The Blackwell Deception - Dave Gilbert interview
It’s been more than two years since we last met up with psychic medium Rosangela Blackwell and her spiritual ghost guide Joey Mallone. But New York is the city that never sleeps for both the living and the dead, and much has happened since then. New crimes have been committed, more people have died, and yet their ghosts still linger behind, clinging to a remnant of their earthly lives, unable to let go and unaware that they’ve even passed on. Still among the living in NYC, fortunately, is developer Dave Gilbert, who’s been hard at work on Blackwell Deception, the fourth installment of the popular indie series. The game is nearing its final stages of production, and I recently had the chance to put the latest mystery through its supernatural paces.
Deception begins with Rosa and Joey arriving on a yacht that’s been mysteriously unmooring itself and setting sail each night with no crew aboard. This self-contained scenario acts as a brief tutorial, introducing the basic mechanics of tabbing to switch characters, right-clicking to examine and left-clicking to interact, though if you don’t accidentally happen to sweep the cursor to the top of the screen, you may not notice that’s where the hidden inventory bar is stored, let alone that you begin with a few items already in it, like Rosa’s cool new glow-in-the-dark business cards. I say “items”, though of course Joey can’t pick up any actual objects; a fact he sarcastically reminds you of every time you direct him to try. His lone “inventory” (apart from his spiritually-conductive necktie that only Rosa and other ghosts can touch) is the ability to physically manifest little breaths of air – enough for the living to feel mildly but not enough impact anything but the smallest of objects.
While there are a few inventory obstacles scattered throughout the game, much of the adventure relies far more on the ability to effectively use Rosa and Joey’s abilities cooperatively. Unlike many games whose dual protagonists are all but cosmetically identical, here the differences between them are crucial. Rosa is repeatedly stopped by locked doors and barriers, where Joey can simply zoom right on through to snoop around inside. The problem is, he can’t do much once he’s there except have a look around. He can talk with other ghosts, however, and his interactions lead to some interesting new developments this time. Did you know ghosts can be shot? I didn’t until now. It can’t kill them, of course, but apparently it stings a lot. Joey also gets a chance to flirt with a young woman at a nightclub. I’d say he even “dances” with her, but c’mon, this is Joey. She does all the dancing; Mr. Mallone has NO moves at all.
While Joey is the eyes of the outfit, Rosa is the hands, as only she can tangibly interact with the world, collecting items, entering codes, and researching information. Thankfully, Rosa’s caught up with the times and bought herself a smart phone, so no more slogging all the way back to her apartment to use the computer. Along with receiving emails, the “Oogle” search function returns once again. This is important in following up several leads, though I was disappointed to find many entries registered zero results (though for gameplay purposes, that’s undoubtedly better than its namesake’s millions of useless ones.) The ability to combine notes is back as well, which is as simple as clicking two separate clues to see if they’re connected. It’s easy to forget about this feature, and some combinations are less intuitive than others, so it’s important to be thorough in examining your leads whenever new ones present themselves.
There are many leads to follow this time, as the bodies soon begin to pile up. An old news journalist pal of Rosa’s asks her to help him research a story about a cult leader who seems to be causing numerous deaths around the city, though none are ever directly linked to him. Several are connected to a clearly fraudulent psychic (pretty easy to tell when you’re a real one), from whom our protagonists learn of a wildchild university student found cast away in a dumpter, though presumed dead from natural causes; and a smitten lass still pining for a lost lover who wanted nothing more to do with her even before she died. Another elderly woman isn’t dead yet, but she’s inexplicably turned against her family and been put in a nursing home. Weaving your way through each individual case makes up the bulk of the game, though there are still more deaths best left to discover for yourself. Along with the main investigation, a bit more of Joey’s backstory is fleshed out in the process, relating to how and why he died, though as yet providing no definitive answers.
Dialogue puzzles make up the remainder of Deception’s gameplay. In fact, dialogue in general is important, as you’ll spend plenty of time talking to people, including a New York detective working a related case and a would-be boyfriend of one of the deceased. You’ll even get to interact with a giggling little baby, though for obvious reasons, he doesn’t have much to say. Some conversations have optional lines, though you never know where a vital topic may be lurking, so you’ll likely want to exhaust them all and return again when you’ve discovered new information. Rosa and Joey can also talk to each other about the clues they’ve procured, though the non-linear nature of the story means some details are discussed out of sequence, at least for now. The “plan the next move” option effectively works as a hint guide, but the clues can be a bit vague, so you’re on your own (well, the two of you, anyway) for the most part.
As expected in a Blackwell game, the characters are all well written in a believable way: Rosa continues to be a conflicted blend of insecurity and determination; Joey is as razor-tongued (and funny) as ever; and the many victims are in equal parts hostile, confused, suspicious, and fearful. Not all roles were fully voiced in the preview version, but most were and the performances are once again solidly delivered. Rebecca Whittaker returns from Convergence to voice Rosangela, while Abe Goldfarb is still going strong as Joey. Each line is fully subtitled, however, so you can easily skip through if you’d rather read ahead. The music in Deception plays only sporadically, once again displaying a tendency towards soft brass and piano jazz, though the style and tempo dramatically ramp up in a nightclub and at least one other tense scene.
Unfortunately, the nature of the investigation doesn’t allow for the most scenic of New York vistas, as you’ll spend most of your time in fairly nondescript interiors like business offices and apartments. It’s all done in the series’ usual retro pixel art style, occupying various degrees of screen real estate. Smaller locations fill only a central square, while hallways run in a letterbox-type format, and a few fill the entire screen. Character portraits during conversations are nicely designed but much smoother than their in-game counterparts, making them seem a little out of place. Special effects are at a minimum, but the light reflects smartly on a New Jersey harbour, and it’s always fun to watch Joey’s ethereal form bob up and down.
Blackwell Deception comes to a suitably dramatic conclusion, offering a unique bit of insight into the nature of Joey and Rosa’s relationship in an intriguing twist. While not ending on a cliffhanger, there’s clearly plenty more adventuring to come, as the two fully commit themselves to further pursuing a grand plot only teased at here. If you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, you’ll no doubt be ready to continue the journey with them, as this game provides more of what you’ve liked so far, and then some. The story is parceled out very slowly and it’s still somewhat limited in scope, depending far more on thorough sequences of research and conversation than varied, substantial gameplay, but as a character-driven supernatural drama, there’s plenty of bright lights here. Still not convinced? Then while we wait for the game’s release next month, let’s head behind the scenes for a little one-on-one interview time with designer Dave Gilbert himself.
Adventure Gamers: ZZZZzzzzzzzz… Wha? Oh, sorry. Dozed off while waiting for Blackwell Deception. It’s been a while since Convergence, hasn’t it?
Dave Gilbert: Hah. I suppose it has! After Convergence, we started working on Puzzle Bots as well as another game for PlayFirst. The PlayFirst game got cancelled in the end, but both projects kept us pretty busy for a long time. Then, after Puzzle Bots wrapped up, I was all set to work on Blackwell Deception when Gemini Rue fell into my lap. Since that game was closer to being complete, we decided it would be better to put all our resources into getting that finished first. So it’s taken a while for Deception to get here, but the wait’s almost over.
AG: So tell us about the shift from indie developer to publisher. What’s that experience been like?
Dave: It’s been a ride! From the beginning, it always bothered me that I only had the resources to release around one game a year, so taking on other developers’ projects seemed like a natural next step. It also frees me up considerably. Normally when I work, I feel a constant pressure to get a game out the door as fast as possible in order to bring in money, so I have always held myself back from creating something really big or epic. But since we have all these other games in the fire, it’s not as big a worry anymore. We can now take some risks that we couldn’t take before. It’s very liberating.
AG: Have you been taking a pretty hands-on role as publisher, or are you mainly leaving development in the hands of their creators and focusing on bringing them to market?
Dave: For the most part it is the developer’s show, but it depends on the game. We were heavily involved with Puzzle Bots from the beginning – we funded it and programmed the whole thing. With Gemini Rue, there was much less work on our end. It was basically handed to us almost finished and we helped add some finishing touches (like the voice acting, QA, and character portraits) and dealt with all the marketing and sales.
For future projects, we’d like to strike a medium between the two. Waiting around for a nearly-complete game to fall into our laps is not a good business model, but funding and programming someone else’s game from scratch is just too much of a risk (and leaves us unable to work on our own projects). So what I’ve been doing is looking around for in-the-works projects that show a lot of promise and asking the developer if they would be interested in having Wadjet Eye involved. Some have said yes, some have said no, some are still thinking about it.
AG: Are there more publishing projects in the works?
Dave: Yep! I’ve got two contracts signed with two different developers, and I’m in talks with two others. We’re hoping to get one of the signed games out by GDC next year, so keep an eye out for that.
AG: Have you been able to make a career of this, or do you still rely on “real” jobs to help pay the bills?
Dave: This has been my fulltime career since 2006, so game development has been my “real” job for quite a while. It hasn’t always been easy, and I am terrified to look at my credit score, but I can’t think of anything else more fulfilling. My wife has joined me full-time now as well, so I’m no longer working by myself.
AG: Well, we’re glad you haven’t stopped developing games yourself. A lot of people are anxiously awaiting a new Blackwell installment. What’s in store for Rosa and Joey this time around?
Dave: Well, the gist of the game is a conspiracy surrounding storefront psychics, and the people they come in contact with. You get a lot of those psychics here in New York (they are EVERYWHERE) and I thought it would be an interesting mystery to wrap a Blackwell story around. Like all Blackwell games, there are ghosts that you need to help move on, and Deception has more than ever. Eight in total (including Joey).
Fans will also be glad to know that the game is significantly larger than its predecessors. I’ve always tried to increase the length and scope of these games with each installment, and this is no exception. The file size is easily double what the last game was (sorry, dial-up users) and it’s taking the average tester about 8 to 10 hours to finish the game on their first playthrough. So I am hoping to give players a bigger experience than previous Blackwell games.
AG: The last installment introduced characters that clearly factor heavily into both Joey’s past and Rosa’s future. Any insights you can share along those lines? Will these plotlines be explored heavily in Deception, or will you keep teasing us for a while?
Dave: Yep, they’ll be explored to a degree. One of the first characters you meet is from Rosa’s past, and some stories about Joey’s life will come up. Some questions will be answered, but some will still remain. It wouldn’t be Blackwell otherwise.
AG: On a more personal note, do you believe in ghosts?
Dave: It’s terrifying to believe that we’re just gone when we die, which is probably why people like stories about ghosts so much. I’ve always been interested in stories where people confront the choices they’ve made, and that’s a big chunk of what Blackwell is about, really. Helping people confront their choices.
AG: Your games so far have slanted heavily in favour of story over puzzles. Has that been a conscious effort to keep the games accessible, or is that just a matter of focusing on doing what you do (or like) best?
Dave: It’s always been a hard balance to strike. You want to tell a good story, but the very nature of the medium (no pun intended) forces you to throw up roadblocks that stop the player cold. Also, I will often come up with a great idea for a scene, only to put it into the game and realize it’s horrible. Sometimes to make a scene work you have to set things up in a very specific way, and you have to force the player into a situation that they wouldn’t intuitively be in on their own. So you take control out of the player’s hands, and it becomes a movie that you click through, with maybe a dialog choice menu or two to add the illusion of interactivity. I used to do this a lot (a massive chunk of Blackwell Legacy, for example!), so I know full well the temptation of falling into that trap.
One of the side benefits of working on Gemini Rue was that I had the time to work on Deception’s design a lot more. It’s the first game where I re-designed and re-coded entire sections based on tester feedback. If I wasn’t happy with one aspect of it, or the testers really hated something, I was able to chuck it and try something else. A year ago I never would have considered doing that, since I was always aware of the clock ticking and my bank account draining. As a result, I think I’ve managed to strike a good balance between story and puzzles this time. *crosses fingers*
AG: Do you have a defined number of Blackwell episodes already in mind, or are you letting the series evolve naturally and see how far it takes you?
Dave: I’ve always had a good idea of how the Blackwell story was going to progress. There are a bunch of story “beats” that I want to hit, and I know I can stretch or shrink the number of games depending on how things go. Originally, I planned on making around ten games, and I vaguely remember my naïve 2006-self thinking I could get a new Blackwell game out every four months. Oh ho ho. You’re funny, 2006-self.
When I made Convergence, I realized very quickly that that lofty goal would never happen, so I sped things up a bit. The introduction of Madeline, for example, was supposed to have an entire game dedicated to it. There will probably be two more Blackwell games after this one, for a total of six. I don’t want to keep the fans waiting forever for me to finish the story, and I don’t want to get totally sick of it before I get there.
AG: Presumably the pixel art style of Blackwell was necessitated at least in part by budget, but going retro also has a definite nostalgic appeal. If you had the money, would you invest heavily in an artistic overhaul for future episodes, or do you prefer the old-school look in its own right (at least for this series)?
Dave: Being a part of the AGS community for so long, I’m so used to pixel adventure games that I think of it as totally normal. But that said, I would love to invest in an artistic overhaul if I had the money. Although, if my experience with Emerald City Confidential is anything to go by, having a budget means that the cost of everything just skyrockets, and you find yourself cutting back on features and assets in order to stay under budget. So… I guess it depends on how much money you’re talking about.
AG: Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the question everyone wants to know: does Joey have feet?
Dave: Sure he does. They are buried six feet underground with the rest of him.
AG: Argh! Walked right into that one (ahem). Thanks for taking time to answer our questions, Dave. Let’s do it again in less then two years’ time for the next episode, all right?
Dave: I’ll do my best! I plan on making a non-Blackwell game next, just to try something different, but I’ll always come back to Blackwell in the end. Thank you all for your patience!