Blackwood Crossing, a new and unusual story-driven adventure game from PaperSeven, follows the tale of orphans Scarlett and Finn. Before the game begins, a short illustrated movie sequence rolls to the sound of a whimsical guitar soundtrack. The illustration details each poignant event in the game to come in black-and-white paper cut-outs. As the scene ends, it pans back to reveal the game’s logo. Blackwood Crossing is at its best in moments like this, when symbolism and metaphor blend to beautiful effect. It is a shame that the rest of the game isn’t as seamless as its opening.
Blackwood Crossing’s story starts with the player waking as the teenage redhead Scarlett. She is travelling on a train with no clear destination, and from somewhere muffled her brother calls for help. Scarlett has a big responsibility in managing Finn’s boisterous activities. It transpires that he was only calling for help from the train bathroom to scare her, and from here he runs off through the shaking train. A game of Simon Says with Finn teaches us the fiddly mechanics that enable Scarlett to interact with objects around her. This is a playful take on gaming’s necessary tutorial level, but the tone does not stay light for long.
Events shift when Scarlett turns down a corridor to find a very different boy. The boy in the carriage is not Finn, but a child in a sailor suit with a bunny for a head. His body is hazy and glitches like a bad projection. It is a moment that is genuinely chilling in its Donnie Darko surrealism, but before we can investigate further, Finn urges us to wake up.
This is an excellent introductory section to a game that mixes a predictable narrative of family loss with more experimental symbolism. Through Scarlett’s pursuit of Finn across picturesque environments the player begins to uncover what happened to these two children and their fraught relationship. Moving smoothly between the interlinked environments, the line between imagination, dream and real life is often blurred, and fit to break. Some environments, like the Grandfather’s potting shed, are haunted by nostalgic memories, while Finn’s treehouse seems ripe with lost creative potential. The vibrant graphics become darker and more frightening as the story progresses, helped by the excellent soundtrack which shapes the mood of each scene with ease.
For all these reasons, Blackwood Crossing makes a great first impression. Unfortunately, as gameplay goes on, these themes do not always blend to make it enjoyable to play. The majority of the game finds Scarlett traveling from point to point, in search of collectables that unlock more of the siblings’ backstory, and light puzzles which once completed allow you to progress further through the train carriages. She walks extremely slowly, and often it is more difficult to travel through environments than it should be. The game is already short, but it would be even shorter if getting her to certain points wasn’t so laborious.
This also impacts her ability to interact with objects. One of the most interesting recurring tasks sees the player matching up the voice lines of static and mournful family members to progress the story. These lines reveal the perspective of each family member and once the lines are matched correctly, the figures disintegrate. Once disintegrated, they reappear in their matching pairs with a pieces of conversation unlocked. These small snippets hint at what happened between the siblings, and heighten the sense of impending doom that pervades the whole game.
The emotional moments are, however, too often disrupted by how difficult it is to find the right spot to click on to interact with the figures. Getting Scarlett to interact with a figure too often felt like a game of pin the tail on the donkey, a blind stab until you’ve found the right spot.
Alongside these technical irritations, the dialogue does not progress the narrative at a balanced pace. With seven people in this cast of concerned family members and close friends, you would expect that each could provide interesting and important information. Instead, the truth of the story is left incredibly vague until right at the end, where the reveal seems abrupt and suddenly too dark a shift in the context of the rest of the game. Too much of the dialogue falls within the angst-riddled cliché realm of ‘I hate you’ and ‘you abandoned me’, sentences that have as much emotional clout as an Eastenders episode and should be avoided. When the game gets the dialogue right, it is impressive how quickly it can reduce you to blubbering sobs, but these moments are not consistent.
Nevertheless, Blackwood Crossing is a mature take on the process of grief and is certainly worth playing despite its flaws. It does not strive for a happy ending where there can’t be one, but instead presents an acceptance of what loss does to an individual and to a family, permanently. The grieving emotions of abandonment, guilt and confusion are wrapped artfully in a surreal world of rabbits and haunted potting sheds. It’s a game that can be completed in an evening, but only if you want to spend it struggling slowly through uncanny landscapes, and crying.