; everything you pick up either gets applied automatically when appropriate or just adds an option to a conversation menu.) In the Sierra games, right-clicking was just a sort of UI shortcut, and never necessary, probably because they were designing with one-button mice in mind. So there’s an ingrained habit of mind there that I had to ditch hard.
The one major bit of non-UI-related stuckage I encountered was, however, very Sierra-ish. It had to do with a certain action only being available if you’ve talked to Joey about a certain thing while back in Rosangela’s apartment. Now, the author admits that this is a place where lots of people get stuck, because a lot of people haven’t bothered to talk to Joey about the necessary thing by that point, and there’s no obvious reason to go back to the apartment just then. But my experience was a little different from that, and I have to wonder how common my version is. I had in fact talked to Joey about the necessary thing, but then I quit without saving, because I didn’t think I had made any significant changes to the game state since my last save. So even though I, the player, had the necessary information, in my next session, Rosangela did not. To some extent, I blame the notebook, which lulled me into thinking that I could distinguish between significant conversations and insignificant ones.
Beyond that, my chief gripe is that despite its recent fifth-anniversary revamp, the game still has some major bugs — for example, I had to force-quit when I was unable to dismiss the menu after bringing it up in the endgame. But for all my plaint, I still think it was worth playing, mainly because the characters are engaging. Rosangela herself is socially awkward, practically a recluse (the very first obstacle in the game hinges on the fact that she doesn’t know anyone else in her building), but combatively defensive about it in a very New York way that I think a lot of introverted gamer geeks will find appealing. From that base, the story gives her a permanent unwanted companion (Joey) and a fate that forces her to get out and interact with people more than she’s comfortable with. The fact that some of those people are restless spirits just heightens the anxiety that’s already in the character — and the detail that several characters have been driven to suicide by a lost soul’s incessant pleas for help casts a spotlight on the downside of her unseverable relationship with Joey.
Plus, if you’re into developer commentary tracks (which you probably are, given that you read blogs like this one), the current version of the game contains not one but two: the commentary from the game’s original release, and additional notes for the fifth anniversary edition. It’s interesting to compare them, to see where Gilbert’s opinions have changed and where they haven’t. My chief takeaway here is that, like all artists, his esteem for his own earlier works has plummeted over time. He keeps on apologizing for things that didn’t even register as faults for me. The one criticism of his that I really agree with is that the noninteractive dialogue frequently runs overlong, a fairly common failing of new designers. Ironic that the only way to hear this confession is to turn on the commentary, which makes the game even more longwinded, and even specifically extends a few of the longer talky bits with complaints about their length.