[18 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The third game in Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series, The Blackwell Convergence, returns to the story of Rosangela Blackwell and her ghostly partner Joey. Coming from a long line of mediums, Rosangela scours New York City for stories about ghosts for her fiction and for side jobs sending the dead on to the next stage of the afterlife. Drawing together plot elements from the two previous games, the game is a solid entry in the series but does not quite live up to its predecessor.
One of the tricky aspects of telling a story in an adventure game is that you have to create both an interesting protagonist yet one who will not alienate your audience. We are both observing a character and playing as them, meaning that if the player dislikes the role that they play that they will be turned off by the rest of the experience. As a consequence, the adventure game genre features a tableau of generically likable people from the always-friendly King Graham to the awkward but punchy Guybrush Threepwood. Games that try to have more complex protagonists have a much trickier job. Ben from Full Throttle can be rugged and violent, but the introduction also gives us a few scenes of him hanging out with an old man. Gabriel Knight from Jane Jensen’s classic series is a bit of an ass, but he’s also down on his luck and needs help. What has always been absent from the genre, even for the games pushing more complex heroes, was any real sense of character development. These are characters with goals and the game is over when they accomplish them. Nothing else changes in the story.
The thing that makes Dave Gilbert’s work remarkable is that in his adventure games the characters change. The game starts with someone struggling with a deep personal problem that (along with an exciting mystery) is resolved by the end. The Shivah details a Rabbi coming to grips with his deteriorating faith. Blackwell Unbound deals with Rosangela’s troubled aunt as she struggles with the morbid lifestyle of sending the dead to the next phase of existence. Here in Blackwell Convergence, the character development is mostly put on hold. Rosangela’s origin story in the first game has concluded, and we now see her dealing with the day-to-day work of being a medium. Unlike her jaded Aunt this has not dragged her down, so that she mostly comes across as the same sort of generically likable protagonist that you see so often in video games.
True to past form, the game mostly does away with item puzzles in favor of dialog and logic. While playing as Rosangela, you will interview various characters, write down new topics in your notebook, and then try to figure out who knows what. The inherent limitations of the dialogue tree are present, there is a lot of repeating questions, but at this point, I think the average gamer just accepts this convention. Playing as the ghost sidekick Joey allows for several interesting eavesdropping and physical puzzles, since he can move through walls and blow a gust of wind. The most interesting new item is the computer, which allows several puzzles involving the internet and are definitely the most clever moments in the design. The weakest puzzles are two moments where you have to string together several correct responses to a character. Although trial and error is inherent in a dialog game, having a puzzle that forces you to use it just to progress is a bit more problematic.
The game’s art is a lovely homage to the 1990s era of graphics with stylized pixel graphics set to smooth backgrounds. You’ll visit a variety of sites in New York City as you piece together a string of ghosts who did not die under natural circumstances. An old fashioned bar, Central Park, art galleries, and a few trips to the afterlife keep things interesting. The voice acting is equally solid and complements the game nicely.
At the heart of the game’s story is the struggle for artistic expression to find an audience. Rosangela’s e-mail account is filled with rejection e-mails for her ghost stories, and the game’s very first ghost is a jilted husband wishing someone would love him. The spirits and characters that she encounters all suffer from a similar detachment, an actor looking for his next big break or a painter who wishes someone would understand his work. The game brings up characters from the second game and the wilder culture of that era to expand on that struggle. The writers and artists who are long dead are the ones that people revere in the game, but for a medium who has encountered so many of these ghosts, Rosangela is forced to ask if that brand of fame is really worth it. Clever and nuanced, the plot mostly suffers because the questions asked are not quite as interesting as those asked in Gilbert’s other games. While Blackwell Unbound could counter-balance the excitement of the mystery with its own musings, here the mystery dominates. It is all action, plot twists, and questioning characters for more clues.
The game is still tightly organized and the story unfolds in an exciting manner. Gilbert’s titles are always just the right length, never saturating you with too many puzzles and always making sure that the solution is never too complicated. If you’re a fan of adventure games or any of the other titles by Wadjet Eye Games, you won’t regret giving this a download. I only complain because I’m reviewing a game by an auteur with such an impressive portfolio.