Thoughts on Blackwell

Blackwell is a series of classic point and click adventure games from the New York -based developer, Wadjet Eye Games. There are four episodes available: Legacy, Unbound, Convergence and Deception. I picked up first three of them in a bundle from Indie Royale. I'm not a fan of adventure games, but people said these are pretty good, so I just fired up Blackwell Legacy one day. And immediately fell in love.
Blackwell games are centered on Rosangela Blackwell, a shy and closed-in book reviewer from a small newspaper. One day Joey Mallone appears in her life. He's a ghost of (apparently) private investigator from 1920s. Actually, we don't know anything sure about him... which makes things interesting. He says he's bound to Rosa, he can't leave her and that they have to seek for ghosts and help them get to "the other side". Actually, he seems to have a connection with other women in Blackwell family: he haunted Rosa's aunt Lauren and her grandmother. They ended up in a psychiatric hospital... So, Joey and Rosa seek for ghosts haunting various places in NY and help them get to the "other side". These ghosts rarely remember why they're dead; they mostly don't even know they're dead.
You solve ghost cases by investigating what made them die, and sometimes you get to know more about your family and Joey.
Does it all sound dull? Or maybe like a ghost story for teenage girls? I read a few reviews before playing and though exactly that. I was so wrong!
The first thing that hit me was the writing. It's excellent. Dave Gilbert (head of Wadjet Eye and author of Blackwell games) isn't very wordy, but somehow manages to slip lots of personality between every character's lines. People in Blackwells are actual people, not just clue-dispensers or obstacles. Voice acting helps here and is mostly good, though some lines seemed kinda off (but just a few ones). Dialogues are witty and genuinely funny at times. I enjoyed every conversation a lot. In Blackwell Unbound you get to play as Rosa's aunt, Lauren, who is a slightly depressed and constantly smoking lady. Her arguments with Joey are even more entertaining.
The story itself is truly engaging. It feels like a tv series, with separate cases being episodes - and with a bigger story involving main characters, which is spun over all of them.
Then there's a subtle, jazzy soundtrack, perfectly fitting for late-night strolls through NY. Art direction is a little different in every game. I liked it the most in the 3rd one (Convergence), it reminded me of Gabriel Knight. Beautiful backgrounds and character portraits were a pleasure to watch. That's why I was disappointed to see Deception's (4th one) art, which is more upbeat and comic-like. Actually, that's my only complaint about Blackwells: I'd like them to be somewhat darker. Unbound felt a bit like that and I'd love to see more sinister elements in the other ones as well.

I finished the first three, immediately bought the fourth one and finished it as well. After playing I felt that I actually like adventure games. I tried a few others (5 Days A Stranger, Technobabylon) and was frustrated - but it helped me to understand why I liked Blackwells so much.
Gilbert strived to minimize all the things that annoy me in point and click games. Let me write them down:

  • pixel hunting - clickable objects in Blackwell are rather big, and if something important has to be small (like a key), it's always somehow highlighted.
  • lots of items and item combinations - puzzles in Blackwell are mostly based on gathering clues, not items. If you hear about something new, you can talk about it with others and look it up on the web (Rosa has a computer and can use Oogle search). You rarely have more than 3-4 items. Then there's the notepad. Rosa collects all the clues there and it acts somewhat like a second inventory. You can use these clues in conversations (that is: ask people about them). Clues can be combined to form new ones; I liked that, it made me feel like I'm actually figuring things out by myself. Very cool, but underused feature!
  • lots of locations and backtracking - I hate to find and item in Room 1 and have to go to Room 10 to use it. Blackwell solves it by using a city map - from this "hub" I can go to any location, which consists of 1-2 screens. Additionally, if a location is not needed later in game, it just disappears from the map. Nifty!
  • nonsense puzzles, like use matches on cheese to build a helicopter. Puzzles in Blackwell are... I wanted to say that they're easy, but it's not true. I'd call them intuitive. And even if you get stuck, using everything on everything is actually doable, because you have just a few items and locations at a time.
  • interface - most point and clicks use some form of the SCUMM standard: you have a few standard actions (look at, use, pick up, talk) and apply them to items/characters on screen. I hate it. Let's say there is a room, doors are locked and there's something shiny on the floor. Click to show action menu, click "Look at", click on the item. It's a key. Click, actions, click, "Pick up", click key. Click to show inventory, click key, use, click door. Action menu, use, door. Opened!
    Blackwell uses a very simplified interface: right mouse button means "look", and the left one means "use". "Use" is the most obvious action on given object: talk to people, open door, pick up item etc. Also, to open the inventory I just need to hover the mouse at the top of the screen. These facilities might seem minor, but they make a big difference to me.

Gilbert understands the genre, but improves greatly upon its flaws. I can't recommend the Blackwell series enough... They're a bliss to play, don't miss out on that!
You can get them on Steam, GOG, Desura and directly from Wadjet Eye.

Ludum Dare 23 post-mortem

I always wanted to take part in Ludum Dare, but every time there were some important things going on in my life. This time I made it, thanks to my wonderful wife! She took our kids to her parents and I had at least 24 hours of free time. I walked with them to the train station and started to think about my game on my road back. Wait, I started to DESIGN my game then, sounds better. The theme was "Tiny world". So I had an idea of a simple god-game, played on a single screen. You must take care of your followers, but your only power is to create and destroy land. It's kinda surprising that all these design choices actually made it into final game!

First things first: play it here!

These are my ratings:
#100 Innovation 3.71
#114 Theme 3.67
#157 Audio 3.17
#201 Humor 2.77
#252 Mood 3.00
#255 Overall 3.28
#358 Graphics 3.02
#455 Fun 2.76

(there were 1402 entries)

Now, it's time for the classic post-mortem!

What went right

1. Technology
I chose to write my game in Java, using libgdx. I ended up using Universal Tween Engine as well. I'm familiar with both of them and feel comfortable using them. I set up my projects in the blink of an eye, thanks to gdx-setup-ui. There were literally no moments of fighting with any of these libraries. I just coded my game as I wanted to. Fun fact: I used Tween Engine for a lot of things, including terrain generation!

2. Hard design choices
I wanted to keep my basic principles (single screen, no direct influence on followers) and it helped me to actually finish the game. I had lots of additional ideas, expanding and even neglecting the base ones, but I quickly realized that if I won't stick to some choices, there's no way I'll finish it in 24h.

3. Not using sfxr/bfxr for sound
Most of LD entries are using some variations of above programs. While they're neat tools to quickly make old-school sounds, I don't really like these sounds. It's annoying to play dozens of games which basically sound almost the same. I recorded all my sounds using a simple microphone (or even my phone). I screamed, hit my desk, threw my children's toys, knocked on the sink etc., then quickly edited all of these in Audacity. It was kinda fun and I think it doesn't sound too bad.

4. Making a game
Yeah! That's the thing I'm most proud of - I created a game from scratch!

What went wrong

1. Playability
My game doesn't feel very fair and fun. (I got the worst place in Fun category, not without a reason!) Unfortunately, I was running out of time and I knew I won't be able to implement features I wanted to... So for the last 1 hour I just balanced all gameplay factors to make it winnable (and not too easy). I was aware that the player doesn't feel involved. But I hope to fix it in some post-compo versions!

2. Sticking to procedural generation
At the beginning I thought that it'd be cool to make a game with no pre-made textures. I wanted everything to be created at runtime. There was no reason to do it and I lost some time before I started drawing anything. Remember kids, don't do anything that slows you down!

3. No tutorial
Again, I had no time to create a decent tutorial, so I just wrote an instruction in the README file and on the LD page. Not everyone reads these things nowadays... Some people were totally confused with my game and never tried to understand it. It's my fault!

I'm very glad I took part in Ludum Dare. A few years ago I was very into painting; I remember that peculiar feeling of filling an empty canvas with an image straight from my head. There's something inexplicably amazing in the act of creation. Ludum Dare made me feel this again - especially that I managed to drive my work into a state of (partial) completion.

Thoughts on Limbo

You've probably heard a lot about Limbo. This critically acclaimed platform-puzzler won a few awards here and there. Yet, I felt disappointed when playing way too often.
It's a very bleak game. Starting from gorgeous greyscale visuals, which set the game's tone. There's no literalness in this aesthetics, every object is represented just by its silhouette. It leaves a room for imagination - which is always good in games. There's absolutely insane attention to detail: tree branches sway in the wind, spider's web leftovers remain sticked to the boy's body after getting free of the web, small rocks fall down when you're sliding down the hill... A separate sentence is needed to cover the boy's animation: it's unbelievably fluid, goes from one animation to another with no visible seams; the boy always puts his foot adjacent to the ground. Every detail is so damn good that you'll stop noticing it after a while. Everything works like it should, you won't see a single graphical glitch in the whole game. Hats off.
Audio adds depth to the atmosphere. Most of the time you'll only hear sounds of your own footsteps and environment. There are no words in Limbo. No human voices. Almost no perceptible music; it makes you feel lonely and hopeless.
Audio and animation is almost exactly what I'm aiming for in Cavery... Enough gushing, let's get to the gameplay! And the disappointment.


Uncertain of his sister's fate, a boy enters LIMBO.

That's all we know about the story and setting. You start in a forest. It's quiet, calm and somewhat unnerving. You learn how to run, jump and die. You will die a lot, in gruesome ways. The boy doesn't scream, he almost always dies in absolute silence - which makes deaths even more unsettling.
Then there's the spider.

If you're still reading this, you've probably finished the game already, so you know about the spider. It's absolutely phenomenal, terrifying and is the thing you'll remember the most from Limbo. I was scared, felt completely helpless and absolutely vulnerable facing him. This spider embodies fear and proves that we're all at least a little arachnophobic. There's something... disturbing about its movement. Also, there's no dramatic music when you're trying to run away - it actually strenghtened my adrenaline rush. Interesting.

All of a sudden, I see some people. They're looking at me, but I can't reach them. They run away after a while. Oh, the spider again. Am I running away from him, or am I chasing these people? Seeing them lightened hope in me; I thought there's some kind of settlement and I'll be safe there, with them.

Oh, so there is the settlement. Burning.
Who set their village on fire? That wasn't the spider... So there's something even more ominous in this world?
I can see them again. But... they're running away. From me. Am I the one they fear? They even set some traps to kill me...

Somebody's sitting there! He won't run away. I'm going to talk to him. Is he wounded? Maybe he needs help?

Planks broke under my body and we fell down, but this man had a rope wrapped around his neck. I killed him... I didn't want to, but I did - and felt bad and guilty about it.

Let's recap: after spending a hour with Limbo, I felt fear, vulnerability, curiosity, sadness and guilt. When a game made you actually FEEL such things? Yeah, I don't remember as well.
This is where Limbo was brilliant.
And then? You enter some kind of a factory and solve physics puzzles. Stacking puzzles. Water puzzles. Gravity puzzles. There's no background story attached to it (like with the spider, people and their village), they're just obstacles you need to pass through. And it goes on, and on, and on... Yes, the game made me feel something again. Frustration.
The puzzles itself are actually inventive and pretty hard at times, but you're forced to repeat them many times, because they often involve an arcade challenge as well. A timed jump, quick run and jump, choosing the right ladder to jump on... There's nothing entertaining in repeating an already solved puzzle, just because you failed at applying this solution. I had to force myself to get through all these challenges. Boring and frustrating task!
It's worth noting though, that Limbo pulls it all off without any inventory and with just a single action button. The amount and diversification of activities is quite impressive.

Suddenly the game ends. You go straight from an arcade challenge (repeated about 15 times in my case) to the final scene. You fall in beautifully slow motion through a mirror (?) to a forest.

Am I again at the point where I started? The boy lies down, but stands up after a long while. I go forward. There's a ladder leading up and a girl; looks like she's digging in the ground. Is this my sister? She notices me and the game ends.

But after the credits there's another scene, looking similar. There are some differences: a rope is hanging from the ladder, and there are swarms of flies in places where they stood a while ago.

I think they're both dead, one of them hanged herself. Judging by their positions, it was her. So, the boy died in some circumstances, and she hanged herself from grief? I don't know. But I like when a game (a movie, a book) asks questions and forces me to think.
But was it neccessary to put me through all these puzzles and challenges? It felt so out of place, so game-y; where the rest strives to innovate. That's why I'm so disappointed.

Still, it's a game you should play. And share your interpretation with me!

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