Blackwell Unbound
 
Interview with Dave Gilbert  
by Danyboy
November 9, 2007

 

The Story:

The year is 1973. The sound of a lone, ethereal saxophone drifts over the Roosevelt Island promenade, while a series of accidents plague a midtown construction site. The citizens of Manhattan take no notice of these events, let alone think they are connected.

Embittered medium Lauren Blackwell and her spirit guide Joey Mallone are the only ones who believe that there is anything strange going on, and they are the only ones who can stop an enigmatic killer from striking again…

 

Introduction:

Dave Gilbert is a short, frizzy-haired New Yorker who gets through life by his wits and a variety of confused expressions. He has been writing games since 2001 and selling them since 2006.

In August 2006 Dave released his first game, The Shivah and in December of that same year The Blackwell Legacy the first game of the Blackwell series was released. In September 2007 the second game of the series Blackwell Unbound was released.

 

The Questions:

Can you give us more details about the Blackwell Unbound story?

Blackwell Unbound takes place in 1973 and is about a medium named Lauren Blackwell, who has been bonded to a spirit guide named Joey Mallone for several years now. Their job is to find lost spirits and help them move on, usually by helping them accept the fact that they are dead. Unbound deals with two ghosts that are seemingly unrelated to each other, but their fates intertwine as the story progresses.

Why did you decide to make a prequel instead of a sequel?

It wasn’t my original intention, but here’s what happened. I had designed a full sequel to Blackwell Legacy, which starred the original character (Rosangela). Within the game, there were a number of flashback sections to the 70s, where you took control of her aunt, Lauren Blackwell, and solved a case that was related to Rosangela’s case in the present. When I sat down with my artist, we realized quickly that the game was very large and it would take a very long time to make. To make it more manageable, I cut out the flashback sections. As time went on, it seemed a shame to waste the flashbacks. So I took what was left of the budget (all $700 of it), put together another team, and made another game.

As it turned out, the flashbacks worked much better as a stand-alone game. So it was one of those “happy accident” things.

Who is Lauren Blackwell?

Lauren Blackwell was Rosa’s aunt, and like Rosa she is a medium and bonded to the ghost Joey Mallone. Lauren is a woman who has isolated herself from her friends and family ever since she discovered her unique ability. Over the years, she’s become very cold and embittered – which expresses itself through biting sarcasm and a tendency to leap head-first into dangerous situations. She also smokes. A lot.

Can you give us some details about our other character Joey Mallone?

Joey is a ghost, and is bonded to the women of the Blackwell family for reasons he can’t begin to understand. He is naturally very charming and easygoing, and hides his bitterness behind a glib joke or a winning smile. But underneath, he is tough as nails and does whatever is necessary to bring ghosts to their final rest. The rest of his backstory is intentionally mysterious, so I won’t say anymore.

Are they two playable characters? If so, what are we going to be able to accomplish with each one of them?

Yes. In Unbound you can control both player characters. Lauren, being the corporeal member of the duo, can talk to other living characters and pick up objects. Joey, being a ghost, can float through walls and sneak into places that Lauren can not. He also is better equipped to handle speaking to spirits, being one himself.

From what I was able to hear, the music in the game is quite enjoyable. Who did the music for the game and why did you choose this jazzy style?

The composer is a Danish man named Thomas Regin, who will be working on the next game as well. The jazz style came about because of the night time setting, and it expressed the moodiness of the characters nicely. I also wanted a soundtrack that you could pop into the CD player and enjoy separately from the game.

Where did this idea of using a medium, Lauren Blackwell and her sidekick Joey Mallone as main characters come from?

The idea came about after watching a silly movie on late night television back in 2002. It was about a medium, and the medium would often call upon her Native American spirit guide and ask it all sorts of questions. Whenever she was in trouble, or needed advice, or was confused, she’d put her fingers to her temples and talk to him. After watching this film, I began to wonder what it must have been like for the spirit guide. The poor guy was forced to be at this woman’s beck and call and there was nothing he could do about it. That gave me the idea of a reluctant spirit guide, and the character of Joey was born soon after. The rest of the story took a few more years to develop.

The graphics that appear in the screenshots have a retro look to them. Why did you choose this particular style for your games?

I’d love to say something intellectual, like I was favoring realism of scenarios over realism of graphics, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t have the budget for anything prettier. Low-res graphics are inexpensive, and a talented artist can make really good low-res graphics in a short amount of time. Hi-res graphics are much more expensive and take much longer to create. Since the key to my business plan was to release my games more frequently, low-res was (and still is) the way to go. I hope to improve the graphics someday soon, but that will have to wait until I have the budget for it.

What makes your games different from any others?

These are the only games in existence that were designed and programmed inside Starbucks. How many other games can beat that?

Seriously though, I’d like to think that I’m bringing something interesting to the table, and that the games I make are games that people will remember long after playing them. The characters in my games are not 100% nice or perfect people; they are flawed and are selfish at times and I hope that makes them human.

Another aspect is the voice acting. Most games have voice acting, but I consider it a vital part of the design process instead of an afterthought. I like to get an actor’s feedback when we record the lines, and they are often instrumental in making the characters stand out. Abe Goldfarb, who plays Joey, will sometimes look at a line and say something like “That isn’t very Joey,” or “Can I try it this way?” or even improvise something totally different that works much better. Not many games rely on their voice actors this way, but for me they are essential in bringing the characters to life. I consider these games a showcase for the actors, as well as for the characters.

Are you happy with the feedback you are receiving so far about the series, and did you change the second game according to that feedback?

Yes and yes! The criticism is mostly positive, but there is always room for improvement. There are three major points of criticism that I’ve taken to heart.

The first major change was to make Joey a playable character. In Legacy he followed Rosa around, but didn’t do very much. A number of players emailed me about this, telling me they wanted Joey to be more useful. They were right. Now the player can take control of Joey, get his feedback on objects and the environment, and use him to solve puzzles in the game. I wanted him to be an equal partner in the relationship, and not just a sidekick.

Secondly, while most reviewers liked Legacy, they universally agreed that there was too much talking and not enough interactivity. For the second game, I tried to keep the dialog shorter and snappier and put more emphasis on being able to do stuff. This meant LOTS of more things to look at and play around with.

The third major critique was Rosa herself. In Legacy, I wanted to show that she was a reclusive and very anti-social person, but I might have gone too far. She was often so awkward that it was difficult for people to relate to her, and they didn’t get a chance to see any other aspects of her personality. Rosa is still going to be shy and awkward in the next game, but there will be a greater emphasis on her other qualities.

Who are the other characters we will encounter while playing Blackwell: Unbound?

You’ll meet a few ghosts, of course. There’s a muttering widow haunting a construction site, and a tight-lipped jazz musician by the river. Two of my favourite characters are a smooth-talking piano player who flirts with you (and generates some of the game’s more funny moments), and a crotchety old woman who extorts money from you. You’ll also meet a character that is based on a living person – that of Joseph Mitchell, a reporter from the New Yorker with a very bizarre history. It’s too much to go into here, but I’d suggest looking him up on wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story.

How many locations are we going to be able to visit during the game, and which one is your favorite?

There are about ten areas to visit altogether, some of them based on real-world places. My favorite location is definitely the Roosevelt Island promenade, where you meet one of the ghosts. It’s my favorite area of the city to walk around in, so it was nice to include it in a game.

What kind of puzzles should we expect to see in Blackwell: Unbound?

I hate arbitrary inventory puzzles, so there won’t be any of those. The majority of the puzzles involve talking to characters, putting together clues (using your notebook) and using Joey to sneak into places and look at things that Lauren can’t. There are also several dialog-based puzzles.

Can you give us a small bio of the members of the Blackwell developing team?

Erin Robinson, who did all the backgrounds and sprite animation in the game, is a Canadian indie adventure developer who is famous for her game “Spooks”, which came out in 2006. Her game was about ghosts, so I knew she would be interested in the subject matter.

Thomas Regin, who I mentioned before, is a Danish composer who has written music for the award-winning Space Simulator OrbiterSim, Garritan's Personal Orchestra and short films, commercials, radio station jingles and whole bunch of other stuff.

Both Thomas and Erin are super talented and were willing to work within my micro-budget, so having them both onboard was a godsend.

Why have you decided to explore some more darker stories and subjects?

It’s hard to say. If I have to give a reason, I mainly want to reach people on an emotional level with these characters and stories. I’ve done comedy games before, but I always found them trite and forgettable when looking at them later. Good drama has a lot more staying power than comedy, although it’s not as marketable.

Are you playing adventure games yourself? If so, what are your favorites?

The one downside to making games is that you have very little time to enjoy them yourself. The upside is that you CAN play games and justify it by calling it research.

Right now, I’m not playing anything, but my favourite adventure game of all time is Discworld Noir. It has its flaws (and many bugs), but it was the game that inspired almost everything I make. It was the first game where I truly felt like a real detective, looking at clues and piecing them together.

Can you give us some details about the third episode of the game and tell us how many episodes you are planning to make?

The third game, The Blackwell Convergence, will star Rosa again and take place in the present day. The initial plot will have Rosa and Joey investigating the New York art and film scene to save a deceased actor, but things get more complex as things go on. You’ll meet many ghosts (there are more ghosts in Convergence than in the other two games combined), some of whom you will recognize. Most of the plot threads from Unbound will be nicely tied up, but a few more will be left to dangle.

I’m planning around 5 Blackwell Games. It might change, but that’s the rough estimate.

Is there anything else we didn’t talk about that you would like to discuss?

I guess I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone out there who has made this “indie game” thing so worthwhile for me. I feel very lucky to be able to do what I’m doing, but I couldn’t have done it without any of you. So, you have my gratitude.

 

Dave, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions about Blackwell Unbound. I wish you the best of luck with your third game.

Official website:

Wadjet Eye Games

 

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