Blackwood Crossing begins in a quiet passenger train speeding through the countryside. It ends in the same place with little changed, but between those two moments is a game of quiet exploration and subtle catharsis — a journey that is less about resolution than it is of understanding.
You play as Scarlett, a teenage girl introduced through faint window reflections and a running dialog with her little brother, Finn. Their relationship is a welcome twist on the brother-sister dynamic with hidden undertones of regret and guilt. Finn is the driving focus of the game, the player having to chase after him as he scampers into and out of an endless number of train cars and troubling visions. This singular pursuit is the main thoroughfare of the game; Blackwood Crossing is firmly within the derisively monikered “walking simulator” genre.
And yet, for all the pangs of boredom that label will induce, Blackwood Crossing is anything but dull. It is imaginative and emotional, thrusting the player into off-kilter surroundings strewn with odd imagery and set to an effective score. The style constantly sways between aesthetically realistic (Hitchcock, Bioshock) and playfully imaginative (Kate Bush, Charlie Kaufman). It creates a dream-like atmosphere, one that warps and wavers in sync with subtle emotional cues.
This intrinsic link between story and environment, two typically disparate elements of game design, works to enhance the impact of both. Blackwood Crossing is filled with masterful shifts between dichotomous tones, seamlessly bridging the player from moments of childlike wonder to existential foreboding (and back again); crayon drawings and paper crafts; empty train cars draped with somber moving shadows; childhood locations recreated in nostalgic glory; mysterious figures motionless and masked.
All is ephemeral and everything is unreal, a conundrum of a world that the player wanders through in search of fragmented information. Exposition is doled out in obfuscated morsels that enhance the overwhelming sense of uncertainty and mystery. And answers, when they do come, are paradoxically indefinite and impactful. To put it simply: the storytelling of Blackwood Crossing is as emotionally complex as the story that it tells, which is why it’s a shame that such an incredible story is marred by multiple badly implemented game systems.
Player movement is sluggish and cumbersome, the character moving in forceful half-steps that follow through long after any controller input has ceased. Add to that a slight rebound effect when stopping and it makes the protagonist feel like a rolling vat of jello. Every step or change in direction becomes a frustrating exercise in tip-tapping the controls; expect to stumble into doorframes and side tables all throughout the game.
Unfortunately, gameplay shares largely the same fate. The entire game revolves around interacting with objects, both in puzzles and general navigation. It’s a common system that is implemented in an incredibly frustrating manner. Looking at something at the wrong angle, from too far or too close, or anywhere but the exact correct spot results in no interact prompt appearing at all. It becomes its own sort of puzzle — where exactly does the game want me to hover the cursor? How many times must I wiggle the mouse before I can click? It’s a frustrating dance that the player must go through with every single interaction in the game. Combine that with puzzles that don’t feel particularly challenging or frequent enough, and the entirety of gameplay becomes too tedious to be enjoyable.
For a game like Blackwood Crossing, the emphasis is on making the player feel the same emotions as Scarlett the protagonist; annoyance at their little brother; fear of the creeping unknown around them; nostalgia for the simpler, happier days of childhood. Good game design does this by leveraging every piece of the experience, from gameplay to setting to score, to envelop the player in a cohesive milieu. And then the player is forced to sit in that stew, to feel the tension ratcheting and lessening as needed, until it all boils over in a satisfying conclusion.
Blackwood Crossing comes close to achieving that. The piecemeal method of deliberate storytelling and endless series of fantastical environments do a great job at building a sense of intrigue and wonder within the player. But every time you bump into a wall or fail to click an object just right, all of that emotional build-up falls apart. This is a game that desperately wants to tell its story and have an immense impact on the player’s heart and soul. And there are moments, fleeting but powerful, where it succeeds. But there are also too many moments of frustration — too many times where you feel as if you are fighting the game instead of experiencing it.