Wot I Think: The Blackwell Epiphany

By Richard Cobbett on April 24th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

Wait! I'm from the future! I just finished the game and came back to ask exactly who you are, because this doesn't actually make that much sense as an opening! I don't mean that as a huge thing! It's really cool! I just want to know if I missed something!

Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell Legacy series finally draws a veil over itself today with its final chapter, The Blackwell Epiphany. But does even New York’s unluckiest and most underpaid medium stand a ghost of a chance of ending things on a high in this spirited finale? Here’s Wot I Think…

There’s little harder to write than a good ending. For every Breaking Bad, there’s a Lost, a Dexter, a Mass Effect 3. It has to both raise the stakes to the point that nothing else could hope to be as fitting, to add closure after years of investment in the story and characters, and – arguably hardest of all – to stay true to the reasons that made the world give a damn about that closure in the first place.

The Blackwell Epiphany isn’t a good ending for the Blackwell series. It’s pretty much the perfect ending, both wrapping up and nailing a series that’s been going from strength to strength since it first appeared way back in 2006. It’s a testament to just how far both Wadjet Eye and creator Dave Gilbert’s writing have have come since the clever-but-janky Blackwell Legacy, excellent Unbound, slightly stumbling Convergence, and the confident, fully formed Deception from – gosh, 2011? Really? It doesn’t seem that long, not least because of how easy it is to slip into new adventures with awkward psychopomp Rosa Blackwell and her ghost partner Joey. I’m going to miss them.

But we probably shouldn’t get into the ending this early, should we? No. Rewind…

Well, I hope he mops it up.

While it would technically be possible to jump into the series with Epiphany, I wouldn’t recommend doing so. It’s the best instalment of the series so far, and does for the most part tell a standalone story – Rosa’s now fully embraced quest to find trapped spirits in New York and help them to move on taking a serious turn for the dark when their souls begin getting ripped apart in front of her face. The investigation soon ends up being deeply rooted in the series’ overall myth arc though, with the return of Madeline, many answers to things have been hanging over the series since the start, and a number of plot points that are only going to ring true having followed Rosa’s journey so far – particularly one major thing in the ending that’s either going to come across as heartwarming or utter bullshit depending entirely on whether or not you played one of the previous games.

Until the big plot kicks in, things are business as usual for the series – find spook, find spook’s problem, solve it as best as it can be solved, then escort the newly-aware soul to whatever waits beyond the big swirly vortex thing in the sky. It is for the best that Epiphany is drawing a line under the series at this point, as the basic mechanics here have become more than a little routine (to the point that Rosa is no longer knocked on her ass every time), but they stories are inventive and well written as ever – the twist for a seemingly happy prostitute working for New York’s most amiable pimp being especially interesting, and the overall mystery once revealed both effective and clever.

This is not however a surprise. I’ve praised Gilbert many times over the years for his writing chops, and still maintain that he’s one of the best working in the field right now. Epiphany shows that yet again, not simply tying up the big plot points with enviable deftness, but retaining the series’ compassionate core even as it draws to a close. Each vignette brings a completely different vibe to things, managing to be bitter without descending into schmaltzy manipulation even when dealing with magnets for that kind of thing – a little girl’s ghost for instance hitting Rosa and Joey harder than others, but not for the most part treated as all that special. Death is unfair. They know that. They accept that. The real kick comes primarily from the bigger threat at play, and a race to get her ‘safe’ before whatever is destroying souls can take her death as easily as it apparently took her life.

The first ghost killed herself after getting a bad review. Methinks I spy a little emotional blackmail working its way into the design here. It would explain why the press pack came with a picture of Dave Gilbert holding a pistol to his head, with the caption 'I dare you to say my genre is dead!'

It’s difficult to quite convey exactly how the Blackwell attitude differs from most games, but I’ve come to think of it like this – that typically in this genre, the focus will be on the villain – on punishing their transgressions, with saving people from them a fringe benefit unless they’re a friend or love interest or otherwise ‘important’ to the character already. Blackwell takes a much more compassionate approach, with Rosa and Joey’s time spent with life’s casualties pushing them to throw down with the greatest of reluctance (not least because she’s about seven stone when soaking wet and his only ghost power is blowing on things a little) and only in the name of protecting people. It’s a series about the victims first, and heroism… well, a look in Rosa’s inbox makes it clear what a thankless task she’s inherited, even if her character growth over the series does mean she’s ultimately better off for it.

The bigger picture here doesn’t change that, because – and I’m being careful to avoid spoilers here – it keeps the same philosophy in mind. Epiphany’s stakes, once revealed, are huge, but it doesn’t get so enthusiastic about that that it loses its footing. Its big reveals are effective not simply because they’ve been foreshadowed or aren’t contradicted by anything in canon, but because they’re rooted in the characters first and the desire to end on a splashy finale second. The ending even manages to do some subtle repair work, taking a plot point that Gilbert has long regretted (the madness Rosa faces if she doesn’t do her job) and serving up a retcon that has no trouble passing for a reveal.

In short, when I say that the Blackwell series has great writing, I’m not simply talking about the individual lines and bits of snark… though they’re all good… but the sheer craft underpinning it all. The biggest and most seductive trick of which of course is making it all seem effortless. It’s also packed with fantastic little details, like Joey taking time out to show up and comment on Rosa stamping around in the snow during one scene where she gets trapped outside without her coat for a bit, or that Joey talking to Rosa about a subject gets a different dialogue exchange than if Rosa had talked to Joey about it – the same basic information usually, but filtered through their own personalities. Talking about another medium the duo encounter for instance, Rosa focuses on the man, Joey on his spirit guide. Small detail, sure. But small details make for big piles.

'Good job he wouldn't hear if you decided to reveal all your most embarrassing secrets then, right? Hey, tell me that one about the weasel in your panties drawer again.'
'Red, we need to have a talk about this new love of practical jokes.'

Now, as an actual adventure, Epiphany doesn’t distinguish itself as strongly. It’s fine, just not too ambitious or exciting. All the puzzles are very easy, with characters oddly willing to stay out of the way even when the strange redhead walks in from the cold and starts messing with their stuff, and most of them boiling down to Rosa asking everyone about everything and Joey occasionally blowing on things she can’t swipe on her own. On the plus side, one character finally does what I always demand and bypasses a locked door by hurling a brick through the window. On the other, Rosa has still yet to pick up one of those automated lock pick things that even the main character of Bored To Death worked out he needed for his freelance detective work, and has still yet to try convincing a ghost that they’re dead by sticking a hand through them and yelling “LOOK! SEE? SEE?

But I suppose you can’t have everything.

ALTERNATE ENDING:
'Nishanthi? You're the mastermind behind it all? But... but why? You seemed so... so nice!'
'So did you, Blackwell. But then, and here's a thing that still rather chafes, you POISONED MY DOG!'
'You know about that? And you're still mad? But that was four years ago!'
'Well, you know what we say in India. Revenge is a dish best served... spicy.'
'Oh. So, like all your dishes?'
'Shut up.'

The running disappointment for the series is that ever since it began, it’s wanted to explore a more involved form of investigation with a Discworld Noir/Laura Bow type system of clues as inventory objects, only to immediately lose confidence and go back to more standard stuff. Epiphany is no exception here, still keeping notes that can be compared, but then only using it about twice. It also has a bit of a problem with padding during its third act, with the need to keep trekking back to the local police station to have a cop look up clues, despite Rosa having a magical device called ‘a phone’, and the final two ghost investigations of the series both dragging on a little too long for reveals that only barely involve the main plot and that in the exact same way.

(Were I a cynic, I’d suggest that a possible reason for this is that the half-way point smacks hard of a scene that once had the words “TO BE CONTINUED…” hanging over it like the Sword of Damocles, especially with such a biiiiig gap between games, and a few smaller things like a main character passing the baton to another for little good reason and how quickly the cliffhanger moment ends up being resolved. But that’s just a guess. If right, I’m glad we got one big game instead.)

On the production side, Epiphany does itself proud. It’s still a low resolution game like the others, but an absolutely gorgeous one. New series artist Ben Chandler knocks it out of the park, not just in terms of raw detail and making good use of not many pixels, but with an exquisite an eye for lighting. His New York is a place of glowing streetlamps, emerald green cityscapes, crunchy snow and warm interiors – to say nothing of excellent character animation – all backed up by top quality effects like the blowing snow and Rosa’s footsteps, and solid character portraits. Elsewhere, voices can be a touch shaky at times, but not distractingly so. The music however is superb, its jazzy themes the perfect background to both trudging around the City That Never Sleeps in the most unsocial hours of the night and starting up a detective agency. Should the mood ever strike.

Oh, this is a story all about how, my life's been spooky up to now.
And I'd like to take a minute, just give it to you.
Explain how I became the princess of the asylum Bellevue.
In a foster home somewhere, born and raised.
Being awkward was how I spent most of my days.
Growing up realised that I had to retool
Started writing Village Eye articles that I guess were cool.
When this sardonic ghost who'd lived a life not so good,
Made me save some lost souls in my neighbourhood.
I murdered one little cop and The Man went 'whoo', and said,
'You're moving to a padded cell in a wing of Bellevue.'
I whistled for my ghost, with no choice but to be near.
The bored look on his face said he was sick of being here.
But it's not like he has anything to do but feel blue,
And I figure when Hell comes, it'll still beat Bellevue.
I shuffled off life about seven years later
And jumped into the void with the cry 'Suck it, haters!'
Staring at the vortex, I was finally through.
No longer the princess of a place called Bellevue.

It’s been a genuine pleasure watching both Gilbert and his creation evolve over the course of the Blackwell series. Individually, I wouldn’t put them up with my favourite adventures – they’ve been a bit short, a little simplistic in terms of challenge, often a lot rough around the edges – but the series as a whole has more than earned its place. It’s the right time to end it though, not only to stop it outstaying its welcome, but because the ideas of 2006 are now very visibly the constraint here – that notes system for instance that would be next to impossible to add to the series at this point, or the old-fashioned TV style episodic narrative in an era of heavy serialisation. Wadjet Eye Games – and the fact that it really is now Wadjet Eye rather than one guy in a cafe with a few contractors via e-mail can’t be overstated – has simply out-grown the series that made it.

And, y’know, that’s a good thing. Not only does Epiphany enjoy every scrap of that growth, both in terms of design chops and the resources now available to be able to end on the high that Rosa and Joey’s success deserves, it finally frees everyone involved to cut the cord and create something new – without the baggage, without the expectations. At least, these specific expectations. After a series like Blackwell, there’s going to be plenty more waiting for whatever comes next.

For all the right reasons. I can’t wait to see what it is.

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58 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Am I the only person on the planet who thought the Lost ending was great?

    Not the big plug thing in the island, but the character ending. For me Lost was all about the characters, and on that I thought it delivered.

    • Ultra Superior says:

      Yes, you are, and no, it didn’t.

      Shield has one of the best endings ever. The cathedral they’re building for seven seasons spectacularly crumbles and no little sin is forgotten. Vic Mackey gets the ultimate punishment for all his dirty deeds. The whole series is worth watching just to see the brilliant ending.

      Lost merely dissolves into empty pathos.

      • N'Al says:

        As someone who only recently got to watch all of Breaking Bad I’ve been thinking about endings to TV series quite a bit recently. Especially how they tend to colour everything that’s gone before very strongly, i.e. an ending that isn’t really satisfying usually tends to diminish the value of the entire series, imo, even if some of the preceding seasons were some of the strongest television out there – I get the impression Dexter is a bit like that, but then I’ve never actually seen it.

        Breaking Bad’s ending was excellent (if maybe a bit too neat); I also quite liked the Wire’s (very bittersweet), West Wing’s, The Shield’s, and the Sopranos’ (although that one, admittedly, is an acquired taste). Even Jericho’s ending wasn’t too bad, even if very abrupt (but that’s more because the second series only has 5 or so episodes, after season one’s 23).

        I actually thought Lost’s ending was ok too, but then that series to me was never about the destination, always about the journey – i.e. logically the whole thing didn’t make any sense, but it was still exciting to see what would happen to the characters week-in, week-out, if you want. Well, to me, at least. So I give the series some slack in that regard.

        The series with the best WTF ending is Red Dwarf Season 8, spoilers, obviously: http://youtu.be/ZEcRZfuVfP8?t=7m51s Plus, the series did get continued after that, after all, so I guess it’s no longer really the ending to the series.

        • Ultra Superior says:

          Great post. I agree absolutely with your opening paragraph, and I feel the same way about Breaking Bad finale (which is amazing in how satisfactory it is) and about Sopranos (which is amazing in how unsatisfactory it is, and yet powerful and moving, unlike most anything else).

          My only disagreement would be about Lost. Which I feel is aptly named, as I lost a lot of time watching it for nothing really.

          Lost suffers from having little substance and lots of cheapness. What interesting there popped up along the way ended like a loose end the creators would like you to forget.

          • N'Al says:

            Yeah, you do have to come at Lost from the right angle. If you give it some leeway – way more leeway than a lot of other series – then it can work. If not, it’s not going to do anything for you. I guess I was just lucky that I was able to, in that instance.

            I feel the movie Black Swan is a bit of an equivalent; if you question the logic behind anything in that movie, all you’re going to end up with is a bunch of incoherent gibberish. But boy, is that movie amazing at creating an emotional reaction if you let it!

            Doesn’t work all the time, mind. For the record, Prometheus is a pile of shit.

          • His Divine Shadow says:

            Clearly, Lexx had the best ending. Jerhume Brunnen-G.

    • Prokroustis says:

      No, you’re not, and yes, it did.

      • Ultra Superior says:

        I bet you love Prometheus.

        • Prokroustis says:

          Someone liking something you don’t doesn’t mean their taste is awfull in general..

          • Ultra Superior says:

            Um.. yes of course, and?

            I enjoy the cinematography of Prometheus, but I don’t have enough tolerance for its pretensions, fakery and plot holes. When someone tolerates these qualities in Lost, then I guess that someone has probably enjoyed Prometheus more than I.

    • Keyrock says:

      Not only was the ending to Lost terrible (as well as the entire last season), but what made it even worse is that a bunch of people deduced when the show started that they’re in purgatory. The producers then went on to vehemently deny this theory again and again. Then we get to the last season and the big reveal is, guess what, it’s purgatory.

      • JonasKyratzes says:

        I shouldn’t….

        I shouldn’t…

        *sigh*

        (spoilers)

        They’re not in purgatory. The show itself explicitly states so. You may compare the universe of the flash-sideways to a kind of purgatory, but the Island is not purgatory and all of the events that occur there are perfectly real.

        • Premium User Badge

          Lexx87 says:

          The purgatory response is made by people who either didn’t see the end themselves and heard about it from people too thick to understand it, or just didn’t understand it.

      • woodsey says:

        Perhaps you should actually watch the Lost ending, or maybe you just need to plug some extra brain cells in.

        “Everything that ever happened to you is real.”

    • JonasKyratzes says:

      I love the Lost ending. I think it’s deeply moving.

    • jarowdowsky says:

      Every time I watch Charlie help Claire give birth to Aaron or Sawyer and Juliet recognise each other all the problems with the finale vanish for me.

      It was a show about characters and those moments were powerful, beautiful moments of poetry between them.

      Who gives a fuck about a giant smoke monster compared to love?

      • Deano2099 says:

        The first few seasons were very much about character and interactions, but the by series 3-4 the show had doubled down hugely on hard sci if concepts like time travel and time loops that utterly alienated the casual viewer. Then the last series threw all that away again. Lost had the perfect ending for if they had just made seasons one and five.

    • Acorino says:

      Lost was a long con. I fucking despise it.

  2. SkyandSun says:

    I’d like to try one of Wadgjet Eye’s games. Is there one you’d recommend I start with? I figure with the Blackwell series I should start at the beginning but perhaps it’s not the best game they’ve done.

    • Prokroustis says:

      Blackwell Legacy or Gemini Rue I think. The first is not their best game but is still lovely and if you plan on playing any from the Blackwell series (you should) it is the place to start. The latter is just brilliant.

      • frightlever says:

        Primordia is a Science Fiction game about robots, if that floats your boat. I rather enjoyed it. But technically it wasn’t developed by Wadjet Eye, though it’s under their publishing umbrella.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Blackwell Unbound is the best starting point for Blackwell, really. It’s less janky, and still acts as a good intro that you can go back and play Legacy with a bit more tolerance for, hopefully, then continue through Convergence to Deception. Other than those games, I’d say Resonance is their best.

    • Shazbut says:

      Gemini Rue

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Also the alt next on the last picture is amazing.

    If you read/sing it along to the tune, it properly works. Well done :D

  4. FFabian says:

    I’m sad that the series ends. ;-(

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Well, who knows – maybe Wadjet Eye gets bought by EA and Blackwell gets remade as a gritty FPS and/or free-to-play MOBA.

      • The Random One says:

        Blackwell Rise: Fall of the Psychopomp

      • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

        You’re trying to make a joke, I get that, but… please PLEASE don’t joke about as horrendous a possibility as that. ;_;

  5. james.hancox says:

    Glad I’m not the only one who thought Unbound was the best of the series (so far). Even though this is the end for Blackwell, I still hope that some day Dave will go back and write more Aunt Lauren adventures.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Such wonderful atmosphere in it. Hard to remember that the original game was going for things like electronic music to get away from jazz and the like.

      • james.hancox says:

        The early games had a wonderful way of capturing the feeling of bygone eras- the 70s, in Unbound, and the original’s 90s setting. I feel like something has been lost in the later entries as they get closer to the present day.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Awesome! I’ve been a fan of the Blackwell series since Deception came out (in fact, I bought all four games after I read that review of Deception, in 2011) and I’m glad that it got a good ending.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    I expected nothing less from Wadjet Eye Games and it’s certainly a nice contrast to the other recent adventure game, Moebius (although Richard was a bit more generous with that one).

    Also, can we please acknowledge the Blackwell series’s greatest downfall for a second: https://i.imgur.com/5989z1f.png It’s maddening.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I was probably a little light on Moebius, mostly because I’m still very crap at conveying things through video rather than good old fashioned words and things. But I didn’t hate it. I was disappointed by the scope and didn’t think it was close to what it could have been – that final chapter, Christ – but found it amiable enough for what it actually was.

      It’s the new Tex Murphy I’m biting my fingernails over though. Not even tried the demo, just to play it properly when it’s finally out, and the disappointment if it doesn’t live up to my hopes will be bitter as a vinegar enema.

  8. Infinitron says:

    Richard: You ought to disclose that Dave Gilbert is one of your top backers on Patreon.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      You’re right. Though it’s a Patreon for unrelated writings/videos, should absolutely have done that. Sorry. Was going to do just that for anything put on my site where there was a direct link (as indeed, did when mentioning plans to do a video on the series), but it wasn’t even on my mind while playing/writing up this one. My apologies. Things like that and Kickstarter pledges and so on are real terra incognita. Please pardon the stumble.

  9. DaveGilbert says:

    Hi everyone. Dave of Wadjet Eye here. Not much to add to this review, except to say that Richard’s Blackwell/Fresh Prince crossover thing is now canon. Somehow. I’ll make it work.

  10. uriele says:

    “Individually, I wouldn’t put them up with my favourite adventures – they’ve been a bit short, a little simplistic in terms of challenge, often a lot rough around the edges – but the series as a whole has more than earned its place”

    I couldn’t have said it better. And I hope that now Dave would think about making a sequel of Emerald City Confidential

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I think this is quite unlikely for a few reasons (not least that it was done on contract, so he probably doesn’t own the IP), but yeah. I’d love to see another crack at that one that was more adventure and less casual game. Really awesome premise. (Conversely, I don’t really think the world needs another Shivah)

      • uriele says:

        Word. Shiva was nice, but it was a self contained story and I don’t see Rabbi Stone as the Jewish Hard-Boiled Father Brown… Plus it was set in a mundane universe, so any game set in there would simply be a game set in New York.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          I’d go a bit further than that. One of the things I both liked and respected about it was that it was open-ended. Stone doesn’t get the answers he needs, just the faith to keep trying. Likewise, he’s an interesting character to me because of the way you can completely disagree with his beliefs (I don’t mean Judaism so much as things like his stance on interfaith marriage, which it’s worth noting he still fiercely defends to Zelig during the finale even after a game of regretting having enforced) but still fully empathise with his position of a man being pulled in two conflicting directions – and both by his heart, rather than by his heart and his head as usual. I think making him The Rabbi Detective or a mouthpiece for assorted different dilemmas would really dilute the power of the original story. I know it was *written* to be essentially just a noir story, but I think it struck enough of a nerve that it has to be treated as something else when looking at how it might be expanded on.

          Which isn’t to say it couldn’t work, obviously. Just that I think some stories work best standalone, and that’s one.

  11. Premium User Badge

    DrScuttles says:

    The Blackwell games were a happy surprise. Can’t remember how I ended up with them on Steam, but they sat there for ages with me not thinking much of them before finally getting round to actually play them. One of those ‘why did I wait so long?’ type deals. Forgiving the slight early clunkiness was easy enough given its concept of ghostbusting and the characters of Rosa and Joey
    Glad to hear it’s a good ending to the series. And it’s always nice for a creator to recognise when an ending is appropriate before a fiction has run its course and becomes season 9 of The X-Files.

  12. YogSo says:

    (Were I a cynic, I’d suggest that a possible reason for this is that the half-way point smacks hard of a scene that once had the words “TO BE CONTINUED…” hanging over it like the Sword of Damocles, especially with such a biiiiig gap between games, and a few smaller things like a main character passing the baton to another for little good reason and how quickly the cliffhanger moment ends up being resolved. But that’s just a guess. If right, I’m glad we got one big game instead.)

    From the (metaphorical) horse’s mouth:

    I originally had two more games in mind, but the sixth game that I had in mind, I was thinking about it, it’s not a good enough idea to sustain and entire game. So I took those elements and put them on number five and expanded it. I figure, okay, I’m going out with one big bang instead of stretching it out, so I’m going out as explosive as I can. Not literally, not to say that it ends in an explosion, although maybe it will. I feel like it will end much stronger this way. Put everything in it, it’s like everything’s going into it and this is why it’s taking so long and why, if it doesn’t kill me first, it will come very close, but it’s almost done. It’s very close.

    Interview: Dave Gilbert On Adventures, Blackwell & Pixels

    Also, this really reminds me that I still have to play through Convergence and Deception. I really enjoyed Legacy and Unbound (though at that point I wanted more of Rosangela’s story and I wasn’t too invested in the aunt’s “prequel” story). I think I’m gonna get to it, sooner rather than later, and I’m glad to know there’ll be an excellent conclusion (and closure) after that.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Lacero says:

    Something by Dave Gilbert, ok I’ll buy that.

    While on GoG buying it I noticed The Samaritan Paradox, any word on if it’s any good?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Heard good things, not played it myself.

      • uriele says:

        The Samaritan Paradox is quite good, till the end and then… It really doesn’t know what it wanted to be. It aim to shock and it’s pretty clumsy at it (the ending is some kind of huge deus ex machina with all the characters that show up in the same place for no reason). But the adventure itself and the journey are quite good, it’s just the conclusion that is awkward.

  14. AngoraFish says:

    spoiler: Turns out that Rosa Blackwell was actually a ghost the whole time.

  15. Premium User Badge

    JamesTheNumberless says:

    This game should not be confused with the Bakewell Epiphany, in which a small cake with a cherry on top appeared to Emperor Constantine at breakfast one morning, leading to the startlingly clear realization that some tarts are just better than others.