I recently started a small column that highlights video games from 2017 that accomplished something truly special, but were unfairly overshadowed by the games that released around them. The first game I covered was PaperSeven’s Blackwood Crossing, a game that acknowledges how it feels for a relationship to fracture. It is a subject that most games shy away from, but Blackwood Crossing gives the topic the respect it deserves.

I got in touch with Oliver Reid-Smith, Writer and Lead Designer of Blackwood Crossing, to get some deeper insight into how PaperSeven created the two main characters of the game and ask how they created such an empathetic narrative. Below is our full correspondence, edited for greater readability.

Jordan Ramée: Blackwood Crossing lacks text log and audiotape info dumps, and cutscenes are short and pretty interactive. No tutorial either. Players are pretty much always in control of Scarlett. I assume this was purposefully done for the narrative?

Oliver Reid-Smith: Yes, interactivity was always a major priority for us. The old maxim in film-making is “show, don’t tell.” Film is a visual medium, so why tell me something you can show me instead? I’ll be more engaged if I watch it happen than just hear about it having happened.

Video games are also an interactive medium, so you can extend that list to “do, don’t show.” Why have me watch something instead of have me do it? So that’s how we look to tell our stories. We won’t tell you something if we can show you, and we won’t show you if we can have you participate. It’s all about interaction.

I believe people build such a strong connection to Finn because of the constant interaction you have with him. Text and audio logs can feel distant, whereas Finn feels very close to you. You’re pretty much forced to get to know him, to form an opinion on him, because you can’t avoid the little snot. 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.

JR: Although not unheard of, most adventure games feature a character who is entirely alone or who speaks with another character they can’t directly interact with (like Firewatch). Yet Scarlett regularly speaks to and plays with Finn. Why have the player directly interact with Finn, as opposed to encountering objects or sounds that would remind Scarlett of her little brother?

OR: A lot of games employ what I call “archeological storytelling,” which is to say that the story the game is telling has already happened and it’s your job to piece it back together from what remains. I’m a big fan of this, and I think it’s something video games can offer that no other medium can: exploration as a means of storytelling.

Keeping characters at a distance also lets you skip the technical challenge of putting them on the screen, which is a pretty big bonus. At PaperSeven, we were keen to tackle this challenge head on because we want to make games that feel intimate. We want to let people get close to our characters, and that means putting them front and centre.

We do have some objects to reminisce over, but ultimately we’re only reminding Scarlett of her little brother so that the audience can get to know him for the first time. What could possibly do that better than meeting the man himself? Re-living memories with Scarlett first hand brings Finn to life far more than hearing her reminisce as she encounters an object from their past.

JR: So, why tell this story from the perspective of Scarlett, the one left behind, as opposed to Finn, the one who got to reunite with their parents?

OR: The story is told from Scarlett’s perspective for a number of reasons. 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.

Ultimately, this is Scarlett’s story that we want to tell. It’s about her taking the first steps towards getting closure on what has happened. That gives her a much bigger overall arc than Finn. She has more she needs to do to move forward precisely because she’s the one left behind, the one who needs to keep living. It’s much harder to come to terms with being alive. Being dead, by contrast, is pretty simple. In the same time it takes Finn to reach a conclusion, Scarlett only makes it as far as a new beginning.

JR: Although I ultimately discovered that my dialogue choices had no effect on the outcome of the story, I did enjoy them. They allow the player to shape Scarlett into almost completely different characters across different play throughs. Sarcastic and sassy Scarlett just feels so different from the Scarlett who’s serious all the time. What was your thought process behind giving players that choice?

OR: Even though the dialogue choices have no impact on what happens, they still make you stop and think. They are a moment for you to pause and consider how you (and Scarlett) feel about Finn right now, and that does help build an emotional connection.

One thing that we regularly found during play testing is that 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. Making that transition changes the way the story feels, even though it doesn’t change the final outcome.

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.

JR: Why an older sister, younger brother dynamic (as opposed to two brothers or two sisters)?

OR: The brother-sister dynamic was a part of the concept from the very beginning. All I can say is that it just always felt right. There’s something pleasingly balanced about it. It amplifies the friction of their differences, which shows the harmony of their similarities in even sharper relief.

JR: Unfortunately for you, I watched an episode of Criminal Minds last night where a young boy fell in love with his older sister because their parents died when he was too young to remember them, and it messed up his psychological “love-map.” So I have to ask, same situation here? Does Finn heavily gravitate towards his older sister in a bizarre incest-Oedipus complex type relationship? Is that partly why he takes her increased distance so hard?

OR: Personally, I’d never considered anything oedipal to be at work here. In my mind, Finn feels the loss of Scarlett so keenly mostly because he has no-one else. Before Cam, Scarlett had no-one else either, so there was a period during which they were each other’s whole worlds. I don’t think it would matter if Scarlett was a girl or a boy or a pet kestrel, it’s them being the only thing that each other had that drives them so close and makes the inevitable separation even harder to bear.

He is jealous of Cam, and Freud would undoubtedly say that sex is at the route of that, but that’s Freud for you. Sex is at the route of everything with Freud!

I think this is ultimately something that the audience owns for themselves. It’s different interpretations of the same relationship, and every interpretation is as true as any other, just as it would be if Scarlett and Finn were real.

JR: Y’all do a very good job at never really pointing to who’s at fault for Finn and Scarlett’s relationship unraveling, and thus Finn’s accidental death. Was that intentional?

OR: Yes, it was very important to Scarlett’s arc that she wasn’t directly at fault. That the guilt she 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.

JR: So there was no one at fault?

OR: No.

JR: The Alice in Wonderland themes are fairly obvious, but did you look to any other works for inspiration for the story?

OR: We kind of backed into the Alice in Wonderland stuff by accident, to be perfectly honest. It’s all Scarlett’s fault! Isaac the ‘rabbit boy’ is actually a hare, and has been right from his earliest concepts. We were very much in a traditional folklore headspace rather than anything Lewis Carroll related. Unfortunately, that’s not a very believable distinction for a fourteen year old in Scarlett’s position to draw. There’s no-one there to correct her, and so she calls him “rabbit-boy.” Once you have a girl following what she believes is a rabbit into a surreal adventure, it would be pretty odd for her not to make the connection.

That’s about it as far as this inspiration goes. It inspired Scarlett to not be able to tell the difference between a hare and a rabbit!

JR: Haha, fair enough. Any inspirations taken from your own life?

OR: In terms of my own life experience, I have a sister who is four years younger than me. We grew apart when I hit my teens, and again when I went off to university, and I never properly realized how big a deal that was until much later.

Talking with other members of the team, we quickly realized that this was very common. Pretty much everyone with a sibling has experienced some version of this separation, so we felt there was something very truthful and resonant to it. It was a route into the idea of losing a sibling that far more people could relate to.

JR: Is that why you felt this story needed to be told?

OR: I think Blackwood Crossing frames the sibling relationship in a way that other mediums can’t achieve. In a movie, Finn would always feel like Scarlett’s brother. Blackwood Crossing succeeds in making him feel like your brother, which brings the whole experience that much closer to home. We’ve had a great response from people telling us how they finished the game and immediately phoned a brother or sister that they hadn’t spoken to in far too long. That’s a really special thing to hear.