At this year’s E3 convention, I had the opportunity to meet with Deck13’s Executive Director, Dr. Florian Stadlbauer, and Creative Director, Jan Klose, to get a demonstration of their newest adventure release, Black Sails. You probably know Deck13 as the developers behind the Ankh series and Jack Keane, or from Haunted, their other game currently in production. There’s more to the studio than just comedies, however, as evidenced in this new title that recently debuted in Germany. An English translation hasn’t begun yet, which meant they had to translate for me what was going on in the game story-wise, but I was still able to get a solid impression of what looks to be a very creepy and mysterious adventure.
The time is the late 19th century. A reporter from New York, Anna, is travelling on a large passenger ship. Suddenly the ship crashes, though the exact cause of the accident is not clear to the player or to Anna herself, and sinks. It appears there are only two survivors: Anna and a man she doesn’t know. They struggle to tread water, and somehow survive long enough to discover another ship passing by. It ignores them, but they manage to climb aboard anyway through an open window. Anna and the stranger, Lex, find themselves in a large fully-furnished cabin with no occupants. The door to exit the cabin is locked. Later they’ll discover much of the ship is in the same condition: habitable, but devoid of life. What happened here? And what do they do now?
To Anna’s distaste, the first thing Lex does is find and appropriate a gun. He says he wants to explore the ship and see if there’s anything else of value. This introduces a unique gameplay mechanic for Black Sails. Anna is not alone, free to explore the ship at her whim, as there is someone else on board with his own thoughts and agenda. How you, the player, decide to deal with Lex can affect the way the game proceeds in many ways. For example, he may be more or less willing to assist you in solving puzzles depending on whether you try to win him over or treat him rudely. Your relationship with Lex is one of the factors that can even determine which of the game’s several endings you experience.
Though Lex never becomes a playable character, nor is he your constant companion, always ready and waiting to be spoken to or asked for help. At points in the story you may split up and decide to explore different areas of the ship. At others there may be multiple solutions to the same puzzle, depending on your approach. There are also optional puzzles that are not necessary for completing the game, but provide backstory on the crew and how the ship arrived in its current circumstances.
Like Deck13’s other games, Black Sails is a third-person, point-and-click adventure, and controls very traditionally. Interaction is handled with contextual single-button mouse clicks, or via icons in the lower-left corner for Examine and Use. A Quest Log keeps track of what needs to be done next, while the inventory you collect can be examined more closely by combining them with a magnifier. I didn’t see many actual puzzles in the short demo, but one involved Anna discovering several yellowing documents with peculiarly-placed holes in them. When arranged together, the holes highlighted three numbers that turned out to be the combination to a locked chest in the cabin.
There’s something rather unnerving about the world of Black Sails. Maybe it’s the way the ship’s environment is slightly tinged with green. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that all these carefully decorated rooms have nobody living in them. It’s the kind of place where you’re always waiting for something very, very bad to happen. Deck13 would not comment on the possibility of eventually finding another person alive (or not alive) onboard, though they did say a primary goal of theirs was to unnerve the player, and at times you may need to do things you’re not really comfortable with.
This early demonstration may have provided more questions than answers, but I look forward to investigating the mystery myself when the English version of Black Sails is released. When that might be is still uncertain for now, as no launch date has yet been announced, and localized versions of previous Deck13 games have been known to take some time. They do tend to arrive, however, later if not sooner, and if what I've seen so far is any indication, Black Sails will be worth the wait for adventure fans.