Nostalgia is big business these days, especially in the wonderful world of indie gaming. But nostalgia is by nature incredibly selective. We remember and cherish the good stuff, but conveniently gloss over the not so good or someone how convince ourselves that things were better than the really were. This couldn’t be truer than when it comes to recollecting our childhoods. We often overlook the boredom, the growing pains, the bullying, the fights and tribulations, and the fact that cassette tapes truly were shit. So what I really appreciated about Blackwood Crossing is that, while it clearly yearns for days gone by, it also focuses on the issues and hardships that many of us faced in our formative years.
Blackwood Crossing is a narrative-driven first-person adventure that centres on the relationship between two siblings, the 14-year-old Scarlett and her 10-year-old brother Finn. They’re orphans, brought up by their grandparents, growing apart as Scarlett enters adolescence and discovers boys, fashion and whatever else it is that teenage girls get up to. You awake to find yourself in the compartment of an old-fashioned slam-door train (ah, memories!), unsure of how you got here. An unseen Finn calls out to you, he wants to play Simon Says and hide and seek. You have little choice but to indulge his whims.
It’s quickly evident that something is not quite right. People’s belongings can be found everywhere, yet there are no passengers to be seen. And Finn’s emblem pervades the train – head rests, advertisements, playing cards and boxes. He becomes increasingly odd, enigmatic and demanding as the train begins to metamorphose around you, seemingly at Finn’s behest. Suddenly the train has a garden and a greenhouse, then a tree hut.
Finn’s reverie starts off bright and happy. You fondly reminiscence, play games and make things together. But it soon heads to a darker place, invaded by inky shape-shifting shadows and a creepy Donnie Darko rabbit boy wearing a sailor suit. You encounter family and key people from your lives – your deceased parents, your granddad and grandma, a boy Scarlett used to date, a school bully and their old primary teacher. They seem frozen in time, repeating the same contextless utterances – their static porcelain bodies distorting and their faces hidden behind peculiar masks made from playschool materials. Finn’s mood turns sour and resentful. What on earth is going on?
With Blackwood Crossing, PaperSeven have painted a vivid and lush fantasy world that looks gorgeous. I absolutely love the attention to detail (except for the European plug sockets on a British train!!!), right down to being able to see your own body and shadow as well as your reflection in mirrored surfaces. The environments are beautifully lit and incredibly atmospheric, jam packed with all manner of appropriate paraphernalia. The music and ambience help set the mood, intermittently shifting from chilled and wondrous to tense and unsettling.
It all serves to fully immerse you in what is essentially an interactive novel. The gameplay largely revolves around linear exploration and some light puzzles. But whereas these elements can be rather distracting and distancing in other games of a similar nature, Blackwood Crossing uses them as clever plot devices. They provide subtle exposition and insights into the characters, triggering vignettes and recollections that gradually fit together the pieces of the backstory.
You’re seldom just watching and listening, you’re also doing. You locate items while Finn and Scarlett talk, use your magic to bring things to life, link together snippets of conversation, repair objects of significance, play Finn’s games, and draw and paint. Disappointingly though, the dialogue options – such as bossy, sarcastic, gentle, etc – have no meaningful effect and rarely alter Finn’s response. Also some of the activities boil down to QTE-like button mashing, which I didn’t really enjoy. However, it’s clear that PaperSeven have strived hard to make you feel like an active participant rather than just a passenger to the proceedings. And no doubt the superb pacing and structure would suffer as a result of too much involvement.
The story itself is a thoroughly engrossing and emotional ride. A thoughtful coming-of-age story themed around sibling companionship and coming to terms with loss. Initially, Finn comes across as brattish, spoilt and obnoxious and in need of a damn good thrashing. Yet he’s also creative, clever, adventurous and witty. It becomes clear that the more responsible and level-headed Scarlett has been something of a surrogate mother to him as well as a best friend. Unable to understand the changes happening in Scarlett, he finds himself alone and isolated, jealous of her new friends and still struggling with grief.
But there’s more to Blackwood Crossing than first meets the eye. Steeped in metaphor and mystery, all is not what it seems. As I mentioned earlier, it deals with difficult and sombre issues, and the characters are battling with their personal demons. There are shades of Silent Hill, Jacob’s Ladder and, of course, Donnie Darko, and it can get quite heavy. Yet despite this, it somehow manages to keep the mood relatively cheerful. It’s full of visual humour and silly Easter eggs, such as the jokey Beano-esque flavour text you find on newspapers, etc and the movie poster pastiches that always feature either Finn or Scarlett – like The Silence of the Lambs, Scream and Home Alone.
In fact, there’s a whole 80s/90s retro vibe going on with all the Game Boys, tamagotchis, Walkmans, Polaroid cameras and Rubik’s Cubes you find lying around. And obviously it’s nostalgic for the joy and innocence of childhood – the games, the adventures, the worlds you and your friends imagine and immerse yourself in. All of which fits neatly within a reality created by a boy desperate to return to how things used to be.