As Gone Home, Firewatch and Dear Esther have demonstrated, the first-person adventure genre is perfectly suited to the weaving of tales. The stories may be fanciful or grounded, fantastical or steeped in painful truths...or in the best cases, a mixture of both. Blackwood Crossing looks set to continue that trend, with a potentially heart-rending look at what it means to grow up.
We join Scarlett, a teenage girl travelling on a train with her younger brother Finn. They are orphans who have lost their parents in circumstances not yet known to us, but each of them is trying to cope in different ways. For Scarlett, taking on the maternal role for her brother is clearly a struggle for one so young and in such a delicate stage of her life. On the other hand, Finn is lashing out at what he perceives as life’s unfairness, and his sister is the most prominent target, rightly or wrongly.
It could be easy to write off both characters - especially Finn - as unlikeable, even irritating from the outset. But PaperSeven have done something special in capturing the frustration, loneliness and vulnerability of these children, and the way they channel their emotions resonates deeply. For anyone who has lost a parent at a young age, their reactions are surprisingly accurate. It is also portrayed remarkably well in the expressions of Finn; whether happily cutting out butterflies or fiercely rebelling against his sister, the subtle changes in his face are a delight to watch.
Where the game really starts to shine is in the delivery of its story. It may appear to be a normal train journey from the outset, but following Finn into adjacent carriages reveals static people from the children’s family and school, all wearing masks. There’s also an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit popping up in odd places, the meaning of which is unclear. It’s implied that these are memories which either Scarlett, Finn or both are recalling, but things take a turn for the supernatural when Finn’s pyromaniacal tendencies start manifesting outside of his lighter. You, as Scarlett, are the yin to his yang - calming and reasonable in the face of his anger and terror. The poignant touches, such as sacrificing your own work to a tree house fire in order to preserve Finn’s toy dog, are both prescient and moving. This is the kind of thing that a big sister would do. It’s the burden of responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with trying to keep your younger sibling’s care-free innocence intact for as long as possible in the face of overwhelming anguish, and it is portrayed perfectly in a number of scenes.
The puzzle element is very light - at least in the playable first hour we had a hands-on with. Whether finding a key to unlock a door in order to track down your brother, unlocking a fire extinguisher case, or piecing together a story written in a language you created together when you were younger, we weren’t greatly challenged. If anything, the biggest hurdle will be overcoming the movement of Scarlett, as the first-person perspective is encumbered with a clunky, ponderous gait that makes navigating through the train (and beyond) a bit of a chore. However, there is plenty of time for this to be rectified ahead of the game’s release next year.
The indication of a much darker story bubbling under the surface became apparent after the first half hour. Scarlett was clearly not always the nicest person to be around for a young boy who just wanted to play, and we suspect that there may be a lot more going on in her head about how her parents’ death affected her which will be revealed later on. The world is colourful and interesting with trinkets from the pair’s past dotted around for you to discover, each of which triggers a snippet of Scarlett’s memory. They can also be ignored, but in doing so you’ll miss the point - Blackwood Crossing is keen for you to invest fully in the journey, as traumatic as it may ultimately be, and this is a bold statement of intent from a developer - who in their own words - are making their first “grown up game”. We’re very much looking forward to playing the matured product in 2017, though we suspect that tissues may be a wise investment beforehand.