Monday, June 10, 2013


I'm taking a detour in between old RPGs to try out some old adventure games. Well, not quite so old. Ok, they just look old.

I lack sufficient experience with adventure games at large to really rank them. The Blackwell series is at least as good as Syberia, not nearly as good as The Longest Journey, definitely better than the adventure games i tried last decade for five minutes at a time and don't even remember. I understand that this outdated game format has been relegated to the computer equivalent of dime mystery novels. Piecing together various clues and puzzles is after all its forte.

The Blackwell series itself isn't really much of a series. It's one game presented in several chapters. Each release is about a tenth to a fifth the length of a normal adventure, FPS or RPG campaign. Altogether, the Blackwell Bundle scrapes together enough content to just barely be worth its $15 regular price: four quaint little stories about sending ghosts to the afterlife by tracking down their murderers.

True to detective-story form, Blackwell is less about puzzle-solving than other adventure games and more about chasing down leads through conversations. The one main gameplay innovation seems to be that the main character doesn't always instantly figure out solutions to verbal problems once the clues are all gathered. The player must demonstrate an understanding of the issue by pairing clues together in the main character's notebook just as items are paired together in more puzzle-centered games. So, even if you've found out about the "shoe" and the "box" you sometimes have to put them together to prod your character to think of a "shoebox". This is used sparingly and turns out less aggravating than it first sounds, and Blackwell steers clear of the common adventure game pitfall of straining so hard for originality that it would shoot past it straight into nonsense.
Still, it's less MacGyver, more Miss Marple. 

Before getting into other specifics, there is one stylistic choice which grates: New York. That's the game's setting, and for one i am sick of the hollywoodized pop-culture assumption that everything happens in New York, except on the rare occasions when it happens in L.A. - and Blackwell's characters show the same grating, self-absorbed New-Yorker conceit that comes through in every sitcom and movie, right down to true NY historical character references. This would not be a flaw in itself if it were not such a prevalent cultural trope.

My main complaint about the games is, for once, the lack of filler. There is a central over-arching story to the series, a ghost story involving the "Blackwell" family itself, and the plot of the games dives right into it, devoting the bulk of each chapter to advancing it. It would have been nice for the sake of contrast to take it slower, spend more time showing the detectives at work, portray a few more days of their life as ghost-rescuers which is only hinted at through references to the amount of time elapsed or number of cases solved. I suppose the lack of such filler, the lack of "side quests" can reasonably be attributed to the low budget of the games (and even within its low-budget genre, Blackwell is relatively low on production values.)

My other complaint is not a complaint. It's admittedly a matter of preference. Three of the four games have the same protagonist, a well-meaning, mousy modern-day failed writer named Rosangela, while the second installment is set in the past and revolves around her aunt, a bitter, sardonic, chainsmoking film-noir throwback. Everything about the grittier 70s heroine and setting seemed better: dialogue, voice, music... dark, grungy alleys. It just seems to have so much more character and should have received more attention, though i'll concede that my tastes in this are already skewed toward that particular style.

However, the most interesting part of the Blackwell series not just as an entertainment product but as a case-study in game design is its progression. Since chapters are produced and released a year or two apart (the fifth comes out this fall) they show various degrees of amateurish uncertainty or unnecessary concessions to genre staples, in addition to gradual refinement in style. This makes the Blackwell bundle as a whole a nice reference point when looking at other adventure games.

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