In my youth I was a sucker for adventure games. I suffered through any number of ignoble deaths in all the old Sierra “Quest” games, I punned my way through Monkey Island, and I punched my way through the Nazis of “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”. Give me a pixelated guy with an improbable mission and a world full of surprisingly patient people who don’t mind answering the same question forty-seven times and I was a happy kid. I love walking around, figuring things out, picking up everything that isn’t nailed down and using those things in improbable ways to solve unlikely problems.
Recently I discovered a kindred spirit, someone who clearly loved the adventure genre even more than I did, because he’s started his own company and made a number of awesome new adventure games. The man is Dave Gilbert, the company is Wadjet Eye Games, and the awesome games are the “Blackwell” games: Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence, and Blackwell Deception.
The premise of the series is this: Lauren Blackwell has been in a coma for twenty-five years, and has finally died. After her death her only living relative, her niece Roseangela (Rosa to her friends), becomes the heir of the titular Blackwell Legacy: the ability to see and interact with ghosts, and a spirit guide. The guide is a dapper ghost named Joey Mallone, and he’s been the family heirloom since his own death in the 1930′s. He explains to Rosa that she’s a medium, and as such it’s her job to help the souls of those who have somehow gotten stuck in this world cross over into the next. (Technically that makes her a psychopomp , but the only reason anybody ever uses that word is to show off their vocabulary.) She grudgingly accepts this role and sets out to put the dead to rest.
What follows could have easily turned into a buddy flick, with Rosa and Joey learning to love and trust one another in the face of trials and ultimately defeating evil with the power of friendship or something like that. What happens instead is infinitely better. I mean, yes, Rosa does get used to Joey, and over the series learns to accept his presence in her life. But she’s not a cop, she’s a mousey, socially awkward writer of book reviews for a local paper. Joey, despite sprinkling his speech with clichés like “dollface” and “sweeheart”, is more than just a bundle of gangster stereotypes. His personality is more action-oriented than Rosa’s, but being a ghost, he’s unable to take action directly in most situations, and has to convince the more reserved Rosa to take action. The interplay between them is a lot of fun.
Then there are the ghosts. Unlike most games, these ghosts aren’t strange monstrosities, they’re just… people. For the most part, the reason that they are ghosts is the fact that they’re not convinced they’ve died. Rosa’s job is to help them come to their senses, accept their fate, and move on to…whatever’s next. Some of them are okay with how things ended, some are less happy about it all, but all of them are believable as characters, with full sets of regrets and hopes, even after death.
And then there’s the other star character: New York City. Dave Gilbert is a New Yorker, and his love for NYC permeates the series. Scenes set in real places are painted accurately, with great attention to detail. Actual people from New York become important to the plot in a couple of the games (okay, they become ghosts), and Dave Gilbert did his homework, studied up on these people, and wrote lines for them with an eye to honoring their mannerisms and personalities, while still moving the game forward. It’s an impressive balancing act.
This attention to detail pervades the entire series of games, and makes the games awesome. For example: in the second game you play as Lauren (the aunt of Rosa’s who dies just before the first game, remember) and you can take a picture of a character named Cecil Sharpe. In the third game you visit a recording studio started by Cecil and his son. Rosa never met Cecil, so she has no reason to think anything much of that picture, but as a player it gave me chills.
The entire series is made in old-school adventure game-o-vision, which means we’re talking 256-color VGA-style graphics. This was definitely a choice that the developer made, and he made it work. It feels like you’re playing one of the best of the old games, but without the irritating interface. Gone is the huge panel that takes up half the screen with a grid for your inventory and nine buttons that say things like “move” or “pick up”. Your inventory pulls down from the top of the screen, and everything else is driven by clicking on stuff. Simple.
Also: Wadjet Eye Games has paid attention to the main lesson of the last thirty years of game design, and the series is refreshingly free of mazes and pixel-hunting puzzles that plagued me in my youth. The balance point between “a good game” and “a good story” is tricky, but these games live there. You get all the thrill of finding solutions to seemingly impossible problems along with the joyful experience of listening to a master storyteller.
The games are fairly short, probably around four to six hours the first time through, and another two hours if you go back through with the director’s commentary turned on (which I heartily recommend doing.) Right now you can pick up the entire series on Steam for $20, something I suggest you do right away. Also, you should congratulate me on avoiding a stupid ending line like “it’s a hauntingly good time!”…dang it. So close.