Blackwood Crossing is a phenomenal story trapped in a frustrating game. The review dives into the details of that conclusion, examining how each of the systems interact to amplify or tarnish the game as a whole. But the story itself, which resonates with the player long after they have finished the game, deserves a deeper look. What makes it an example of phenomenal storytelling are three invisible themes running throughout, each defining how to tell the story with maximum impact.
SPOILER WARNING: Important story and gameplay details will be discussed below. Proceed at your own risk.
EXPOSITION WITHOUT EXPLANATION
Storytelling in video games is a burden. How do you deliver information to the player without them feeling as if they are no longer playing a game? Text logs are too much of an information dump. Found tapes become background chatter disconnected from the real action. Cutscenes, if not done right, are annoying movies interrupting actual gameplay.
Ironically, Blackwood Crossing tells a fantastic story by never really telling it. There are no heavily scripted moments of character introduction or stilted scenes that the player character is animated through. There are also no journal entries or second-person tutorials or other sources of concrete information. This is not a story told in the detailed recreation of past events but rather in the unsettling present shaped by them.
Scarlett is trapped in a dreamscape, chasing after the memory of her late brother, Finn. There is no need to replay her parent’s funeral or the tragic moment in which she learned of Finn’s death. She has already experienced those events – why show them only for the sake of the player? Instead, we inhabit Scarlett as she is now, a conundrum of grief and denial, grasping at answers amidst twisted memories.
This brilliant choice, to hide the most basic details of the story from the player, slowly forces them into the same mindset as the main character. They become as puzzled and confused as Scarlett is, surrounded by the emotional fragments of tragedy. And when that mindset fully takes hold, every other element of the game takes on a heightened effect.
STORYTELLING THROUGH SETTING
In most games, story is confined to it’s own little game design toolbox of over-expositional dialogue, interstitial cutscenes, and textbox backstories. It often falls to the same fate as action movie narrative, whose sole purpose is to string together as many different explosive set pieces as possible.
But in Blackwood Crossing, where the story is integral to the game, every element of game design plays its part in amplifying the narrative. The setting in particular becomes an extension of the story, imparting upon the player almost as much information as the dialogue.
Scarlett (and the player by proxy) spend a majority of the game in an emotional whirlwind. Memories are her constant companion, from happier childhood times to bouts of teenage anger. These are the moments that define Scarlett as a character and are of paramount importance to the overall narrative arc of the game.
Blackwood Crossing places the player in these moments. Not as they happened, but rather as how Scarlett looks back upon them. Filled to the brim with emotional details and bedecked with every little garish feature. Immensely familiar but infinitely hazy. And then the game leaves the player to explore these spaces, to find the little tidbits that make sense.
Wandering through Scarlett’s memories, of her grandfather’s greenhouse and Finn’s treehouse-turned-imaginarium, strengthens that link between player and character. These seamlessly connected spaces are strung together like pearls of the past, allowing the player to slowly learn more about Scarlett and giving physical context to her complex emotions.
COMPLEXITY IS EMPATHY
Simplicity breeds complacency; good guys vs. bad guys, right vs wrong. A simple story has the tendency to dull the player and lessen their emotional connection to the game. It’s hard to care about a one-dimensional character.
Blackwood Crossing stays away from this, choosing instead to dive deeply into the complexities of human nature. It portrays characters as human, each with their own set of expectations and flaws. The story is built upon these individuals and how they react both to tragic events and to each other.
Finn, the orphaned boy who can’t remember his mother’s face. Cam, the teenage boyfriend unsure of how to comfort in the face of overwhelming sorrow. Scarlett, the girl who feels as if her growing freedom comes at the cost of family. Every character in the game struggles with layered emotions and how to express (or hide) them when interacting with one another.
This creates a world in which characters wear an emotional and literal mask, each standing marooned in the multi-faceted landscape of Scarlett’s memories. As the player encounters each character again and again, they slowly peel back layers of half-truths and false posturing to reveal an entangled web of emotional dependencies. When the characters are laid bare, it’s impossible for the player to feel anything but overwhelming empathy.
Blackwood Crossing is at its finest when every element of storytelling comes to a fever-pitch climax. In that moment, the player understands that there will always be questions and that answers are both everywhere and absent. That what surrounds you is as important as what happens. And ultimately, that nobody is as simple as they seem.