by Ingvi Snædal
previewed on PC
This year’s Gamescom presented us with many promising indie titles and one in particular caught my attention on an academic level. Blackwood Crossing is a first-person narrative adventure game where the player takes on the role of Scarlett, a teenage girl who, along with her brother Finn, were orphaned at a young age and brought up by their grandparents. Having done my BA project on indirect speech acts in adventure games and my MA thesis on cross-gender identification with female protagonists, this game touched something within me on an intellectual level. We went hands-on with the title and, despite some technical issues and placeholder animations, we are confident that its focus on narrative will be a welcome addition to a growing genre of much appreciated narrative adventure games.
Focus on narrative
Growing up, you (Scarlett) and your brother Finn were inseparable. You played together, you laughed together, you cried together, and you shared everything. Finn is too young to remember your parents, but you are not. You dream about them, but every time you consciously try to recall specifics, they are just out of reach. One of your favourite activities to do with your brother was crafting; making things out of paper, cardboard, paperclips and tape, and decorating them with colourful markers and glitter. Late at night, you would perform shadow theatre together with figures you had cut out of paper. But that was then, and this is now.
The part of the game we saw takes place in Chapter 1, about 15 minutes into the game. Scarlett and Finn are on a train ride, which suddenly turns weird when Scarlett wakes up alone in their cabin. She steps out to look for Finn, but instead of a train full of people, there are frozen figures with cardboard faces sitting in awkward poses. Scarlett immediately recognises the first two as their grandparents. Finn shows up for a while, but suddenly disappears when Scarlett takes her eyes off him for only a split-second. As you make your way down the train, the puzzles get progressively more complicated, but as Alice Guy, ‎Co-founder and Managing Director at PaperSeven stated, the puzzles are not intended to draw you attention away from the narrative. Everything you will need is found in the scene in which you find yourself, so you won’t end up keeping a lump of coal in your inventory for the entire game only to find that it had no particular purpose to begin with.
Focus on story
The story is the focus here. Whether the events are all a dream or a part of some strange magical event remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Finn’s opinions and feelings colour the world, making people and objects he doesn’t like ugly and things he is fond of colourful and magical. Scarlett’s boyfriend Cam, for instance, is represented with a brown paper bag on his head, and Finn’s class bully has a grotesque pig’s mask, but whether this is because he is directly influencing their appearance or whether it’s a projection of his feelings for them, manifesting themselves within Scarlett’s own subconscious – as she is undoubtedly aware of her brother’s feelings in their regard – is unclear.
As Scarlett makes the arduous journey from childhood to womanhood, her relationship with her little brother deteriorates. This is not helped by the fact that Finn is getting increasingly curious about their parents in general, and their death in particular, and he keeps asking Scarlett for bits and pieces of information about them; a subject which pains her to talk about. As all children do, they both shy away from having conversations they don’t want to have.
Although the game’s art style is cartoony and child-like, the subject matters dealt with include love, life, death, loss, separation, and others that children and teenagers might lack the emotional maturity to appreciate. The game is targeted at an (young) adult audience who can surely relate to the emotional train ride the siblings are on.
The part of Blackwood Crossing that we saw makes me doubt whether PaperSeven will be ready for launch on time in early 2017, but the game seems to be a truly captivating story dealing with serious subjects not often seen in videogames. I sincerely hope they take the time to polish the game’s tech before launch: this title deserves it. I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.