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Page 1:
The Blackwell Legacy
Blackwell Unbound
The Blackwell Convergence

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The Blackwell Deception
The Blackwell Epiphany

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by Bryan Cebulski - October 26, 2014

Wadjet Eye Games is one of the most reliable names in indie games, founded by Dave and Janet Gilbert in 2006 as a means to publish their creative efforts. They released their first game The Shivah, a rabbinical murder mystery, in 2006. Since then, Wadjet Eye has developed seven games in-house and produced five separate titles including Resonance, Gemini Rue, and Primordia. Wadjet Eye is, essentially, a professional company with independent sensibilities. Each game reveals the love and effort of the individuals who create them, and for that above all else they deserve to be lauded.

The bulk of Gilbert's personal output since founding the company took shape within a single series, the Blackwell pentalogy. Blackwell started way back in 2006, and he finally completed it in early 2014. As Wadjet Eye's magnum opus to date, the Blackwell games represent a fascinating record of how a game maker's design philosophy develops over time and tell an excellent story of love and loss, life and death, finding one's identity, and urban isolation. With such themes and a New York City background to boot, Gilbert half-jokingly refers to himself as the "Woody Allen of adventure gaming."

The series roots go back even further, though, in form of Gilbert's first efforts as a game developer: Two of a Kind and Bestowers of Eternity. Two of a Kind was a charming little game about twins with magic powers who become private investigators. Bestowers was about a woman living in New York City who could see ghosts. The mystery-solvers-who-aren't-cops and switchable protagonist aspects of the former and the plot and setting of the latter would later be incorporated into the Blackwell series. The graphics and presentation of these games are rudimentary at best, but the AGS community received the games exceedingly well. Even though Gilbert has mentioned on several occasions that he'd rather everyone forget about these relics, they do show much of his potential. These games, especially Bestowers, created roughly around 2004, became something of a prototype for the Blackwell games.

At the center of Blackwell are its protagonists: Rosangela "Rosa" Blackwell and Joey Mallone. Rosangela is the current medium in the Blackwell lineage, a trait passed down through the women of the family. The medium's job is to help lost spirits, who haunt their old houses and hangouts, unaware or unaccepting of their demise. They make them come to terms and pass on to the next world. Along for the ride is her spirit guide – in the Blackwell bloodline, it's Joey - a ghost who remains temporally bonded to the medium in order to help her assuage the ghosts.

Characters

Rosangela Blackwell

In Legacy, Rosa is introduced as a recluse and introvert. Her parents died tragically soon after her birth, so she was raised by her aunt Lauren for the first few years of her life. Lauren sadly fell into a coma from which she never woke up, leaving Rosa all alone in the world. Rosa is, then, a generally reserved individual who writes book reviews for the Village Eye, a low-circulation newspaper, and lives comfortably in a studio apartment off her meager salary. All this changes when her medium powers emerge, and she goes from the quiet neighbor across the hall to Kolchak the Night Stalker. Smart, snarky, and sympathetic, Rosa is a fine addition to the point-and-click adventure genre's stock of well-rounded female protagonists. Voiced by Sande Chen in the original version of Legacy, then by Rebecca Whittaker for the re-release and the rest of the series.

Joey Mallone

A ghost who died in the 1920s. The powers that be brought him back from the next world in order to guide Rosangela's grandmother. His past is kept under wraps for much of the series. A sardonic, suit-wearing spook, he is a comic anachronism (modern technology, art, and slang are beyond him) as well as an interesting contrast to Rosa. Rough around the edges but clearly well-meaning. He meets Rosa's sarcasm blow-to-blow and is in consistent dismay at the fact that he can't move solid objects. His tie somehow links this world with a portal to the one beyond. What could have been an amusing idea for a one-dimensional side character here develops into a fascinating protagonist. Voiced by Abe Goldfarb.

Quick Info:

Developer:

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Designer:

  • Dave Gilbert

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Bestowers of Eternity (Windows)

The Blackwell Legacy (Windows)


The Blackwell Legacy - Windows, iOS, Mac OS (2006)

Artwork

The Blackwell Legacy begins with Rosa pouring the ashes of her aunt Lauren from a bridge. Lauren was in a coma for the majority of Rosa's life, but still the only family Rosa had. It leaves her in a somber, contemplative mood. She has little time to ruminate on her aunt's death, however, as her editor tasks her with coverage of the suicide of a local university student, which she begrudgingly accepts. As fate would have it, her brief stint as an investigatory journalist parallels her burgeoning mediumhood.

Gameplay is fairly simple, a point-and-click affair of looking up information online, interviewing disgruntled young adults, and using items to do things like drug a dog or sneak into the hospital room of a psychologically scarred college girl. As an introduction to the series, Legacy isn't concerned in creating overly complicated puzzle conundrums, but rather sets up the basic formula: Meet spook, find out about spook's life, make spook realize they're dead, and carry spook over to the other side. It's a fairly effective pattern, one that rarely feels overused or repetitive throughout the series, especially since it tends to transform in unexpected ways.

The stories of the ghosts amount to what Gilbert refers to as "the ultimate character study." Perhaps this is what makes the process of learning about them so much fun - each has their own distinct story to tell. While not necessarily adding to the series overall story arc, they are often tragic and beautiful, worth the time it takes to tell them.

The main story in Legacy deals with three university students and an enigmatic figure known as the Deacon. It may pale in comparison to later ghost stories, being only an introduction and all, but it is still a unique narrative. Especially interesting throughout the Blackwell games is the lack of moral absolutes - there is no "villain" per se, and for the most part the series lacks truly malevolent characters.

Ian Schlaepfer designed the character art. It's above average for indie games of that era, but animation is used frugally compared to successive games. The portraits are fine, but suffer from obvious restrictions in the color palette. The backgrounds, designed by Tom Scary and Chris Femo, are decent, but often grainy and incorporate questionable color choices.

Peter Gresser, who previously worked on The Shivah, composed the soundtrack for Legacy. It's a good soundtrack, but the music has a modern, electronic sound to it, which is at odds with the jazzy "film noir" feel that Thomas Regin, the composer for all other games in the series, would cultivate. Still, on its own it's pretty good.

The voice acting is great, even more so in comparison to other indie adventure games. Abe Goldfarb and Rebecca Whittaker never feel like they recorded their lines separately, often demonstrating an surprising amount of chemistry. Secondary characters are pretty serviceable as well, with the exception of Rosa's (delightful, wonderful, amazing) neighbor Nishanti. While the voice actress herself is good, her accent is thoroughly American, when the character is supposed to be from India. This nitpick is thankfully rectified in Convergence.

Unfortunately Legacy is prone to puzzles that boil down to talking to one character, then talking to another character, then going back and forth between them ad nauseam. This aspect makes the game feel repetitive. In addition, the ability to switch between Rosa and Joey is yet unused, which means Joey spends most of the game just floating there uselessly. One rather poorly placed "forced stealth" puzzle, one of the cardinal sins of adventure games, is featured here as well.

Legacy is also marred by large amounts of info dumps and exposition overload, in the form of long character speeches or excruciatingly in-depth notes and letters. Gilbert himself expressed regrets for this design choice. He worked in this game with a "true to life" philosophy, which meant long conversations with only some plot-relevant material. It is in many ways forgivable, since the dialogue is usually entertaining, but Gilbert's move to a "less is more" philosophy in later entries was still for the better.

The Blackwell Legacy (Windows)

The Blackwell Legacy (Windows)

The Blackwell Legacy (Windows)

The Blackwell Legacy (Windows)

The Blackwell Legacy (Windows)


Additional Screenshots


Blackwell Unbound - Windows, iOS, Mac OS (2007)

Artwork

The content of Blackwell Unbound was originally conceived as a series of flashbacks to occur sporadically throughout Convergence, but Gilbert's ambition proved too broad and took too much time, so Convergence was pushed back and the flashbacks turned into a standalone prequel to the rest of the series. It's the 1970s and players are put in the shoes of Rosa's aunt, Lauren Blackwell. True to the Blackwell name, Lauren is a deadpan sarcastic redhead. Unlike Rosa, she has trodden the path of the medium for a while now, and is more bitter and guarded as a result, a more tragic character in some ways. Lauren is a more difficult protagonist than Rosa, easy to like but harder to understand. She isn't immediately identifiable like Rosa, more self-destructive and addictive. She keeps her thoughts and feelings to herself, to the point where even the player isn't completely sure why she's acting the way she is. She is a heavy smoker and will even pull out a cigarette and take a few puffs as an idle animation.

At the outset of the game, Lauren and Joey have spent all night tracking leads for more spooks, every one of them dead ends. They have two more suspicious items to cross off their list before they can rest, and of course both of these leads turn up real spooks. Lauren and Joey prepare themselves for a long, if usual, night of sending ghosts to the afterlife. That is until a crazy old bat calling herself the Countess starts showing up...

Starting in the midst of Lauren and Joey's partnership, opposed to the beginning of Rosa and Joey's as in Legacy, allows for their dialogue to brim with bickering. Like an old married couple, Lauren and Joey can act resentful of each other on the surface but show numerous signs of caring deeply for each other. Lauren is a wonderful protagonist and, compared to Rosa in Legacy, an even better foil to Joey. Dani Marco's low, sultry voice acting pairs perfectly with the character.

There are two ghost stories in Unbound: One concerns the tragic history of a jazz trio and the other concerns a kooky woman with an obsessive attachment to her apartment. Their stories are well told and tastefully bittersweet. Unbound's ghosts are some of the most memorable of the whole series. The tragedy of their stories is already set in place with their unrestful souls, and they unfold beautifully from there.

Gilbert also incorporates the stories of real life individuals, Joseph Mitchell and Joe Gould in particular, into the story. Joseph Mitchell was a reporter who often wrote short biographies of NYC eccentrics, most notably Joe Gould, a bohemian who claimed to be working on an Oral History of the World, though he mostly just drank and pretended to recite poetry in a seagull language. Mysteriously, after writing his expose on Gould, Joe Gould's Secret, Mitchell stopped writing altogether. He went to his office from 1964 till he died in 1996 but never published another significant piece of writing again. The fact weaves seamlessly with the fiction and becomes an integral part of the series' overall story arc.

Gameplay is mostly the same as in Legacy, with some alterations. The most apparent is that it is now possible to switch between the two characters, which would become a staple of the series. This is a welcome addition, since Joey tended to just float around uselessly in Legacy. And since the game is set in the 1970s, Lauren will make use of the phone book and newspapers instead of the internet. All puzzles that involve looking up information must now be typed in manually as opposed to the preset options of Legacy. The manual typing was used in The Shivah, and apparently fans complained about its absence in The Blackwell Legacy, so it was brought back to stay through the rest of the series.

Gilbert decided to go with a minimalist approach to make it faster to develop and give the fans something to chew on before Convergence. As a result, there are no character portraits. Instead the characters themselves speak and the graphics are close up enough that you can see their facial expressions. The background art is by Erin Robinson, creator of Puzzle Bots. Her work is all lovely, illustrating several lonely nighttime scenes with an Edward Hopper vibe, featuring interesting cinematographic angles and memorable locations, from promenade to jazz bar to abandoned construction site.

Thomas Regin composed the first of his Blackwell soundtracks for Unbound. Here, with his gorgeous saxophone and moody film noir jazz, he sets the series' atmosphere in the right direction: moodier, darker, and bluesier.

Blackwell Unbound (Windows)

Blackwell Unbound (Windows)

Blackwell Unbound (Windows)

Blackwell Unbound (Windows)

Blackwell Unbound (Windows)


Additional Screenshots


The Blackwell Convergence - Windows, iOS, Mac OS (2009)

Artwork

Since both titles were originally planned to be parts of one game, The Blackwell Convergence concludes the arc set up in Unbound. This game features a disgruntled artist, a suspicious loan office, a dead mediocre actor, the return of Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell, and the option to have Rosa get drunk out of her mind at an art gallery. It's a much more epic plot than the previous two games, which is to be expected since Legacy mainly sets up the background of the series and Unbound is really just a setup leading up to Convergence. As a result, Convergence features more terrifying antagonists, interesting spooks, endearing side characters, more fleshed-out characterization of both Rosa and Joey, and a faster pace than before.

The game cements Rosa as an impromptu detective, which was ostensibly what Gilbert wanted to do with this series: have a non-cop character out solving mysteries. She's developed into a more analytical, mature person, having become begrudgingly comfortable with Joey's constant presence and accepting of her position as a medium. The series really comes into its own and hits its stride because of this. Convergence also brings to light a pattern in the series' line of antagonists that is worth repeating: They are never just evil. There's always an eerily understandably reason for why they want to commit their immoral deeds, never descending to simplistic "because they like to" excuses. It's one of the most interesting strengths of the series, and adds tremendously to its exploration of human strivings.

Gameplay-wise everything is mostly the same, just more fluid and even. Character switching returns. Joey has a little bit more to bring to the table, like his ability to blow things around and his tie brought into the inventory. Combining clues has been discarded, making investigation more streamlined. Unfortunately a majority of the puzzles involve searching for keywords on the internet to get information, a vice in most of Gilbert's games. It's true to life, maybe, but it can get repetitive. And it's a bit of a drag to have to go back to Rosa's apartment after every single advancement in the plot to use her computer to look up the latest clue.

The Blackwell Convergence (Windows)

Convergence sets its mood with rain. Lots and lots of rain. Legacy had warm, sunny weather, Unbound was a bluesy nighttime, and Convergence exists within constant downpour. Each game's distinct weather pattern tends to reflect the game's overall tone, and here the rain works to show just how downright dismal being a medium can be sometimes. Nonetheless the backgrounds designed by Luminous Arts and Karen Petrasko are more colorful than before, like a well-polished LucasArts adventure. They add charm and vibrancy to the atmosphere, preventing the game's otherwise dark tone from getting too depressing. Particularly impressive is the Park Gallery, which features several works by a street artist. Instead of using premade artworks or hiding them from the player's view, the gallery hosts several distinct, beautifully pixellated paintings. Sprites are also a bit more animated than before, and the constant rain adds more life to scenes as well.

Thomas Regin returns as composer. He mixes the old with the new, combining the modern feel of Gresser's soundtrack to Legacy with the jazziness of Unbound. The result is, again, wonderful.

Convergence just has a lot of love obviously involved in its creation. Little details abound throughout the game, such as how Rosa and Joey make snarky comments regarding most of the objects they can click on and how Rosa's emails add subtle context to her personality. Convergence is arguably the best Blackwell game. Objectively, the final three of the series are on a similar if not equal level of excellence, but the plot in Convergence is the most compelling. It is also refreshingly free of "middle man" syndrome. Usually the middle entry in a series is prone to exist solely for bridging the gap between the former and latter halves. Blackwell games don't work that way. Each has a relatively autonomous plot that still makes room to build off the previous installment, adding more to the mythology of the series without detracting from the individual game's credibility.

The Blackwell Convergence (Windows)

The Blackwell Convergence (Windows)

The Blackwell Convergence (Windows)

The Blackwell Convergence (Windows)

The Blackwell Convergence (Windows)


Additional Screenshots


<<< Prior Page

Next Page >>>

Page 1:
The Blackwell Legacy
Blackwell Unbound
The Blackwell Convergence

Page 2:
The Blackwell Deception
The Blackwell Epiphany

Back to the Index