I enjoy narrative adventure stories about people and relationships. I liked Gone Home and Dear Esther. I liked Firewatch and Bound. I liked Journey, That Dragon, Cancer and Fragments of Him. I'm pretty sure I'm going to like Blackwood Crossing.
The best narrative games cast a spell over me, make something shift inside my soul. They are games, in the sense that they require the player to physically engage with them. They are stories, in the sense that they have a beginning, a middle and an end, as well as some moral and tangibly human component. They make us feel something urgent, make our eyes sting and tingle, just at the right moments.
I played the first chapter of Blackwood Crossing at a demo event in San Francisco last week (watch the first chapter, above). Developed by Brighton, England-based team PaperSeven, it's coming out on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One next year.
Blackwood Crossing tackles the deeply emotive issue of childhood ending, the transition from a magical place of growing to glum adulthood. Like all great stories, it's about loss and belonging.
The first-person player-character is a 14-year-old girl called Scarlett. She accompanies her younger brother Finn on a train journey. Early in the game, the journey takes an Alice in Wonderland turn, with the two young people encountering ghost-like figures in masks as well as surreal environments, as they travel through the train.
Finn and Scarlett are not as close as they once were. She is growing up and leaving him behind. She knows this, and struggles with her own guilt. They are both orphans, intensifying their pain and their struggle.
Early puzzles in the game feature apparitions of people from their lives, dressed up in masks that signify Finn's feelings about their character. Father wears the mask of a lion. A school bully presents as a pig.
We follow dialogue cues to put together the story, and move on. The first challenge is essentially a matching pair puzzle, though that makes it sound more mechanical than the experience itself, which is more like a series of conversations.
Onwards, the player seeks out clues and undertakes simple tasks, really as little more than an exercise in reaching into the story and revealing aspects of the children's personalities, hopes and fears. A password puzzle is a re-ordering of a fantasy game that Finn and Scarlett once played.
The magic here is in the reactions and the portrayals of Finn and Scarlett, as their hurt feelings and fears reveal themselves to the player. Scarlett tries to balance her needs and her confusion with her brother's, but she is also a child, one who is experiencing a confusing life-change. Her powers are limited.
Looking at Finn, I can't recall such a good portrayal of a child in a game, since the Studio Ghibli-produced Ni No Kuni, which also dealt with parental loss.
As a father of boys, I completely recognize Finn's shifting expressions, his fleeting little animations. The faces of children are extremely hard to recreate in animation, without overly sentimentalizing them or turning them into little adult monsters. These early sections suggest careful observation and, indeed, the three developers who founded PaperSeven are all parents of children.
It's interesting that we are reaching a point in game development when many lead developers are parents showing an interest in (and understanding of) children that goes beyond nostalgia. Blackwood Crossing is asking difficult questions about the point at which we separate ourselves from the needs of others and from former versions of ourselves.
I'm told by the developers that the game's subsequent chapters, which I've not played, take a darker turn, pulling the player deeper into the feelings of these children as they cope with the loss of their parents and, to some extent, the loss of each other. This game is one to watch.