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Medium Well Done: The Blackwell Deception

"the ol' skeptic/believer scale"

Featured post 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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