Friday, January 15, 2021

Into The Light

The Blackwell Chronicles is a five-game series, written by Dave Gilbert and published by Wadjet Eye Games, which is to say Dave, his wife, Janet and an artist by the name of Ben Chandler. I believe the first person to recommend the series to me was Jeromai, some considerable time ago, but it was only after I played the same team's standalone title, Unavowed, which shares some concepts and at least one character with the Blackwell series, that I got around to playing the others.

The individual games are quite short. I have to believe that because Steam tells me it's true. My combined playtime for the five comes to a shade over twenty-six hours. Memory tells me it must have been a lot longer. The overall experience is quite intense, intellectually and emotionally. Time slows down while you play.

The format is part point and click adventure, part mystery puzzler, part visual novel. These genres and categories are becoming about as useful as the thousand kinds of house music. Distictions to be debated by devotees only. All that matters is they're character-driven supernatural mysteries. Good ones.

The coherence of the series is its greatest strength. The games were produced over an eight-year period from 2006 to 2014. Their narrative consistency speaks to their origin as the product of a single mind, writer Dave Gilbert, although, like a long-running TV show, the power and impact lies in the gestalt.

It's something of an ensemble piece with many recurring characters but at its core Blackwell is a two-hander. Roseangela Blackwell is the initially unwilling medium, Joey Mallone her cynical spirit guide. Over the course of five games what begins as a cliche concludes as an elegy.

The series strengths are manifold. The gameplay is solid throughout. The controls, which vary only in a few small details from chapter to chapter, are intuitive and functional. I did have one persistent issue with useable items sticking to the cursor but other than that everything felt well-polished.

Much of the busywork of adventure games is edited out to the great benefit of the narrative. Every interactable object and any notable background elements are described on a right-click, used on a left. There are enough non-significant items to keep things interesting but the game is smart about housekeeping. You only get what you need.


As you'd expect in a detective game, which these are, much relies on questioning suspects and wtnesses. Dialogs feel natural, within the necessary strictures of the process. There's a looseness that pleases. Not everything has to be about the case.

Across an eight-year run the games themselves remain remarkably constant while technology changes inside the game-world. Roseangela graduates from a desktop computer to a smartphone. Plot points revolve around the way data travels, from dictating machines and notepads in the flashbacks and prequels to usb sticks, email and downloads in the near past, the games' present. Decades of cultural shift, documented.

The puzzles are mostly reasonable and logical. Sometimes I ran into things I wouldn't have done but never things no-one would. I did occasionally revert to a walkthrough but almost always because I knew what to do but couldn't figure out how the game wanted me to do it. A handful of out-of-game hints was all I needed although I did make good use of the neat in-game mechanic whereby the two protagonists discuss what they think they should do next.

That works so well in large part because of the real excellence of the voice acting. It's some of the best I've encountered and one of the reasons is the tone, uniformly understated. I can't think of a single instance of overacting across the entire series. No-one puts on an accent they clearly can't manage. No-one hams it up or clowns about. No-one attempts to sound portentous or meaningful. 

The cast don't sound like video-game voice artists although I'm sure they are. Self-evidently they must be. What they sound like is experienced, professional actors in a radio drama. They also sound like they're being well-directed, the lack of which is so often the downfall of game voiceover. I don't believe I noticed more than a couple of false line readings in the entire series and even those could have been a matter of interpretation.


It's as well the voice acting is so good because there's a lot of it. A good deal of those twenty-six hours I spent sitting back, watching and listening. Some sequences run on for quite a while without the need for intervention from the player. And that's fine. Both the material and the execution are more than capable of sustaining that level of attention. I never felt twitchy for a scene to end.

If the actors are exemplary, so are the artists, given the limited tools at their disposal. Unlike voice acting, where video games run well behind the pack, video game artists lead the field. Even the makers of global hit movies look to videogame artists for inspiration. 

Blackwell doesn't have that kind of art. It has simple, flat illustrations that remind me of cels from a 1990s cartoon. Maybe a retro animation harking back to the 1960 or '70s. It's a hard style to pin down but it very much works. 

The colors are vibrant without being garish. The set design is clean without resorting to minimalism. The world has a used, lived-in feeling, slightly heightened but never to the self-conscious level of something like Backbone. No talking animals, either.

The animation is very limited but also effective. Coming off Disco Elysium, which has some of the best incidental character animation I've ever seen, the notional movements of the Blackwell characters feel eliptical, sketched, but they do their job. 


Much more important are the cameo portraits that appear when characters speak, the facial expressions that have the nuance needed to carry the emotional heft. And there's plenty to carry. Blackwell's themes are cosmic, sure, but also intimate. The series is studded with failure and loss, character after character breaking down, being broken down, then being borne up. 

And so we come to the greatest of the series' many strengths: the writing. It starts out assured and gains in confidence from there. There's a difficult balance to maintain between the supernatural, the personal, the puzzles and the plot. Gilbert handles it deftly. The mysteries are involving, the meta-mystery is nuanced and elusive, the characters are consistent, well-rounded, good company. There's nothing flash or show-offy about any of it. It's class.

As with any long-running series, over time the characters become friends. Even the ones you don't like. Roseangela is likeable throughout, with her unsubtle questions and chemical crutches. I wish she'd say yes to a drink once in a while. She obviously neds one. Her character arc is really something to see although when you've seen it, at the end, you might wish you hadn't.

Joey irritated the hell out of me for most of the run. He starts out a smart-mouthed cynic you want to slap and scarcely redeems himself with his increasingly frequent bouts of passive-aggressive self-criticism. By the end, though, I came to understand and even sympathize. He's had a difficult unlife. Cut him a little slack.

There are so many memorable characters, lives glimpsed in vignettes. Every game does a superb job of recalling what came before with photographs and memorabilia scattered around in places that make perfect sense. There's a texture to the tapestry. A consistency. I'm very glad I played though the series not just in order but also in quick succession, so those memories were fresh. 


That said, I started at the end with Unavowed which, despite not being part of the series, clearly is part of the series. And I'm happy I did. There's a moment in the final chapter, Blackwell Epiphany, when you meet a character who later appears in Unavowed. When it happened I literally sat back my chair and exclaimed her name out loud. With an expletive. It felt like meeting an old friend unexpectedly in the street. "It's you! It's really you!"

There's a strange, looping asynchronicity. The set-up is for the reveal in a then-unrealised future. I'm sure Blackwell veterans, meeting the same character in Unavowed, have the same sort of reaction in reverse. It makes my head spin to think of it.

As does the internal logic of how this particular character comes to be who they are in Unavowed, doing what it is they do there. Because given the way the final Blackwell game ends, that can't happen. 

Another mystery. One I hope to see solved or at least elucidated in the next game Dave Gilbert writes. At least, I hope he'll write some more. The FAQ on the Wadjet Eye website worryingly still seems to think there are only four Blackwell games ("Soon to be five") and Dave's personal blog hasn't seen a new entry since 2016, although he's very active on Twitter.

Even though I couldn't find anything to confirm it, I hope he's working on something. A sequel to Unavowed or another story set in the same world. I haven't seen enoough yet. I want to know where all this is going. 

And if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.


  1. Hmm... Time for me to pick up yet another series. Thanks for the recommendation, Bhagpuss!

    1. All five chapters were bundled together for cheap in the Steam sale, which is how I got them (at least I think it was...). That was a great deal. I think they're quite often on some kind of offer and well worth it if you like this sort of thing.

  2. Oh, he very much is still working on things, primarily Nighthawks. ... Can I link things here?

    We will find out if I can link things here.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I'm going to look at the rest of the games on Wadjet Eye too, although most of it I think they only publish. Some interesting stuff there. And yes, you can link things in the comments but if you want the link to be clickable you have to add your own HTML. I suspect Blogger can be made to do it for you but I don't know how to configure it that way. Although, to be fair, I haven't actually looked...

    2. And I really should have followed your link before I replied! Nighthawks looks very promising - and it has an expected release date of "Early 2021". I've wishlisted it. It's not written by Dave Gilbert but the art is by Ben Chandler. The writer is the guy who did Sunless Sea, though, so that's a guarantee of quality. And you know all this, obviously, so I'll just shut up now.

  3. That entire article is the very definition of a glowing recommendation. Glad you enjoyed the series. Dave Gilbert also wrote The Shivah, which predates even the Blackwell series. It’s a quieter, more mundane philosophic affair regarding Judaism and faith. I’d rate it around 8-9.

    The other Wadjet Eye games are good, but they’re not Dave Gilbert good, if you know what I mean. As in, the writing and themes have a different feel to it. If Blackwell rates a 10, Technobabylon, I think, can about match up, say, a 9, but it’s more sci-fi in flavor. Gemini Rue I would rank a little lower, simply because the puzzles got a little too frustrating for me, but it’s around an 8 perhaps. The other games are around 7-8s for me. Good, but not as episodically, epically resonant.

    1. Thanks for putting me onto it in the first place. It was interesting to have played Disco Elysium in the middle of the run, too. DE is more of a bravura performance with some highs that are probably higher than anything in the Blackwell series. The writing there certainly has much greater ambition but I'm not at all sure that ambition is fulfilled. It's hard to be sure, though, with such a fractal narrative.

      One thing I can say for sure, though, is that Blackwell has by far the better voice acting. There were times in Disco Elysium where I actually had to switch the voices off. The liminal system interludes were so ridiculously overdone I couldn't concentrate for all the am-dram mugging and gurning going on. On the other hand, the reverse was true for the musical scores. There were plenty of times in Blackwell when I had to change locations to look at my notes because I couldn't take any more of that infernal lounge jazz with the honking sax. By contrast, there were times in DE when I deliberately paused and did nothing just to let the soundtrack play.

      And this should really be a post of it's own, not a comment.


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