The latest adventure game from Wadjet Eye Games, Blackwell Unbound, is the second in a trilogy about a family made up of mediums between the spirit world and our own. With the help of a ghostly spirit guide, your character gathers clues about two ghosts in New York City and finds a way to send them to the afterlife while uncovering a greater conspiracy. It’s a respectable but short adventure game that moves away from the typical genre trope of item collection and replaces it with an interesting clue collection and combination system. Using this, the game tells a good story and does so with ingenuity and grace.
Adventure games are not, in the strictest sense, actually video games. You either solve the puzzles (usually one particular way) and advance the plot (usually in one direction) or you do nothing. The game stops and waits for you to tell it what it wants to hear. Contrast this to a first-person shooter where you’re free to shoot your way through however you want or a round of Starcraft where you can come up with any strategy that suits you to win. A video game is meant to allow the player to tackle a problem by making substantial choices.
Still, many games remain bound to the non-linearity of having a plot, much to some designers’ frustration. No matter how you beat the level, no matter how interactive the experience of getting to the checkpoint may be, you still have to go to the predetermined end and watch the predetermined cutscene. After all, what is a game without objectives to be met? What are objectives without a story giving them weight? The constant struggle to make the game acknowledge your actions and adapt the plot to the player is where most game design research is going now. Designers are, when it comes to games with plots, trying to recreate the experience of tabletop role-playing games where the gamemaster is a live person who is adapting to the other players and still telling a great story at the same time. Unfortunately, they still have a long way to go. So how does a linear adventure game like Blackwell Unbound stand up in a world that is going in the opposite direction?
The graphics of Blackwell Unbound would’ve stood alongside other graphic adventures of the early ‘90s fairly well, and the characters are all nicely animated. It’s not quite to the level of the water-colored paintings that began to dominate adventure games in their middle years, but there are enough images of sky scrapers and small Manhattan apartments to establish the setting of New York City fairly well. The voice acting is also surprisingly good, with only a few scenes where one character is not quite matching the emotional drama of the other. This is inevitable in a medium where the actors must record their dialogue separately, and the game manages to hold its own most of the time. The best parts are the little tics each character has. Lauren’s constant chain smoking, a piano player’s shifting stance, and Joey’s ethereal floating make the world of the game come alive visually. Combine this with a good jazz soundtrack and you have all the ingredients to a clever New York City mystery.
There isn’t much inventory collection in Blackwell Unbound. You talk with other characters, take notes, and put together the story of who the ghosts were in the real world. Once you have a decent enough understanding of who they were in the living world, you’ll be able to talk to them and make them realize that it’s time to move on. There are also points in the game where you have to click notes together and make connections, which adds another layer of puzzles to the investigation and helps keep track of the details as you investigate two distinct ghosts.
There are pros and cons to this. The perk is you no longer really need to worry about hunting for items, just figuring out information. Rather than pick up the pot and walk over to the circus tent to use it as a helmet, you write about the pot in your notebook, walk over to the circus tent, and ask about it. It lets the player spend a lot more time focusing on the story rather than trying to get some random object. The downside is that it takes away a lot of the exploration and experimenting that’s normally in these games. Everything you need to “pick up” is in various characters’ heads so you mostly just go to different areas to talk or look around. Wherever you go in the game, you can bet you should mostly be chatting with whoever is in the room.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t make up for this by giving you a variety of other interactive tools. You can switch to Lauren’s spirit guide, Joey, and use his transparent state to get access to information that Lauren can’t. You also don’t have to endure the double-dialogue scenario of picking a response sentence at the bottom and having the character say it over again. It makes it so when you select ‘Give hostile response’ there is still a bit of suspense and surprise as to what exactly Lauren or Joey is going to say. It’s an effective improvement on the dialogue trees of the past and makes all the talking you’ll be doing a bit more fun than you’d expect. There is a catch to this though. When you are asking a character about specific topics you don’t really have a way of knowing if you’ve reached the end of their information on a suspect except by just asking them repeatedly. With so many characters insisting that they don’t know anything, the only way to get all the clues is just asking over and over monotonously.
So what about the story itself? The premise of sending lost souls to the afterlife naturally owes a huge debt to The Sixth Sense, but Gilbert has expanded the concept significantly. Specifically, what precisely happens to Haley Joel Osment’s character as he ages and spends his life interacting with so much death? Lauren Blackwell is a woman with a pack-a-day habit and a growing emotional apathy that comes from constantly staring at the end of existence and sending people there. “Honestly, I don’t feel anything at all when I look at it now,” she comments. She has cut herself off from her family and is even fighting with Joey over trivial matters as she spends the game sending yet another group of souls to the next world. The problem is that her life has begun to reflect the undead souls she spends all her time with. All of this culminates in a confrontation with an older ghost medium who has lost her mind after confronting the same empty life as Lauren. Her ultimate revelation is that sending souls onward alone cannot give meaning to her life. It is only by re-connecting with her friends and family that Lauren is able to find the comfort that her ghostly occupation falls short of.
A video game consists of three basic variables that you have to account for when you’re reviewing it: the game design, the presentation, and the plot. Adventure games are a bit unbalanced in this equation because so much of the game is just experiencing the all-controlling plot. As such, I find it interesting to note that so much of my own discussion of the game is still devoted to its design. Blackwell Unbound is an entertaining and touching game, but the fact that it lets you discover this within such a well-designed experience is a testament to the quality here. In a world where games are attempting to become truly interactive fiction, Blackwell Unbound is a reminder that video games are already quite capable of a far less ambitious goal. They can still be used to just tell a great story.