Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Adventure of the Week: The Blackwell Legacy (2006)

Lately, I've been playing some recent retro-style point-and-click graphic adventures published by indie studio Wadjet Eye Games for the PC.  Generally I try to give a game at least five years on the market before I cover it as an Adventure of the Week, as I tend to go heavy on the spoilers -- but as it turns out, Dave Gilbert's The Blackwell Legacy has already been around long enough to qualify.  It's been a successful title, launching a series that's currently up to four games, and it's now available to a wider audience on Steam.  It's also one of the finest recent graphic adventures I've played, bringing a fresh aesthetic to the tried-and-true format, so I'm pleased to be sharing it with you this week.

While I've written about several of the Sierra graphical adventures, I haven't yet covered any of the classic Lucasarts games in detail -- I will get around to them eventually, I promise.  The Blackwell Legacy runs on the freeware Adventure Game Studio engine created by Chris Jones, and its interface hews fairly closely to the later Lucasarts standard.  There are no onscreen verb/noun lists; actions are generally limited to looking at an object or doing the obvious with it, and the gameplay is heavy on the conversation trees, often using dialogue options to initiate physical action.  It's rendered in classic low-res VGA imagery, though there are some nifty modern transparency effects; the AGS engine allows some filtering and interpolation if you prefer the artificially-refined look.  The game also includes a couple of in-engine commentaries by the designer -- one from 2006, with updates added in 2011 for the game's recent relaunch, and both are worth listening to AFTER the game has been completed.

The story concerns a young, socially isolated writer named Rosangela Blackwell, struggling to get her career off the ground and dealing with the recent death of her long-sedated Aunt Lauren.  The game opens as she scatters her aunt's ashes from the Brooklyn Bridge, on the verge of discovering the supernatural secret afflicting several generations of Blackwell women.

As always, and especially when I'm covering a game that's still in commercial distribution, I encourage interested adventurers to purchase and play The Blackwell Legacy before proceeding here.  You can buy it directly from Wadjet Eye Games, or via Steam (both channels also offer it as part of The Blackwell Bundle, grouping the first three games as a set; the Steam edition also includes achievements.)  It's not a lengthy or particularly difficult game, and the writing is so good that my detailed notes below won't betray most of the pleasure to be had here.  That said, be advised that there are certain to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The Blackwell Legacy is, at heart, a mystery game -- Rosangela will eventually become entangled in a dark and disturbing puzzle, but her immediate concern as the game begins is getting back into her own apartment, past a substitute doorman who doesn't recognize her.  One of the game's best features is its grounding in the real world of New York City -- the game's locations also include Bellevue Hospital, New York University and Washington Square Park, courtesy of Brooklyn-based designer (and Wadjet Eye head honcho) Dave Gilbert.

This first puzzle is mundane, but it also gives us some insight into Rosangela's character -- she doesn't really know her fellow residents, and when the doorman advises her to track down the woman who lives across the hall to vouch for her, the story is underway.  She finds her neighbor Nishanti Sharma playing the flute in Washington Square Park:

Rosangela is too nervous to approach her neighbor directly, so the player has to attract Nishanti's attention by getting her Boston Terrier Moti to bark.  This proves more difficult than one might think -- what we have to do is guide our heroine around a nearby lamppost, with the curious dog following, until his leash is wrapped around it and he can't move.  The minor ruckus breaks up the impromptu concert, and Nishanti agrees to help Rosa re-enter the building.

Nishanti's a great character -- warm and friendly, culturally Indian but raised in the US, and a little bit confused by Rosangela's social awkwardness.  Nishanti reaches out to her immediately as a neighbor and potential friend, and while she only figures into the margins of the story proper -- perhaps even because of that -- she comes across as a genuine person.  So many adventure game characters are simple item guardians of the bring-me-this-so-I'll-give-you-that variety that it seems like a quiet revolution when we see characters engaging in conversation, just for the sake of pleasant human interaction.  We can also pick up some interesting information about why the Washington Square dog park is closed -- dogs are apparently terrified of the place, but this won't factor into the story until later.

When Rosa reenters her apartment, a phone call comes in from the doctor who treated her late aunt, urging her to visit him at the earliest opportunity; there's not much else we can do at this point, as Rosangela doesn't feel like writing, eating, sleeping, or watching TV, so it's off to the hospital to see what's up.  This leads to some lengthy exposition -- fairly well disguised using conversation trees -- as we learn about Aunt Lauren's dementia, and that of her mother before her; her focus on an invisible person named "Joey"; and the Bellevue staff's use of heavy medication to keep her comfortable (and under control.)  Rosangela also complains of stress headaches; the good doctor can't do anything beyond recommending over-the-counter pain medications, but he does arrange to send a package of Lauren's earthly possessions to Rosa's address.

Returning to the apartment, we can page through 25 images of Lauren's letters and photos, outlining the story of her life, the death of Rosangela's parents, and ultimately this legal custody document:

This is a literary device that works well -- we don't have to read any of this material if we don't want to, but it fleshes out the backstory in a leisurely self-serve manner, sparing the player another lengthy stretch of expository dialogue.  But it's worth exploring on background, and gives us a better sense of the game world's history.

Now we're getting to the meat of The Blackwell Legacy's story -- Rosangela is engaged by The Village Eye, a paper for which she normally writes book reviews, to investigate the recent suicide of a student at New York University.  This introduces the notebook mechanic that keeps track of clues and topics -- it's a reference for conversational interrogation, and a handy guidepost for story progression.  We can also "combine" two topics to consider relationships between them, occasionally creating new topics or merging existing ones to open up new possibilities.  Here, we visit NYU to interview the dead girl's roommate in an attempt to find out more about the incident, and obtain a photo for the paper:

We can also speak to the floor's R.A., a man named Adrian mistakenly assigned to a female dorm, but nobody has a lot of information to offer.  The key puzzle we have to solve here involves roommate Kelly's assertion that suicide victim JoAnn always slept soundly, while the R.A. informs us that Kelly rarely sleeps in the dorm.  Caught in this contradiction, Kelly softens and allows Rosa to borrow a photograph; we return to the apartment, write up the article, and get ready to hit the hay.

Now things really start getting weird... an old family photograph on Rosa's bookcase glows, and a translucent blue figure in an old-fashioned hat appears in the picture... and then in Rosa's apartment.  This, it soon develops -- through a tightly-guided conversation that still allows the player to steer the emotional tone a bit -- is "Joey."  He's a spirit guide, formerly attached to Rosangela's grandmother and aunt, and our heroine is now charged with the family legacy: helping lost souls find their way to the next world.  Unfortunately, Joey's powers are comically limited -- the most he can do in the material plane is generate a light breeze:

JoAnn is dead, and has apparently made it safely to the next world, but her close friends are in need of Rosa and Joey's psychic assistance.  Gaining entry to Kelly's room, Rosa can examine some photos on the late JoAnn's corkboard: 

Kelly won't let Rosa borrow or examine JoAnn's notebook, but some timely assistance from Joey scatters Kelly's papers just long enough for Rosa to make off with the potential evidence.  There's clearly something creepy afoot --JoAnn was not taking very good class notes toward the end of her life:

Further conversation, examination, exploration and web research establish that JoAnn's friend Allison also took her own life, and her other friend Susan is in Bellevue Hospital after trying to do so; Susan was also involved with a hockey player named Alexander Davenport.  Allison's ghost is seen hanging around the dog park, which explains why the animals have been behaving so strangely.  Rosa can't converse with most spirits directly, but Joey can; unfortunately, Alli is so addled by her strange new circumstances that she can only answer in obscure rhymes.  We do, however, learn that she fears an entity called the Deacon, whom the three girls apparently summoned through careless Ouija abuse.

We can also visit Susan Lee in the hospital -- getting past the security desk presents a slightly awkward puzzle, because here Rosa "pulls a Brian" (a design term my wife and I use, based on the first of Pendulo Studios' Runaway series -- but that's a story for another time).  She's not on Susan's visitor list, and we only know a few significant names in the patient's life -- but Rosa won't cheat and introduce herself as Alex Davenport until we play with the notebook to "discover" that names like Adrian and Alex(ander/andra) may apply to both genders.

A similar problem will arise again very shortly, though it's easier to figure out this time.  Getting in to see Susan is initially unproductive -- she clams up and won't say much about the Deacon, or JoAnn, or Alli, or the Ouija Board, until Rosa combines the Deacon and the Ouija board into a single notebook item.  If the player has been thorough in conversation with Alli, we already know what happened -- but Susan won't respond meaningfully to the separate topics, and we can only break down her resistance by asking about the combined "Deacon and Ouija Board" item.  Rosa tells Susan that she believes her story and knows she isn't insane; the relieved Susan opens up and fills in more of the story, informing us that the Deacon drove all three girls mad with his incessant shrieking and noise, and that Alli loves dogs and was studying veterinary medicine.

We're well on the way to resolving the mystery now.  We just need to bring a dog to visit Alli's ghost -- animals can see spirits, we learn, which makes for some comical moments between Joey and Moti in Nishanti's apartment.  This is the only really contrived puzzle in the game -- it just so happens that Susan has been placed on diuretic medication, but hasn't been taking the pills, so she asks Rosa to take them out of Bellevue so she doesn't get caught.  Not that serious animal cruelty of the KILL [creature] variety isn't an adventure game staple going way back, but putting the pills in Moti's dog biscuit, so that the poor animal has an immediate need to urinate, seems a little out of keeping with the Blackwell universe.

At any rate, the medicinal ruse works -- Nishanti is busy with dishes and asks Rosangela to take the desperate animal for a walk, enabling us to present Alli with a real, live canine patient.  And when she examines Moti, and realizes she can't feel his breath, all of her memories come flooding back and she realizes she is no longer of this world.  In what will become a recurring motif, Joey's tie serves as a supernatural conduit -- Rosa takes one end, the formerly-lost spirit the other:

With a quick yank, Rosa collapses to the ground, and the spirit is brought to the next plane, buried somewhere in Rosangela's psyche.  Alli is ready to go, and this is the first of what will be many poignant moments in the Blackwell series, as her spirit is sent into the ethereal unknown:

To the designer's credit, no overly-concrete statements about the nature of the afterlife are made in conversation.  The player is free to reassure Alli, or express doubt about how this all works, and even the "go into the light" mechanic comes in for a little sardonic commentary.

There's a sense of impending finale at hand, so it's time to return to Susan's bedside and make sure she's okay, in keeping with Alli's last wishes and the fact that there aren't too many plot threads left to tie up.  But it's after visiting hours, so Rosa has to solve a couple of traditional graphic adventure game puzzles to get past security.  Joey's presence interferes with radio signals, so Rosa can lead him to the security guard's desk radio; while the guard fiddles with the antenna, she can appropriate the fusebox key she has refused to mess with up to this point.  Now she can turn off the lights, but the building's wiring is known to be old and flaky, and the guard immediately heads into the hall to check out the fusebox, more often than not intercepting her while she tries to sneak in. 

It took me quite a few tries to get past this sequence -- it's not hard to do once we know exactly where Rosa needs to hide, but some of my attempts to lead her there didn't work out.  There's a red herring in the form of a closed, locked door that we cannot open, and we can't hide in the elevator or in a corner without being detected eventually.  The obvious safe spot is in a small, dark telephone alcove, but we have to click on it precisely and at the first opportunity -- if we're at all delayed or inaccurate, we're caught and thrown out of the building (though the game is very forgiving -- we can try again and again, ad infinitum, without making the easygoing guard the least bit suspicious.)

Once we get into Susan's room again, the Deacon manifests on his own, with no action required on our part.  But he's not the demonic presence we've been led to expect -- he's a truly lost soul, drinking from an empty ectoplasmic flask and fearing a Devil he believes is hot on his heels, and pleading for help JoAnn and her friends were unable to give him.  Rosa and Joey need to convince him that he's dead and it's time to move on, and there are some alternate pathways available here -- we can talk him down using Rosangela's powers of persuasion, or apply Joey's ectoplasmic ghost-on-ghost fists.
Once the Deacon has agreed to go to the next world, Susan is safe.  But one more surprise awaits as Rosa brings him into the gateway -- it turns out that the Deacon's fears are well-grounded, as a traditionally horned and muscular (and less traditionally bikini-brief-sporting) Devil appears:

Here also there are a couple of possibilities open to the player.  Rosa can debate with the Devil and the Deacon, but to little avail; the Deacon has clearly led a bad life, and has murdered numerous people in his extended afterlife, and the demon will brook no talk of mercy.  But this is an adventure game, and while I had a hard time figuring out how to make use of it, a loose cobblestone lying around Rosa's mental foundation comes in handy.  If we fail to act in time, the Deacon is condemned to the fires of Hell; if we pick up the rock and talk to the Deacon about his flask, however, we can convince him to drop it, and then use a conversation tree to break it with the rock.  (This stumped me the first time through, as the game offers no direct way to use an object on another object -- we have to have the cobblestone in inventory, and then use the dialogue/action options correctly.) 

Freed of his burden of sin (symbolized and in fact embodied by the flask), the Deacon resolves to go to Hell anyway, but on his own terms -- he plans to spread the word of God amongst the damned, in hope of redeeming himself by saving some souls on a posthumous basis.  (This isn't quite as belief-neutral as the game's general treatment of the supernatural realm up to this point; but as it's just been established that the Devil actually exists in the Blackwell universe, or at least in the Deacon's worldview, we have reasonable evidence for the existence of God in the same context.) 

The game ends where it started, with Rosa standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, missing her Aunt Lauren and facing her new future as a psychic investigator and rescuer of ghosts.  We are satisfied with a job well done, but we also know what became of Rosangela's predecessors in this line of work.   It's a nice ending, definitive but not too pat, mixing hope with uncertainty and a beautiful view of the city:

I thoroughly enjoyed The Blackwell Legacy -- I won't be writing about the series' later entries right away, but I'm definitely having a good time playing them.  The best thing about the Blackwell series is its "indie" vibe -- the mystery format is inevitably predictable, but Dave Gilbert's focus on character and conversation takes point-and-click beyond traditional action and comedy to something that touches on the broader human experience.  That's a goal few commercial games of any sort have aspired to, and it's truly satisfying to see it handled so well here.  Retro gaming fans should definitely check out this new old-fashioned adventure.

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