Blackwell Epiphany and What You Don't See
Blackwell Epiphany, if you’re not familiar, is the fifth and final game in the Blackwell series of adventure games about a medium and her spirit guide, and their vocation of helping lost souls pass beyond the veil of death. Created in the Adventure Game Studio engine, they are unassuming throwbacks–both in their pixel art presentation and their length, which at anywhere from 2 to 6 hours fits in nicely with the very earliest graphical adventures that you could complete in an afternoon.
But when you look past their familiar (some would say, old-fashioned) trappings, they really are special games. There are very few games whose stories are driven so purposefully by their characters. The puzzles are not merely environmental obstacles, collections of switches to be flipped in the right order, but they are a means to learn more about the people you’re trying to help.
Which is the second thing that’s special about Blackwell. It is a series about helping people, and not just with the latest world-threatening crisis, but with deeply personal needs–the sort of things that could cause your ghost to linger long after you’re dead. That these needs often impact on the desires and insecurities of the main cast adds up to a story that is overall deeply human and humanistic.
But what I’ve realized with each new Blackwell game is just how rich the character work for its stars, Rosa and Joey, is. After introducing them in the first game, the subsequent games don’t go out of their way to draw attention to the passage of time, or the development of their relationship from unwilling partners, to confidants, to a friendship that either would give their lives for. Instead, this development is revealed in the details. The way they talk to each other, the newfound confidence in Rosa’s voice, the way she dressed (Joey doesn’t change outfits, although his attitude softens as the series progresses.)
Character growth in games is rare enough that when it occurs it’s usually a major plot moment and worth calling attention to, but in the Blackwell series, that growth is always happening, slowly but certainly across the many cases Rosa and Joey work together. It gives the characters a sense of depth that extends beyond the cases we join them for, and in turn gives their world a sense of living beyond the game. By the fifth game, they are as familiar as an old married couple, a reflection of the countless cases both on and off screen that they’ve taken on and solved together, and the ways in which those cases have touched them.
Returning to them time and again feels like returning to an old friendship. It’s the feeling that the best TV shows and book series manage to create, and that bigger efforts, such as Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series sometimes miss entirely, restricting recurring characters to cameos or much-reduced roles, while the story goes on to feature a whole new cast. There’s value in the novelty that provides and the sense of size and scope that can bring to a world, but I can’t help but feel some intimacy is lost in the process.