In 1985, LucasArt game designer Ron Gilbert did something remarkable. He created a game called Maniac Mansion and a scripting language called SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) that he used to write it in. To understand why this was remarkable, you have to know a little about the state of the adventure game art in the mid-1980s.
Two years earlier, LucasArts competitor Sierra On-Line published the first “modern” graphical adventure, King’s Quest, a technically if not conceptually clever adventure game in which you used the cursor arrows on your keyboard to guide a tiny knight on a quest across an environment that looked like it was contained within a pixelated proscenium arch. (In later games, the keyboard would be supplanted by a simpler point-and-click system.) The game, a standard search-and-retrieve story, was fairly simple in construction and more than a little simpleminded in conception, though it gains a certain sheen when viewed through the eyes of nostalgia.By the time I had a computer powerful enough to run King’s Quest, not even nostalgia could have saved it from being anything other than a banal, often frustrating exercise in monotonous and annoying puzzle solving. It was designed by Sierra’s leading game designer (and wife of the company’s owner) Roberta Williams and programmed in a scripting language that Sierra called SCI (Sierra Creative Interpreter), which Gilbert was punning off, more than a little maliciously, when he named his own scripting language SCUMM. King’s Quest was successful enough to spawn multiple sequels as well as spin-offs like Space Quest, Police Quest and the Leisure Suit Larry series. These games put Sierra in serious competition with Infocom as the leading adventure game publisher of the period.
The Infocom adventures, being entirely text-based, lost ground rapidly to Sierra’s more visually striking graphics technology, even though the Infocom adventures were, quite frankly, a lot better designed. Williams was a haphazard designer at best, with an intuitive sense of what she was trying to accomplish in her games but no coherent design ethic to guide her in doing so. Sierra’s other designers weren’t much better and some weren’t even as good (though better designers like Jane Jensen would come along in the 90s). Sierra adventures punished the player for simple actions like examining objects on the screen or trying to negotiate mountain paths partially obscured by scenery. They left the player stranded with no way to solve a puzzle if they hadn’t picked up a necessary object at an earlier location that was no longer accessible. You frequently had to restore to earlier game saves to remedy a simple failure to examine every pixel on the screen with a keen enough eye or because you’d fallen off a cliff, leading Leisure Suit Larry designer Al Lowe to use the phrase “Save Early, Save Often” as a running slogan on his games’ load screens.
Ron Gilbert, on the other hand, developed a very clear design ethic as he was creating his early games. In 1989, while writing The Secret of Monkey Island, he articulated that ethic in a remarkable document called “Why Adventure Games Suck,” which you can read at that link in a version that he posted to his blog in 2004. In Gilbert’s games you could never die and you could never find yourself in a position that was unwinnable given your current situation, making saving the game necessary only if you needed to break for bedtime or were afraid your system might crash, taking your hard-won progress with it. With Gilbert’s help, LucasArts took what Sierra was trying to do (with, I might add, inexplicable commercial success) and reworked it in a way that made it a genuine form of popular art.
Gilbert and subsequent LucasArts designers like Tim Schafer used that ethic to create a series of genre classics, like the Monkey Island games, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle. It was a great time to be alive and adventuring, but the superior LucasArts games never outsold their Sierra counterparts and both lines of games, along with those of their multiple imitators, died a quiet death around the turn of the 21st century.
Gilbert attributed the death of the genre to Sierra fatigue and I can only bow to his wisdom on that point. I remember once seeing Gilbert get into a flame war on the old Compuserve Information Service with a Sierra game producer and his anger at Sierra’s inability to grasp the simplest rules of adventure game design was an impressive thing to behold. The Sierra producer, on the other hand, could only offer weak arguments in favor of their player-punishing approach that I suspect were trickling down from upper-level management. One didn’t badmouth Roberta Williams’ game designs and remain employed at her husband’s publishing firm.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the Blackwell adventure game series.
The Blackwell Saga
We live in an age of retro gaming, when everything old is new again and the market is flooded with games just like the ones you played as a teenager (or, in my case, as a thirty-something). You don’t have to complain that they don’t make games the way they used to because crowd-funding services like Kickstarter are happy to connect game designers with formerly young game players who have grown old enough to earn the kind of money they can afford to part with to give game designers the chance to do precisely that.
For my own part, I found myself having a fit of nostalgia for LucasArts’ heyday that was inspired by playing a modest but nicely decked out retro adventure called Kathy Rain, about which I can now remember very little except that it concerned a leather-jacketed, motorcycle riding, chain smoking Nancy Drew who followed clues concerning her grandfather’s tragic death to an unexpected and not entirely satisfying supernatural climax. While it’s not a game I’m prepared to rave about, it led me to try a series of games I’d bought on sale a couple of years ago on Steam that all have Blackwell in their titles: The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, The Blackwell Convergence, and The Blackwell Deception. Given that there was a relatively new entry in the saga, The Blackwell Epiphany, and I’d already shelled out the money for all but that one, I figured I ought to look at what I’d bought.
It’s a decision I don’t regret. The Blackwell saga offers no sublime confusion, just sublime familiarity, but the design comes straight from the Ron Gilbert playbook and I found myself hooked from the first, though admittedly weakest, of the games. This is a series that demands to be played in order, because designer Dave Gilbert (no relation, as far as I know, to Ron) builds serial themes into what are otherwise standalone stories, the way a lot of television shows do.
Ron Gilbert makes an interesting observation in the document linked above. “The element that brings adventure games to life for me is the stories around which they are woven. When done right, it is a form of storytelling that can be engrossing in a way that only interaction can bring.”
I didn’t get into computer games for story. I got into them for exploration, a subject I’ll expound on at greater length sometime soon. Suffice it to say that I loved the idea of finding a world inside my computer and exploring it at length, making interesting discoveries and having interesting interactions. Adventure games offer some of that but not as much as I’d like. As Gilbert, Ron, observes, adventure games are about stories. But the Infocom adventures, when I discovered them in the early 1980s, taught me that story is almost as valid a reason for gameplay as exploration, even more so if the exploration involves story as well. And the Blackwell games have story by the bushel, including a story that weaves in and out of the entire series in a slick and lovely thread. They also have a small amount of exploration, but it’s mostly linear and unsatisfying as opposed to exploration for exploration’s sake.
The games, with one exception, are about a young female psychic named Rosangela “Rosa” Blackwell and her spirit guide/ghost companion Joey Mallone. The games lack the over-the-top hilarity of the best LucasArts games but make a fair exchange for the wit of a hardboiled detective thriller cum YA mystery, with Joey playing Philip Marlowe (or maybe Mike Hammer) to Rosa’s Nancy Drew. There’s no sublime confusion to these games, which for me were a pure nostalgia trip, but there’s a sublime familiarity that kept me playing in sessions that ran much later into the night than they really should have. Sleep deprivation is both my curse and my guilty pleasure.
Rosa Blackwell’s curse and guilty pleasure is that she comes from a family in which one female member of each generation has psychic powers and the companionship, wanted or unwanted, of the aforementioned ghost Joey. Their job is to find ghosts who have become bound to the mortal plane and send them off to the fabled white light of the afterlife. They do this by solving mysteries that convince the ghosts, who suffer from serious spiritual denial, that they really are dead and can go off to a place much happier than the one they find themselves stuck in. (Gilbert never calls this “heaven” and you don’t actually have to believe in an afterlife to accept this as a standard fantasy trope.)
The Blackwell Legacy is essential to play if you’re going to understand the games that follow. It’s about Rosa’s discovery that she’s a psychic and that her aunt and grandmother were psychics too, all with the mission of playing travel guide to lost souls and the curse or blessing of Joey’s companionship. The story is about a string of suicides among a group of young women, all friends. Play it to learn the other details.
The second game, Blackwell Unbound, is a clever departure from the first game and all the games that follow. It flashes back to 1973 (the other games are set in the present) and introduces us to Rosa’s aunt Lauren, who would later raise Rosa after her parents died and then go insane, leaving Rosa essentially orphaned. The insanity isn’t explained until a much later game; here we just get to know what Rosa’s aunt was like and get a much handsomer version of Joey, not I assume because he was younger then — he was already dead and aging isn’t in the list of things that ghosts get to do — but because the artist presumably realized that Joey needed to be a handsome hero, not the ordinary-looking schlub of the first game. The game also introduces the countess, a clearly insane old lady who figures into a later game as a ghost and in a still later game makes a cameo in a flashback as a young woman.
The third game, The Blackwell Convergence, ties together the storylines of the first two games, hence the title. It also introduces Madeline, a spirit guide who’s been around much longer than Joey, who seems to have died in the 1940s, give or take a decade. (Much of the humor in the games comes from Joey’s wisecracking disdain for modern electronic technology.) Madeline, who may well have been around for thousands of years, figures into the remainder of the games in an increasingly major way.
The fourth game, The Blackwell Deception, introduces new mysteries and continues developing the plot arcs from the previous games, but its primary purpose is to set up the final game, The Blackwell Epiphany, where all the plot lines converge and designer Gilbert builds the story to literally earthshaking consequences. It’s supposedly the last game in the series and it wraps things up nicely, leaving the player with a sense of triumph and sweet sadness that justifies the hours you’ve put in playing all five games in a row.
Dave Gilbert is good at plotting, but for my tastes his greatest strength is in balancing the puzzles so that they aren’t so difficult that you throw up your hands and decide to finish the games much, much later, but still challenging enough that you feel a sense of triumph when you solve one. Of course, just when you think you’ve solved the puzzle that will tie up the plotline once and for all you find that you’ve just opened another can of puzzle-solving worms. These aren’t 100-hour-plus RPGs, but the length of play is remarkably good considering the low prices you have to pay for most of the episodes, especially if Steam or some other entity places them in a low-cost bundle.
The games also play nicely with technology, with Rosa going from a land line and a phonebook in her first game to a handheld “myPhone” with built-in search engine by the final game. And as the series goes on her apartment becomes a collection of game memorabilia that references all of the earlier plots, inside jokes for players who went to the effort to play the games in order. It’s a nice touch, one of many that Gilbert, Dave, throws in.
Like most adventure games, the Blackwell games are essentially linear, but you frequently find yourself faced with multiple puzzles that at least give you the illusion of an open world because there are very few clues as to what order they need to be solved in. But there usually is an order and figuring it out is a major puzzle in itself.
Dave Gilbert isn’t the master innovator that his namesake Ron (who has his own LucasArt throwback game on the way) was and probably still is. But he understands how to construct a compelling story with characters that the reader cares about, puzzles that are satisfying to solve, and a well-constructed five game arc that must have been flowcharted meticulously, probably starting sometime during the design process of the first game. Are the Blackwell games ever as great as the LucasArts titles? No, but that’s really too much to ask of an indie game series.
If adventure games aren’t your virtual drug of choice, I’ll move on to another topic in the next post, though right now I’m not entirely sure what it will be.