Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Blackwell Unbound (2007)

This week, we're tackling another of Wadjet Eye Games' recent point-and-click adventures, as we take on company founder Dave Gilbert's Blackwell Unbound, published in 2007.  This adventure, second in the Blackwell series, was actually created out of historical flashback sequences intended for the third released gameProduction and cash-flow exigencies called for a little restructuring, but while this story may have been intended to set up the events of the third game, its a self-contained tale that stands well enough on its own.


Blackwell Unbound focuses on Rosa Blackwell's aunt, Lauren, whom we heard about but never saw in The Blackwell Legacy, and her own adventures with our favorite spirit guide Joey back in the 1970s.  Lauren's story mirrors Rosa's, as she tries to help some unfortunate ghosts pass on to the next plane of existence in New York City.  As is the case with most of Wadjet Eye's titles, the graphical style is intentionally retro, but the VGA-resolution visuals take advantage of modern color depth and transparency effects.  The game also benefits from an evocative, jazzy score by Thomas Regin and a talented cast of voice actors who interpret Gilbert's dialogue with humor and sensitivity. There's also an optional commentary track, allowing the author to inject background and anecdotes, but for obvious reasons it should not be turned on for the first playthrough.

As always, I encourage readers to explore Blackwell Unbound before continuing here -- this 2007 adventure is commercially available from the publisher, and also via Steam, as a single title or as part of the Blackwell Bundle trilogy set.  It's not a difficult game -- persistence and thoughtful consideration pay off -- and it's very reasonably priced at US$4.99 (at this writing).  Beyond this point, be warned -- much of the fun of adventure games lies in experiencing the story first-hand, and my remaining commentary will necessarily provide plenty of...

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

The story opens with Lauren standing in the Void, the passage for spirits established in the first game, pondering the nature of infinity. 

Then we're back in her apartment, where she has to indulge her cigarette addiction before getting on with the case at hand.  It's odd not having our old friend, Lauren's niece Rosa Blackwell, involved, but it's also interesting to see Joey in a slightly different milieu, at a different time in his post-life.  We actually get direct control of Joey first, an interface improvement not available in the first game, while Lauren takes a smoke break on the balcony -- we have to get her back on task.  Because Joey can't physically interact with the world (he can't even blow on things in this game), his limitations usually make for interesting information/conversation puzzles.

Clearly Lauren is mad at Joey, and chatting eventually establishes that some pipes unexpectedly burst during an investigation earlier today, Lauren got soaked, and he laughed.  This is unusual for an adventure game -- we're dropping into an established relationship, without the usual intro and orientation; in this case, the first game provides some context, although one needn't have played it to join in progress here.  This exchange establishes the relationship between the characters, and Lauren's addictive personality, before we get into the plot; it works well.

Lauren's case list, drawn as usual from leads in the newspaper, already has three closed investigations -- the "ghostly" reports turned out to be manifestations of rats, water pipes, and alcohol.  There are two remaining cases to solve -- Strange music heard on the Roosevelt Island Promenade, and Construction halted on 53rd street due to bizarre "accidents."  We can pick up Lauren's dictaphone and camera before heading out to see what we can learn, and take a look at a family photo (seen in the first game, at a later time, in Rosa's apartment) to learn a bit about Lauren's family, and her late mother, former medium/custodian of Joey.

Blackwell Unbound features the streamlined pick-a-destination navigation approach common to modern adventure games, and as a minor but effective detail, the New York city skyline circa 1973 still features the World Trade Center.  We can choose to visit Roosevelt Park or 53rd Street; there's no fixed order to resolving these investigations, though for coherence here I will focus on one at a time.

The park features a ghostly jazzman, playing his translucent saxophone in the dark of the night.  He won't tell Lauren anything about himself.  He won't respond to Joey either -- but as a fellow ghost, at least Joey can harass him by pulling on his saxophone.  The startled spirit thinks he is onstage at Johnny Ivory's, having his set interrupted, and whacks Joey with his sax after a few exchanges (apparently ghosts can feel pain when it's inflicted by another ghost with a suitably ghostly implement.)  We'll need to figure out more about Johnny Ivory's before he'll say anything useful, it seems.

Back at the apartment, we can look up Johnny Ivory's in an old-fashioned 1973 phonebook to find the place, at Bleeker and 7th; it's a jazz club, which Joey looks forward to visiting.  (We can also call up Rabbi Stone from Gilbert's earlier game, The Shivah, though he has nothing to say to us; it's just a little in-joke.)

The Blackwell games feature moody NYC-influenced scores, and composer Thomas Regin makes solid use of modern non-MIDI technology at Johnny Ivory's, with real pianos and saxophones.  A man plays the piano, and flirts with Lauren ("These fingers can go all night long.")  His name is purportedly C. Sharpe -- get it? -- and he knows musicians, but the jazzman's description doesn't ring a bell.  A photo on the wall depicts a beautiful singer, an older sax player who Lauren recognizes as the ghost, and a younger pianist whose face is obscured -- we should note that the photo is provided by Jambalaya Records.

C. claims not to know anything about the band in the photo (and Gilbert's commentary, well worth listening to on a second playthrough, reveals that he wrote explanatory dialogue here, but due to an oversight never got the voice actor to record it, and so had to patch it in by recycling existing dialogue.)  Lauren can't examine C.'s sheet music, but Joey can float up to look over his shoulder and observe that C. actually wrote the song he's playing, and that his full name is Cecil Sharpe, a detail he readily admits to when Lauren asks.

We stop back at the apartment to get the address for Jambalaya Records, and the phone is ringing; it's Lauren's brother, Jack.  She listens to his voice but does not reply before hanging up; judging from her comments earlier about the family photo, she thinks her brother will have a better life if he has no contact with her.  It's an odd and poignant moment -- we can get Lauren to call Jack back, but she won't say anything before hanging up again.

So we're off to Jambalaya Records to talk to the proprietor, Dwayne, a Jamaican one-man promotion and management operation for small, unknown jazz and reggae groups.  He can't help identify our mystery sax player without seeing the photo, and he's too busy to go to Johnny Ivory's.  So it's time to use Lauren's 1973 instant non-digital camera.  With the photo, we learn the band was a lounge jazz group called the C-Sharps, and that they haven't been active for 8 or 10 years.  But Cecil still claims ignorance.

So it's time to use another of the Blackwell series' core mechanics -- we can combine items in Lauren's notebook to draw conclusions and come up with new topics.  Combining Cecil Sharpe and the C-Sharps produces a new C Sharps and Cecil Sharpe item.  Now we can ask Cecil directly if he was ever in a band called the C-Sharps... but he still denies it.

Paying the jazzman a second visit introduces us to The Countess, an older woman who seems seriously imbalanced but is not a beggar or bag lady; she claims to see patterns in the world, of dire import, before she leaves in a righteous huff.  Talking to the jazzman doesn't produce any new information, but Dwayne at Jambalaya confirms that Cecil Sharpe was the band leader of the C-Sharps, and an impressive pianist.  Now we can confront Cecil, and after he admits that he was the leader of the C-Sharps, he tells us that the sax player's name is Isaac Brown, and someone strangled him to death.  We also learn that a reporter named Mitchell from the New Yorker magazine came around asking questions about Isaac at one time, before he died; Cecil also lets on that he was not unhappy to see Isaac go.

Joey can now talk to the ghost of Isaac Brown, who is still not very talkative, but confirms that the New Yorker reporter asked him about his life.  Back home, we can call the magazine's editorial offices and learn that the reporter's name is Joseph Mitchell - an actual reporter for the magazine in the real world.  He won't answer his phone, but we can go up to the office to see him.  The New Yorker sequences are like some other instances in the Blackwell series -- we can't do anything but talk to our target; there are no props or puzzles in the room to deal with, so we can only enter, have a conversation, and leave.

Mitchell won't talk much about himself, or about the late Mr. Brown, but confirms that he did interview him... and lets slip that Brown had a sister.  We also learn that he never published his article after Brown was strangled, out of respect (or so he says.)

Trying to ask Cecil about his sister provokes an angry response, and he clams up.  We can try again, but Joey's negative assessment of Lauren's PR skills is generally accurate.  And Isaac's ghost is no more talkative than before, nor is Dwayne.  Joey seems to be volunteering to help, but beyond noting that Cecil seems hung up on a girl, he can't really do anything. This observation does, however, open up some conversational options for Lauren, asking him about love and his unwillingness to let go of the past, and we learn that his sister Sarah Brown died after an illness destroyed her singing voice, then Isaac did too.  Cecil says that Isaac was a violent heavy drinker in life, and he feels a bit responsible for how Isaac ended up after Cecil fired him.  He also mentions that Sarah and Isaac used to play a duet at the band's gigs -- so maybe we should use Lauren's dictaphone to capture a sample?  This doesn't seem possible, but we can listen to Lauren's own recordings -- she has been capturing her dreams, many of which seem to foreshadow events in other Blackwell games.

We're on the right track, though -- we have to ask Cecil about the duet a second time, and then pull out the dictaphone while he's playing.  With the song recorded, we can return to Roosevelt Park, and play it for Isaac -- he plays his part of the duet, and a really nice moment, emotional and sweet and melancholy.  Isaac realizes he's dead, and Sarah is dead, and now he is ready to go.  As he passes into the light, he mentions an old lady who promised to help him, but then strangled him.  And when Lauren comes back to our own plane, there's a strange old woman hassling Joey; yes, she can talk to ghosts, and she is the Countess.  She thinks she is saving people, like Lauren and Joey do, but she's killing living people.  Joey and Lauren try to catch her, but she gets away after Lauren runs out of breath (Gilbert explains that this was a development of convenience -- he wanted to implement some sort of chase sequence, but the game's budget did not allow it.)

After we return to the apartment, Lauren goes out to the balcony for another smoke, and we have to use Joey to get her moving again by engaging her in a little conversation about the mysterious Countess.

Joseph Mitchell doesn't know anything about her, so we'll go investigate the construction site at 53rd and Lexington. 

Lauren can't get past the gated wall around the project, but Joey can simply pass through.  The ghost of a middle-aged woman wanders aimlessly in this area, repeatedly saying, "My home..."  Apparently she used to live in the building that formerly stood on this site.  She refuses to acknowledge Joey because he hasn't properly knocked to gain admittance, and his spoken "Um, knock knock?" fails to convince her.

Getting Rosa to knock on the gate gains Joey "entrance" to the ghost's "apartment."  She doesn't accept Joey's version of reality, and insists she's in her third-floor apartment, with a "D" on the door; I thought at first that this was her initial, but it's actually part of her apartment number.  It becomes clear that she tried to stand her ground when the building was slated to be torn down by a developer, refusing to leave her apartment.  We can claim to be various people, but she always sees through Joey's ruse and concludes he is one of "them," presumably her eventual evictors.

In the Seagram Realty foreman's trailer parked on the site, Joey can read a letter on a desk from a Mrs. Harriet Sherman, who apparently moved out but hasn't gotten compensation payments as promised.  There's a Farrah Fawcett calendar on the wall, as a little 1970s reminder, except she wasn't yet a TV celebrity in 1973, as Gilbert acknowledges in his commentary.

Looking up Harriet Sherman in the phone book gets us into her retirement home down in Battery Park City.  She claims she's owed sixty dollars by the realty company, but is willing to answer some questions.  Lauren can take the contents of her rainy day jar along to cover the debt, which is useful because she won't talk otherwise.  And she won't give the money back, even after Lauren admits that she doesn't really work for Seagram Realty, so it's good we don't need the money for any other purpose in this game.  Like most of the environments in Blackwell Unbound, Harriet's apartment is full of carefully observed incidental detail, like the cheesy seashell wallpaper and plastic fruit display:

Harriet says she did see a strange old lady back at the old building, if we ask her about the Countess, but it falls far short of a positive ID.  She says everyone but Mavis Wilcox was happy about the buyout of the old building, but she was a lunatic.  We also learn that she didn't leave the building alive -- she was strangled.  It seems there's a common thread between these hauntings.

Mavis still won't talk about herself or answer any of Joey's questions.  But Joseph Mitchell, oddly enough, knew Mavis Wilcox too, and interviewed her shortly before she died, for another unpublished piece.  She was indeed intensely loyal to the building, and almost never left it, but was nice enough; she had family.  We can try to look up Wilcox in the phone book, but we need to be more specific as there are a number of them listed.  Harriet has some mail that came for Mavis after she died, but she's had it for six months and no relatives have come looking.  She allows Lauren to take the envelope, which contains a thank you note from Joseph Mitchell, and a photograph of Mavis with a college-age kid in a Columbia sweatshirt which the reporter was returning.

So can we figure out who this kid is?  It's probably family.  We can call Columbia University, but we can't get the operator to do anything beyond directing our call.  But Joey can claim to be Mavis' son -- gaining some new information as she says, "Sam?" -- and now we can ask her some questions.  She says nobody comes to see her, except the grocer on occasion, and somebody she doesn't want to talk about.  We can rather insensitively (in Joey's hands) learn that Sam had no brothers and/or sisters, and that his late father's name was John Durkin.  She emphatically denies seeing any strange old women around if we ask her about the Countess, but she seems to be dissembling. 

There's no phone listing for Sam Wilcox, or Sam Durkin.  Mitchell says Mavis seemed proud of Sam, but he got the impression he didn't visit often.  And she was divorced from John Durkin several years before he died.  Harriet's no use on these topics.  So how do we convince Mavis that she's dead?  She seems fixated on her address, and the "D" on her apartment door -- this seems odd but turns out to be one of those interactive fiction necessities, a hint that has to be repeated in case we didn't pick up on it earlier.

We can combine "Sam" and "John Durkin" in Lauren's notebook to draw the conclusion that Sam's last name is probably Durkin (this being 1973 and all.)  Now Lauren can call Columbia University and talk to the young man (who, Dave Gilbert's commentary informs us, is also a character in Wadjet Eye's first release, The Shivah.)  We have to give him Mavis' apartment number, 3D, to convince him we knew his mother (we piece this together from our conversations earlier -- third floor, "D" on the door.) 

Sam believes his mother essentially committed suicide by refusing to leave, but doesn't have any theories about her murder.  We learn that he once gave her a Mother's Day gift, but can't find out what it was.

The notebook metaphor occasionally breaks down -- it works well for establishing connections between topics so we can learn more about specific details in conversation, but obvious connections that should make sense often result in a default, "Hm, no, I don't see any connection" statement from Lauren.  This is kind of jarring when we know, for example, that Sam Durkin was the son of John Durkin and are just trying to make sure Lauren knows it too.

We can now talk to Mavis about the gift, but, reduced to guessing, we don't make much headway. It's not flowers, or any of the other available items in the conversation tree.  Fortunately, Joseph Mitchell recalls her showing it to him -- a leather bound edition of Alice in Wonderland.  Asking to see it induces Mavis to tell him it's right on the table... and then realize that she can't find it, or pick it up.  This creates an opening for Joey to force her to recognize that everything is gone, the apartment and everything in it, by suggesting she look for the book out in the hallway, and then leading her outside the construction zone.  She is upset and angry that the apartment has been torn down, but at least she realizes she is dead. 

Taking her off into nodespace (a term for the Void that's not, as far as I recall, actually used in the games, but is used in Gilbert's commentary here) lets Lauren send Mavis off into the light.  But before she goes, she also mentions an old woman who said she was going to help her, but killed her instead.

So how does this end?  Ah, now that both cases are solved, Lauren and Joey are about to call it a night at the construction site when the Countess shows up.  In the Isaac Brown scenario it was hard to tell if she was alive or dead, because the lighting and background made her look semi-transparent, but now we can see she's flesh and blood.  She's also a deluded medium -- she thinks she's helping spirits enter the next world by strangling people who don't, apparently, meet her standards of happiness.  Again, we don't get to track the Countess down -- Lauren runs into a lamppost offscreen, and we're back at her apartment again.

Lauren takes another smoke break, and as Joey we can engage her in speculation about the Countess.  She's clearly a medium, as she can see Joey, but she has no spirit guide -- was her guide "killed" somehow, if that's even possible?  Is this Lauren's future, losing her sanity as life goes on?  The Countess clearly has some connection to the spirit world... the list of names we can discuss from both cases has only one obviously in common, and that's Joseph Mitchell.  Joey takes a bit of a jump to the conclusion that Mitchell's writing is somehow telling the Countess who needs to be "helped." 

Confronting Mitchell reveals that he hasn't actually written anything today -- earlier we noticed that his typewriter seemed dusty from disuse.  Noting that two people he was writing about are now dead provokes him to say it's just coincidence, but calling his bluff softens his reaction and he admits he stopped writing after the deaths.  (In real life, Joseph Mitchell did suddenly cease being productive, though he still went to his office at the New Yorker every day for years.  There's no evidence that this fictional situation was the reason, however.)  Mitchell doesn't immediately accept Lauren's story about the Countess, or her reassurance that he's done nothing wrong; he sees his enforced, window-sitting existence as a penance, and mentions an earlier death we didn't know about.  Three deaths, all people he was writing about, so he ceased writing.  Lauren tries to get him to write about her, but he can't do it; she explains that she wants to force a confrontation with the Countess, and he finally acquiesces.

Now we wait for the Countess to arrive at Lauren's apartment, full of righteous zeal.  And we learn that Joey actually cares about Lauren -- he is concerned for her safety, and doesn't want her to die.  But before anything can get too weird or maudlin, the Countess shows up -- we can engage her in conversation to confirm our theory about her connection to the unknowing Mitchell.  She also says that her spirit guide "went away" somehow, and snapped her mind.  She also mentions that Lauren is loved, which doesn't make sense to her.

Lauren can offer to help the Countess, but she says she doesn't need any help.  And then she begins strangling Lauren. 

Joey encourages her to fight -- we have control, but most of the items in Lauren's inventory don't really count as weapons... until we, er, light upon her lit cigarette.  We can blind the Countess with a quick jab to the face, but then Lauren collapses from the attack.  Joey challenges the Countess to help him, an actual spirit, and he can keep talking to her, slowly backing out onto and past the balcony as she follows. 

Then Lauren recovers, and can push the Countess over the edge, to her death.  Oddly enough, the police don't get involved, but this is probably because the story is wrapping up, ending on an optimistic note as Lauren calls her brother Jack, who is due to be married soon.  Joey thinks this is a bad idea, but we won't know why until later in the series.

The credits sequence features a nice, New York piano bar kind of song with vocals.  The game presages The Walking Dead by several years by keeping a few statistics just for fun -- in my playthrough, Lauren smoked 50 cigarettes and Joey was hit 11 times by Isaac's saxophone:

I really like Wadjet Eye's approach -- they've brought back the nostalgic LucasArts style, while taking a more modern "indie" approach to storytelling.  There aren't a lot of puzzles to solve here, and the fantastic elements are really just a hook for stories about human beings.  The main attraction of Blackwell Unbound, and indeed the entire series of Blackwell games, lies in its well-realized sense of character and atmosphere.  I won't be covering the next game in the series, The Blackwell Convergence, for a while, as its 2009 release means my self-imposed five-year embargo on new commercial titles is in the way.  But I have played it and can recommend it; I look forward to covering it officially, probably sometime in 2014.

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