Medium Well Done: The Blackwell Deception

By Richard Cobbett on October 13th, 2011 at 10:03 am.

Just make sure to wear gloves. You don't know where she's been...
Here are three things you should know about Dave Gilbert, creator of the Blackwell games. He’s not in fact related to Ron Gilbert, writer of Monkey Island. He has indeed been informed how much more awesome this game would have been if it was The Blackwell Decepticon instead. Oh, and he’s one of the best writers working in adventure gaming right now.

Thinking about it, that last one is probably the most important. Need proof? The Blackwell Deception is hands-down his best adventure yet, and one of my favourites in a very long time. Even without a special guest appearance by Megatron and Starscream…

Joey's tie acts as an anchor to the living world. That's why Style matters

Deception is the fourth in the Blackwell series, and while I’d recommend playing the others first if you’ve been meaning to – not least because they got markedly better as the series continued and the first one especially will be a bit of a shock after finishing this one – it’s self-contained enough that doing so isn’t actually essential. What you need to know, you’re told during a quick playable prologue section. The rest, you can pick up easily enough on the fly.

The gist though is that a few months ago, socially awkward writer Rosa Blackwell found herself lumbered with her family’s two unwanted legacies – the responsibility of helping the dead move onto the next world, and the ghost of Joey Mallone, a jazz-age enigma who’s now tethered to her whether she likes it or not. With his help, she pounds the streets of New York by night in search of newly deceased ghosts who’ve yet to even realise they’re dead, solving whatever problems are trapping them there, and finally bringing them peace. If she shirks that responsibility… nothing good will come of it. Ask her Aunt Lauren, who ended up spending twenty-five years in a hospital bed, endlessly dreaming of burning to death, with Joey trapped beside her.

Even with that lingering threat, part of what makes the Blackwell games so endearing is that they’re very positive experiences. You’re helping people in pain, not all of them dead, and at this point in the series, even Rosa is slowly accepting that she’s better off than before – slowly coming out of her shell on a personal level, and with a genuine friend in Joey. She’s even embraced her destiny and gone into business as a full-on spiritual consultant, even if so far she’s had more success printing funky business cards than actually helping the living.

How to put this tactfully... you know what else has been dying lately? You! Now grab the damn tie so I can get back to watching Castle.

Deception feels like the mid-point of the story, raising the stakes beyond the Blackwell family and pitting Joey and Rosa against a new enemy, the New York psychic mafia. As with the real world, the description ‘psychic’ is unfortunate when we have so many other, better words to describe such people, like crook, charlatan, liar, con-artist, scammer, fake, fraud, imposter, quack, cheat, phony, mountebank and contemptuous asshole. (And no, Deception isn’t subtle about where it stands on the ol’ skeptic/believer scale, with Joey in particular far from impressed by what he sees – not least that the first psychic they cross swords with can’t see him.)

Unfortunately, as one murder leads to another, the two soon realise that someone behind the scenes must be rather more clued into the true secrets of the supernatural, and that a young woman who actually does have a gift isn’t the kind of prize that they’re going to let slip through their fingers – especially when Rosa starts meddling in their affairs.

It happens to us all. Death, I mean. Now get into the light already.

Taken purely on its adventuring merits, The Blackwell Deception is a highly enjoyable game, though a very traditional one in design. Inventory items, dialogue trees, pointing, clicking… everything you’d expect is here, and in the same form. A few puzzles have you compare notes in Rosa’s notebook, and she finally has a mobile phone to save on annoying trips back to her apartment, but they’re the minority compared to making good use of a pocket full of random crap. That’s a shame, as that style can lead to much more of a feeling that you’re actually investigating things rather than simply solving puzzles, though it does cut down on the number of times you get stuck because Rosa hasn’t figured out the blindingly obvious.

The main Blackwell specific twist is being able to swap between Joey and Rosa at will, with Joey having the ability to float through solid objects, spy on the unwary, and blow cold air on things, and Rosa doing everything you’d expect, except be able to hold her liquor and get a date. A few of the better puzzles play off this mechanic, as well as giving Joey more time to himself than in previous games, and are better for it. How much? While still not a great puzzle, the gimmick adds enough that I’m grudgingly willing to forgive the inclusion of a ‘put paper under door and knock down key’ puzzle that uses it. This once. If I ever see the Towers of Hanoi though…

Joey's generally a nice guy, but he's not always very charitable.

On the production side, Deception obviously isn’t a game that’ll blow you away with its beauty, but it uses its limited budget very well, and with great attention to detail – from the slight glows around light sources and the illumination changing when characters open a door, to the rippling of water in the harbour, the generally solid (if highly variable) voicework throughout, and the excellent jazzy soundtrack that squeezes plenty of use from the series’ signature theme.

The fact that the story is a deliberately small-scale affair definitely helps, rather than trying to write cheques that its low budget and the AGS engine can’t hope to cash. Seemingly little touches like the fact that a Rosa->Joey conversation is different to having a Joey->Rosa one, or that the two get their own item descriptions and even occasional noun changes, all contribute to making the already likeable characters much more three dimensional.

Not everything works out so well, but even then, it’s rarely that something’s bad so much as… distracting. We’re mostly talking little things like one puzzle involving a business card not being well telegraphed, the version of Rosa on the title screen looking nothing like her in-game character, or the way that the very clean dialogue portraits can clash with the lower resolution, far denser style used for the backgrounds. There are a few more here and there, but none are especially big deals if you’re in the mood for old-school 2D adventuring in the first place. Conventional as it is, this is an excellent, very absorbing few hours of adventure.

Can someone get a Gilligan cut and a towel for Ms. Blackwell, please!

Deception’s biggest successes though are in story and writing. On the script side specifically, Gilbert has two particular talents that have stood out since the start of the series – a very empathetic writing style, and a knack for minimalism. Even most of his secondary characters feel rounded and believable regardless of how few lines of dialogue they get, with the lost spirits especially getting their sad stories across without the need for long conversations full of infodumping. It’s a trick that works particularly well with this set due to an added psychological level to their deaths, and a cynical cruelty underpinning it. They’re usually minor characters in terms of raw screentime, but always very sympathetically, with a sense that they actually did have a life before landing on Rosa Blackwell’s To-Do list.

It’s a similar story for Rosa and Joey, but especially Joey. Four games in, it’s notable that everyone who’s played a Blackwell game has an image in their head of who he ‘obviously’ is, whether it’s a gangster, a jazz singer, or whatever, despite the fact that we know basically nothing about him before his spirit days. Deception finally starts prying into his past a little, and not because he wants to open up. Many of the series’ best moments have been when his normally amiable mask slips and we see flashes of what lies underneath, and Deception is no different. Both he and Rosa are increasingly being pressed in ways that most adventures spare their characters from, and the slowly developing dramatic story arc is all the better for it. I’m really looking forward to seeing where they go after the end of this episode.

Now you've done it! You've broken Joey's spirit with your stupid attempts to pick up that silly object! In fact, if I didn't find his pitiful sobbing so amusing, I'd come out there and rip your limbs off!

For a series whose episodes have been this far apart though, big arcs are a secondary concern. Happily, Deception works absolutely fine as a standalone story too, wrapping up all of its main characters and plot elements by the end of the game, and absolutely not ending on one of those insufferable To Be Continued screens whose mere existence should be cause for everyone involved to get a damn good flogging. Oh, those things make me so angry…

As far as length goes, this certainly isn’t a hard adventure, and if you want to blitz it, it won’t put up much of a fight. I finished the game in an evening’s solid play, but did so satisfied that it was the right length for the story it was telling – longer and more satisfying than the previous games, without trying to boost its playtime with gratuitous padding or too many roadblocks.

At $15, it is a slightly pricey investment (especially if you want to play the previous games first, although they are available in a bundle pack for $20), but still one worth making for a few hours puzzles, pointing and clicking with one of the most entertaining ‘serious’ adventures this side of 1998. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another couple of years for the next chapter.

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47 Comments »

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  1. greg_ritter says:

    Blackwell series = best adventure games since ‘Curse of Monkey Island”. Oh wait, no, there is also “Gemini Rue”, but it was done by the same guys, who did Blackwell. Well, what I’m trying to say is God bless Wadjet Eye Games.
    But 15 bucks, really? I think it’s too pricey. $9.99 is far more like it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Fede says:

      From the order page it seems that you can also get all four of them on a DVD for 25$.

    • JamesPatton says:

      Gemini Rue wasn’t really done by the same people who do Blackwell. Gemini Rue was made by Joshua Nuernberger in his spare time, then he submitted a mostly-finished version to Wadjet Eye games and they gave him voice actors, better character portraits, publishing and advertising. Whereas Blackwell is made by Gilbert who runs Wadjet Eye. So while they’re both published by the same people and share some of the same polish (similar character portraits, apparently they even use the same voice actors), they’re not technically made by the same people.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The DVD version is a limited-time thing, unfortunately.

      I think it’s a shame the price is so high, though it’s definitely not without cause. I’d much rather pay this for a few really good hours than the £20+ asked for most commercial adventures I’ve played of late. Technically, they offer more for your money, but only if you don’t quit out of boredom half-way.

    • Deano2099 says:

      And the DVD version doesn’t come with a download of the other three… hopefully at some point the download bundle will be updated to include the new game

    • qinqinyiwu says:

      Good place for a shopping spree, the best choice.
      Welcome to our online store:
      http://mcaf.ee/38si1

    • kutecat19 says:

      Love this game but i think the art is a bit down. I love the art of the previous series more. Hope they can improve that. Love it anyway!!!

  2. Prime says:

    Everything is improved by adding a Decepticon. :)

    While Deception is of passing interest Gemini Rue is utterly amazing: I’d urge everyone to try the demo at the earliest opportunity.

    • greg_ritter says:

      Sure, Gemini is great, but Blackwell has somewhat better and more interesting characters and story. In my opinion, anyway. So i’d urge you to play some Blackwell at the earliest opportunity.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Having completed both games I definitely think Blackwell Deception is the best one. It’s not far from perfect in my eyes.

      And the business card puzzle mentioned in the text… yeah, I was stuck there for a while. When I finally got it, though, I was literally laughing at myself for not seeing it sooner.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I liked Gemini Rue a lot, but I think Decepticon is a far superior game. It’s more my flavour anyway, but it’s a much more accomplished adventure in many ways – puzzle design and integration especially.

      “When I finally got it, though, I was literally laughing at myself for not seeing it sooner.”

      As Morbo might say after completing it: “[SPOILERS] DO NOT WORK THAT WAY! GOOD NIGHT!”

  3. Shazbut says:

    This is another comment referencing Gemini Rue because it is, thus far, the best adventure of the last decade or so in my opinion.

    Will give this a go. Cheers, Richard.

  4. Risingson says:

    Gemini Rue was VERY disapointing. The conversations, full of teenage-like kind of anger, were quite tiresome, and the plot nearly collapsed under its “hey I’m serious” tone. Now, let’s hope that Blackwell Deception does not follow the downward trend Dave Gilbert’s games have followed since the wonderful “Shivah” until the very shallow “Blackwell Convergence”, which discarded all the good things the previous games had.

    • greg_ritter says:

      Sir, you must be trolling. Blackwell series became better and better with every part. As for Gemini – well, yes, I can see your point, sometimes dialogs felt to angsty. But style and story redeems all.

    • Risingson says:

      I am not trolling at all, but maybe you are. The second Blackwell was much more interesting in content, though much shorter. The third one was just shallow: there was no investigation, the “notebook” puzzles were absent (and very missed), and ultimately it suffered from the same syndrome Emerald City had: texts were much better that what was told. Narrative style over narrative substance.

      Having very few puzzles also does not help at all.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    ‘those insufferable To Be Continued screens whose mere existence should be cause for everyone involved to get a damn good flogging’

    Heh. Yeah.
    “To Be Continued!
    (In a few years)
    (If the game sells well, and we’re still in business)”

    You’re not making a TV-Series, people.

    Apart from that: It sounds as if this game really might be fun. I could see giving Wadjet Eye Games some of my money in the near future.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Leaving a few minor threads open for future stories – okay, sure. Not finishing the story that the game/series/whatever was intended to tell, GRAAAARGH! CRUSH! CRUSH! CRUSH!

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Jup.
      Sometimes it’s not so bad if the thing is old enough. If there already exists a sequel which actually finishes the story, I don’t care so much.

    • Dave Mongoose says:

      “Not finishing the story that the game/series/whatever was intended to tell”

      The latest Torchwood series ends a bit like this. The last scene basically says ‘you understood nothing’…

  6. Brahms says:

    Is there a Gemini Rue review anywhere?

    In lieu of that, do people recommend it to someone who does not like adventure games, but finds himself hopelessy attracted to the setting and style?

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    luminosity says:

    Brilliant title, Richard.

  8. DaveGilbert says:

    Just thought I’d pop my head in and say hi. Thanks for the lovely review, Richard!

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      With original screenshots, no less!

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      Lestaticon says:

      Thanks for reviewing this, Richard. I discovered Dave Gilbert’s games when the 2nd Blackwell game had been released. After playing the first 2, I had to go buy all of his others games and have been a fan ever since. You kinda feel at home in his games and I never felt I paid too much for them either. Definitely worth the investment.
      You should be aware that most of his games come with a commentary feature which is pretty awesome. You can play through the entire game with Dave’s commentary about the game design or characters.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, I was going to mention that, but I haven’t listened to it yet – purely because when reviewing something, I try to base what I say on the game’s own observed merits/issues, rather than having the waters muddied by what I *should* have seen or appreciated (for good and bad)

      But I do plan to replay and listen to it now that the review is done. The previous games’ ones have been very entertaining.

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    G-Lord says:

    This game series has been on my radar for a while now, but it looks like I really have to get them. I enjoyed The Shivah and absolutely loved Gemini Rue and I agree that Dave Gilbert is an amazing writer.

    • DaveGilbert says:

      Richard: Hah! Yes. You wield that print screen key like a master. And congratulations on being the first to publicly acknowledge the reoccuring Blackwell theme. I know it exists because I hear it all the time, but it’s nice to know that others have noticed it too.

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      G-Lord says:

      As Dave Gilbert himself honours us with his presence, I would like to personally congratulate you for Gemini Rue. One of the best gaming experiences I had all year (if not ever). Just ordered the Blackwell DVD and I’m looking forward to play all the Blackwell titles.

  10. SSH says:

    Is that Steve Jobs in the 3rd screenshot? ;)

  11. JohnnyMaverik says:

    Gemini Rue was great and eternal shame on RPS for not giving it any coverage past “here’s a cool trailer” and “hey, remember that point and click game with the cool trailer? It’s out!.. feel free to watch the trailer again”, and eternal shame on those above sullying it’s great name with blasphemous insults.

    Still, this sounds really quite good so thank you for giving it proper coverage RPS, I will most certainly give it a go thanks to the fine opinions of mr. Richard Cobbett, as many people may have done with Gemini Rue for that matter… had Rock Paper Shotgun bothered to give it any proper post release coverage… which you didn’t.

  12. michal.lewtak says:

    I absolutely loved Gemini Rue, but should I care about this if I’m not into paranormal stuff? Because having paranormal stuff in your story immediately crushes all of its seriousness, no matter how serious it would be in an alternate universe in which that makes sense.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Going to suggest that if you actively dislike paranormal stuff in your fiction, the story of a medium and her ghost friend investigating murders committed by a psychic mafia might not be your perfect adventure.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      That’s would exclude a lot of stories, including all fantasy or even the likes of Star Wars…

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      li says:

      I’m absolutely not into paranormal stuff, but for this serie it works extremely well. Just bought and played it through, it’s too short but absolutely fantastic.
      I assume that the detective novel/jazzy style compensate for the ‘lead ghost to the other world’ quite a lot also.

  13. Bremze says:

    “The New York psychic mafia” …I feel a lack of The Fall references in this review/comments!

  14. Seb says:

    Oh how I wish these games were available for Mac.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Thanks for recommending this!

    I bought the bundle of the first three games yesterday, and promptly played through the first one in one go. It has been a long time since I liked an adventure this much, and I look forward to the remaining three. :)

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    zapatapon says:

    “A very empathetic writing style, and a knack for minimalism”

    This is is the best and most accurate description of Gilbert’s style that I have come across. Well written sir. The magic of Gilbert’s games rely exactly on this. Even if the overall story arcs sometimes feel a little disappointing, through the economy of his text Gilbert manages an extraordinary feat given the nature of the medium that is a point and click game: maintaining sustained narrative rhythm and tempo, and making all characters immediately interesting.

    Oh, and the Shivah and Emerald City Confidential are excellent, too.

  17. Stephani1126 says:

    giay nam dep
    I do not see this game generating any revenue for the company. The developers should save themselves the trouble and drop this project. yea, seems nice, and about the “new ideas discussion”, yea, it really needs to be discussed.There was a little game called Michigan: Report From Hell on the PS2, which got a limited release in Europe, Australia and Japan only. You played as a new camera man who had to film the hellish horror unravel in the city.