Game Pile: The Blackwell Legacy

Strangely, The Blackwell Legacy is a decent game experience that has some problems and some virtues, and in both cases, neither are nearly so interesting to talk about or discuss as the game itself. I almost feel like I could pass opinion on Legacy in a single sentence and call it a day. I won’t, partly because that’s boring, but also because Blackwell indicates an impressive amount of effort, omnidirectional effort. This effort has certainly shown a full blossom, with this richly developed, interesting point-and-click adventure, whose greatest vice is being less interesting to discuss than its origin and historical impact as a representeur of a genre.

Historical Lineage

The point-and-click genre is a strange beast, developmentally. First and foremost, it rose to primacy during the early days of CD technology on the least of three platforms – the PC being a far less efficacious way to play videogames than the NES and the master system, especially since the people developing for it were far less in terms of big finance. Hell, you can trace the genre along two vast genetic lineages, typified by very different gameplay elements.

In the Sierra lineage of point-and-clickers, which started variably with group of games around Space Quest IV, were designed to be frustration-oriented games where saving and reloading was part of the skill. You were encouraged to try a variety of solutions to any problem to read the funny text, and sometimes that would get you killed, which meant kicking you all the way back to the start. I don’t think any developer ever thought this was a maximally oprant way to design games, they just had the formula they liked, and used it. You tried, you failed, you died, and most puzzles weren’t actually all that challenging. There was a lot of pixel-hunting or the-right-object puzzle solving in these games, with lots of points where you couldn’t backtrack. As an example, in Space Quest I, amidst hooting klaxons, you can randomly be killed any time a Sarien just strolls on the screen. You have to retrieve three items in this area, but, and this is important, none of those items are necessary for your escape, and once you escape, that’s it – the other items are lost. This means you can flee, while the game tells you to flee, and in so doing, render the game unwinnable when you encounter a puzzle that doesn’t come up for another hour or three of play. Needless to say, these games were prone to some public irritation.

The other genetic lineage of games, generally more loved, is the SCUMM family, starting with Maniac Mansion, which was fairly well appreciated and then moving on to The Curse Of Monkey Island. These games had a major luxury over the Sierra games, in that they came out of nowhere with an already-good engine that was built around point-and-click mechanics. Barring for some noteworthy contortions in these early games, it wasn’t possible to make the game unwinnable. The strange thing is, this didn’t make the games less challenging or less frustrating.

See, the thing is, the puzzles in the Sierra games, at first (and yes, the mustache puzzle in Gabriel Knight was fucking loony) were pretty straightforwards, and rarely nearly as lunatic as you’d think. Honestly, in a lot of cases, the puzzles had fairly straightforward solutions! Hey, the genie freaks out with mint in his system? I’m going to add mint to his food! Trial-and-error gameplay – which was common! – was more weirdly common in the Lucasarts genre of games, because you could try anything without any fear of it ruining anything, which meant puzzles got more obtuse, which led to what I think of as the Cheesegrater conundrum. You run around with the items in your pockets, finding anything in the environment that seems related, and then clicking every single item in your inventory on them – and yes, ‘clicking.’ There’s no real specific meaning to what you’re doing. You click on the item, you move it to the other item, then you click again, and this is ‘clicking’ them together. Then if you do this enough, your character will consider the clever solution in mind, use them together, and you – tada! – succeed, somehow.

In the end, these two different styles tended to collapse, with the absolute best examples of the genre, both in the general storytelling, style and pace of play being Full Throttle, which Lucasarts seems to insist on keeping under lock and key, and Beneath A Steel Sky, a game that took a lot of lessons from both games. I link to it here primarily because the game was properly great, and worth your time to play, and it’s fucking free, which makes it a far better investment than Blackwell.

One thing you saw in the Sierra games that you didn’t see much in the Lucasarts games was the idea of ‘winning better.’ You could get a good ending in Kings Quest 6, you could get a crap ending, but you could also get a great ending and a perfect ending, while none of the Lucasarts games do anything similar or nearly so hard. That is, most of the Lucasarts games were light on puzzles that relate to timing, or optional progress. In any Lucasart game, if you can tool with a thing, you’re probably meant to tool with it, and eventually, eventually, everything you can tool with gets tooled with. The Sierra games were more likely to have puzzles which were about timing things, puzzles where you had to do the right things in a removed set of places in order.

The FPS genre then ate the PC gaming market, and with it came the collapse of these two companies’ adventure game division, with Sierra’s mismanagement and general arse-faced approach to making money and pissing off developers finally coming home to roost, which was bad, but not as bad as what happened with Lucasarts, because at least that was karmic justice. Lucasarts just scaled down its point-and-click adventure department, starting by telling Tim Schafer that his ideas for Full Throttle weren’t appropriately family-friendly, remembering it’s a game where you’re trying to avenge the savage beating murder of a seventy-year old beloved old man after he’s just had a piss by chainsawing people in the face and eventually being tortured by an obese chainsmoking woman in a way reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum. The games didn’t sell as well as their companion titles (and those titles included Jedi Knight and Rebel Assault), and therefore, eventually, they were phased out and shut down. Interestingly, at no point did anyone compare those games to Yoda Stories, which hardly blew the doors off all videogames ever.

The point is, neither of these guys had the formula entirely down, with some elements from each leading to positive design elements, and some of these games being properly fantastic despite their failings. Hell, the Quest For Glory games were absolute gems, and Sam and Max Hit The Road is a wonderful excursion into Americana-laced ridiculous cheese. Almost every point-and-click adventure game can be traced back to these earlier games’ genetic lineage – with games like The Walking Dead owing more to Sierra, and games like Ben There, Did That owing their history to the Lucasarts games, while Blackwell

Oh, shit, I was talking about Blackwell, wasn’t I?

Blackwell, Hm?

Oh yes, that thing.

The Blackwell Legacy is a point-and-click puzzle-solving adventure, though that’s really doing it too much credit. It might be fairer to call it a point-and-cli. Modelled after older similar games, it’s taken some lessons from Lucasarts, in that you can’t randomly die or fuck everything up, but it’s also borrowed from Sierra where there is a broad path through the story and your actions and methods of solving problems can alter the way those story events change. There’s a good way, and a better way, basically.

Something that Blackwell does that’s new is that the majority of the puzzles cannot be solved with the Cheesgrater solution. They’re not item-oriented puzzles, they’re puzzles where your character has to deduce a solution by using data the game presents you. It’s basically an enormous dialogue puzzle, where one of the people you talk to is your own damn head. I won’t give away specifics, but there’s a puzzle in the first game that was positively fiendish to solve as an approach, but amazingly clever in hindsight. You can still cheesegrater your way through problems, but, all the items are in your notebook, and you have to use them all manually. Using items is done with text prompts, at the appropriate time – which means you’re not a kleptomaniac carrying around a prepper’s bunker worth of random gear in preparation of the eventual time you need to use the thrown pie to defeat the Yeti. Instead, you’re a clever and creative individual.

I liked this method a lot – first, it made our heroine look cleverer, and while it meant that a second playthrough of the game would be – inevitably – quicker than the first, that played into the other aspect of the game’s multiple-route solutions. There is one problem where you can just let Joey punch something into submission – there’s a tiny reward for doing it differently, don’t get me wrong, but you can. By making the solutions to the puzzles almost entirely in your pocket from the moment you encounter them, the game stops running around and makes playing a second time smoother and more graceful.

You have a masculine character who solves problems by punching them, and you have an intellectual, emotionally withdrawn, shy nerd of a girl who makes her way through puzzles that are composed in equal parts of real barriers, barriers of other people’s social rules, and interestingly, Rosangelina (yeah really)’s own crippling social anxiety. I’m not crazy about that dynamic, but I don’t think it’s any kind of actual problem. You also have a pleasant array of cultural backgrounds and attention to detail of background artwork, as well. The themes of the story, while focusing on death, madness, duty and loss, are still full of hope and a strangely even moral perspective on the sins of the living, and a noncommital perspective on the afterlife, too. It’s full of interesting items with full descriptions, items that almost to a fault you don’t have to pick up, and can instead just look at, or fiddle with, which is one of the more time-consuming parts of developing a point-and-click adventure. It also means that the areas where you’re meant to fiddle with things, only important things are there to be fiddled with.

An astute reader might notice I’ve hinted at a problem the game has, but not actually mentioned, and are waiting for that shoe to drop. So here we go: Blackwell Legacy is short. Not ‘short’ in terms of an indie game, it’s just really short. You have three, maybe four basic puzzles to get through, and after you’ve done that – most of which you will work out the first time you latch onto the way the game solves problem – the game just ends. I kid you not, I honestly thought the thing I did to finish the game was the way I finished, say, the first chapter of four in the one game.

What the hell, thought I. When I added Blackwell to my roster of games to play, it was ten dollars, and there were four of them. Now it’s down to twenty dollars for all four, and on GoG, it’s fifteen dollars, which is far more reasonable. Ignoring the short problem, the game is cheap, well-written, and a sign of a vast amount of effort – thumbs up, right?

One final thing, to temper that idea: I played this game with all the voices off. Outside of high-level triple-A titles (looking at you, Full Throttle), Voice Acting has almost never ever added to a game experience, to me. It could be that the Voice Acting in this game is terrible, but I wouldn’t know at all – because the second it started, I just shut the damn thing right the hell up.

Verdict

Buy it if:

  • You like point-and-click adventures for the game mechanisms, rather than for any particular setting.
  • You like a mystery story oriented around the idea of solving emotional problems as well as the more simple whodunnit style.
  • You enjoyed older point-and-clicks but didn’t like the klepto hero style of problem solving.
  • You can find 1920s Private Dick dialogue enjoyable, rather than inexcreble.

Avoid it if:

  • Suicide is a sensitive topic for you.
  • Experiencing social anxiety by proxy can make you more anxious.
  • You need a strongly paced, rigidly defined game.
  • You need a game that takes many hours to complete with a lot of replay value.

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