As 2016 was coming to a close, our Senior Editor, Ben Eberle, published a five part column that highlighted games coming out in 2017 that gamers should look forward to. The column put Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, Tacoma, Thimbleweed Park, Yooka-Laylee, and Destiny 2 on the radar of every reader that visited our site (as well as new staff members at the time, like me, who had yet to hear of some of these games).
However, whereas Ben is one to look forward, I prefer to look backwards. There were a few video games that got overshadowed this year, either because they just could not compare to the titles that released around them or because media outlets tore them apart before the general gaming audience had a chance to experience them. So while Ben prepares his list of games that players will need to keep their eye on going into 2018, I want to publish my own column that points out games from 2017 that each did something unique or exceptionally well. As the year comes to a close, players should keep these games, and what they were able to accomplish, in mind. Fingers crossed we see 2018 build on their successes.
The first game I want to highlight is Blackwood Crossing.
Developed by PaperSeven and released in early April for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Microsoft Windows, Blackwood Crossing was met with very positive reviews. However, the game released immediately after both Snake Pass and Thimbleweed Park, and right before Nintendo launched their second wave of Switch consoles that got a new batch of players playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This indie adventure game just could not gather any traction.
Which is a damn shame because, for most of 2017, Blackwood Crossing was at the forefront of my list for Game of the Year. The game puts players in control of Scarlett, a teenage girl who is in charge of watching her younger brother, Finn, as the two travel by train to their grandparents’ house. These two charming souls seemingly stand in stark contrast to the dark and occasionally chilling twists and turns that the story immediately takes; however, both children hide secrets: Finn cannot remember their dead mother’s face (both Scarlett and Finn’s parents died when Finn was still very young) and Scarlett desperately wishes she could forget because the memory of their parents is too painful. Having only each other, the two try to stay united in their efforts to overcome the Alice in Wonderland type adventure that they find themselves trapped in.
“Try” being the key word. The player is tasked with both figuring out what is happening and then ensuring Scarlett and Finn survive the adventure as a family. Blackwood Crossing gives the player supernatural abilities in order to accomplish the first goal, and presents multiple dialogue options aimed at maintaining Scarlett and Finn’s fractured relationship in order to achieve the second. Yet despite the player’s best efforts, the two siblings drift apart by the game’s end. The second goal cannot be achieved.
Blackwood Crossing tackles the part of relationships that very few games want to even acknowledge: when they begin to fray and eventually unravel. When a relationship begins to come apart, it is rarely clean, pleasant, or pretty, and it typically leaves nothing but discomfort, hurt feelings, and tears in its wake. Intent does not matter either. As Blackwood Crossing displays, some relationships can just come to an end, even when both parties did not want it to.
Think about your favorite video game relationships for just a moment. What part of the relationship do those games focus on? Regardless of whether the relationship was platonic or romantic, games almost always solely focus on the start. Gamers get to play as children welcoming their newborn siblings, young adults falling in love, or a leader uniting a group of friends in a common cause. Not many games allow gamers to play through the struggles that come after the adventure is over, when the passion of love and camaraderie has subsided and is replaced by the humdrum of everyday life.
Even fewer games focus on relationships that are outright falling apart. Why would they? Finding new people to meet and starting relationships are goals that can be achieved. Games are meant to be empowering, and giving players the option to earn a sibling’s love, pick and choose the perfect romantic partner, or unite a group of misfits are about as empowering as a game can get. Focusing on the struggle through the less passionate aftermath would never lead to any concrete reward.
When games do acknowledge the quiet struggles of a relationship, it is often only for a very brief scene or passing line of dialogue. It is also almost always in a cutscene. The player never has to play through, and thus live through, the hardship themselves. Gamers do not play through the bad moments of Nathan and Elena’s on-again, off-again relationship. Those two always break up between the Uncharted games. The player only hears about how the couple’s relationship strained until it broke. Ezio’s relationship with Cristine fell apart during the events of Assassin’s Creed II, but every one of those heartbreaking conversations was omitted from the game. For the full story, players had to watch cutscenes at the end of several optional side quests in a completely different game! All three of the original Mass Effect games end before the player has to experience Shepard’s squad, the Commander’s adoptive family, eventually walking away and moving on with their lives. The player reunites with them in every consecutive game, but they are spared the pain of watching all their hard work unravel.
I think plenty of video game developers are scared of empowering their players towards failure. Admittedly, failure never feels good, but feelings of loss are as much a part of love as happiness. Sometimes, relationships just die out; and occasionally that happens quite literally.
Blackwood Crossing refuses to buckle to industry pressures, and gives players the unique opportunity to experience a relationship as it ends. There is no ending to that game where Scarlett and Finn’s relationship is intact. The two do manage to maintain and reaffirm their love for one another, but, by the time the credits roll, it is clear that the two are parting ways.
Two Different Worlds
Throughout the game, it is revealed that Finn still believes in a fantasy where he and his sister happily live together in their own little world, where they are removed from society, schoolyard bullies, and mean teachers. He lives in the past, wanting to return to how life once was. He more easily adapts to the storybook setting the two siblings find themselves in, and seeks to inspire Scarlett to embrace her long-lost childhood creativity. Scarlett, on the other hand, has reached that age where she desperately yearns for adulthood. She spends her days trying on makeup, talking on her cellphone, and hanging out with a neighborhood boy. She lives in the future, looking forward to exploring her own identity and independence. She easily discerns patterns and solves puzzles (through the player) that her brother cannot, and tries to analytically explain away the fantastical setting that the two siblings finds themselves in.
Neither sibling embraces their present, refusing to actually stop, work together, and actually figure out how they have gotten lost in a world where they have gained the abilities to create life, mold fire, and interact with shadows. This world helps distract them from the hard truths they would rather avoid, offering the magical simplicity for a child who is too afraid to look at life as more than a fairy tale, as well as the dark nuance and academic challenge for a teenager who is much too eager to prove how grown up she is by explaining everything away like an adult would.
So concerned are both Finn and Scarlett of their respective identities, that it soon becomes clear that both are, without meaning to, ignoring each other. Sure, both are hearing what their sibling is saying, but neither is actually listening. Finn, because of his age, is desperate for some form of acknowledgement. He craves attention from his sister. He does not comprehend that her new pastimes are not her way of getting rid of him. She has room in her life for both her brother and her new lifestyle, but cutting down on her play time with Finn misconstrues her motivations and makes her brother think that she hates him. Scarlett, obliviously, continues onwards past their debates. She thinks that she is getting her points across, but it is apparent, from Finn’s actions, that her brother does not understand.
Blackwood Crossing’s magic truly takes shape when these moments of misunderstanding finally become understanding. Finn’s temper-tantrum at being left alone literally begins to destroy the world around him in a blaze of pent-up frustration. When Scarlett is visually presented with the twisted fury of Finn’s emotions, she finally understands and starts truly listening to her brother.
Finn learns to acknowledge that, though he does still love and need his older sister, she deserves to discover who she is without him always being by her side. However, as the game continues, the player can feel the underlining tension. Scarlett, though hopeful that both siblings have worked past their differences enough to rekindle their love for one another, realizes that her actions have already caused her and Finn’s relationship to spiral towards destruction.
The Player’s Role
I was able to grab an interview with Oliver Reid-Smith, Writer and Lead Designer for Blackwood Crossing, and ask him a few questions about the sibling’s dynamic in the game and providing a means for the player to have a role in it. “The story is told from Scarlett’s perspective for a number of reasons,” Reid-Smith said when I asked him about why this story of lost love was only told from one side.
“Firstly, she has the best view of everything that has happened. The same story told from Finn’s point of view would be very different, and very hard to follow. He doesn’t understand what is happening at all, so it would be difficult for the player to understand what they were supposed to do. Scarlett’s perspective serves up a very easy motive for the player: follow the boy.”
Blackwood Crossing empowers the player into the role of an older sibling, by “doing instead of showing” as Reid-Smith puts it. Despite the player’s own personal background or family situation, the feeling to protect Finn is instinctual, which invokes a deeper emotional response when things start to come apart. “You’re pretty much forced to get to know him, to form an opinion on him, because you can’t avoid the little snot,” Reid-Smith said. “He’s all up in your personal space, right from the first moment you meet him. That’s the first step of tricking you into caring about him – make you have an opinion.”
To deal with Finn, the player is given several prompts throughout the game to determine how Scarlett will react to his antics and many questions. “Players would usually start off being sarcastic, because it’s fun and because Finn is kind of annoying. As they kept playing, though, they would gravitate towards the kinder answers as they started to warm to him and see his pain and vulnerability,” Reid-Smith said. Yet, much like Scarlett, players are ill-prepared to deal with the baggage that Finn has been carrying with him for some time.
Finn’s questions quickly become accusations, and they soon begin to confusingly fire at the player in rapid succession, leaving a knot in the stomach that never really goes away. His words ring with enough truth to warrant some self-reflection, and the player finds themselves stopping, more than once, to ponder whether they are being the big sister they need to be. “The moment you can’t bring yourself to be mean anymore is the moment you tacitly admit that Finn has got under your skin. Without the dialogue choice, you’d never be given that opportunity to admit to yourself that you care,” Reid-Smith points out.
Finn is cryptic and secretive with what he wants, so the player helplessly pushes forward in desperation, yearning to discover some semblance of hope in one of the corners of the train. There is none to be found. The game’s final truth reveals that more than enough damage has been done to the siblings’ relationship, and it has long since been severed. These two will never be the same, and some part of that is Scarlett, and thus the player’s, fault.
Crossing the Threshold
Alright, I am done dancing around the ending. If you want to play this game spoiler-free, turn back now. I am about to talk about the game’s final five minutes. You have been warned.
Blackwood Crossing ends with the player learning that the distance that Scarlett put between herself and Finn pushed her younger brother into falling into a deep depression and loneliness that ultimately led to his death. It was accidental (he did not mean to kill himself), but Finn is quite dead. There is no repairing his and Scarlett’s relationship because he is now beyond his sister’s reach. With Finn gone, Scarlett cannot begin to make amends. The two do get their final goodbye, in the dream-like vision world that Scarlett finds herself in, but the player is left knowing that there is no hope in repairing something that has already been lost.
As the credits roll, the player is left wondering if they could have done something, anything, to prevent the loss of Scarlett’s little brother. “That the guilt [Scarlett] feels is simply down to surviving, to still being alive, rather than her actually having done something wrong. All she ever did was be a normal teenager,” Reid-Smith remarks. Scarlett did not do anything wrong, and neither did the player. Intentions, however, do not guarantee certain results, and the game respects the player enough to let them know that there is no way to know the logical conclusion of a person’s actions.
Blackwood Crossing provides no answers, merely letting the player see that a person’s words and actions carry a powerful weight that can strain even the strongest bonds into breaking. Once someone leaves, whether it is a break-up, a friend moving on, or death, there is no going back. Fixing a relationship needs to happen before that point of no return is reached.
All types of relationships will end if they are ignored, but Blackwood Crossing eloquently points out that simply acknowledging them is not a sure-fire way they survive. It is a truth that hurts, but it is one that needs to be told. People need to come to terms with the realization that it takes more than hard work and kind words to maintain connections with other people. It also takes a certain amount of reflection, admittance to one’s mistakes, and self-improvement. That feeling of empowerment may help you find and acquire a happy relationship, but it does not mean you are entitled to it.
Hopefully, going into 2018, we get more games like Blackwood Crossing. Society needs more games that force people to experience hardship just as much as accomplishment. It will invite a greater understanding that helps people better address difficult periods of life when they occur in reality.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go call my sister. It’s been a while since last we spoke.
Please check out my full interview with Oliver Reid-Smith. I was fascinated to dive into his team’s purposeful creation of Blackwood Crossing’s world and their careful implementation of character interaction to convey a phenomenal narrative.