Indie game studio PaperSeven has just released their first game titled Blackwood Crossing on PS4, with the Xbox One and PC release scheduled for tomorrow. The game is a story-driven first person adventure with a rather emotional story surrounding two orphaned siblings, Scarlet and Finn, that explores the themes of childhood, fantasy, and the world that exists between the two.
To learn more about the game at its release, DualShockers got in contact with managing director Alice Guy to talk about story-driven games, puzzles, and Blackwood Crossing’s fantasy world seen through the eyes for these two very interesting characters.
Azario Lopez: What is the most important part about a story-driven game? How did you implement this into Blackwood Crossing?
Alice Guy: The most significant part of a story-driven game is how you marry up story and gameplay; developing an experience that provides both a strong narrative journey but also an engaging interactive experience. At its heart, Blackwood Crossing is a story. But it’s important to make sure we don’t end up with a game that wants to be a movie: games in themselves offer powerful ways to tell stories.
We want to ensure the gameplay in Blackwood Crossing fits with the story, and doesn’t break you out of the narrative experience. We also try wherever possible to tell the story through gameplay, with puzzles and activities that reveal and represent the narrative.
AL: Scarlet and Finn are relatively young characters: how did you go about writing for these characters as they experience terrible situations, like losing their parents?
AG: We spent a lot of time during the pre-production phase getting to know Scarlett and Finn: who they were, what they were about, how they felt about one another. We also researched the different stages of grief in-depth, and looked closely at how young people respond to the loss of a parent.
Oliver [Reid-Smith], our writer (who players may recognize as the writer of The Room), has been able to immerse himself in their lives and script a relationship that feels natural and engaging. In turn, the player (as Scarlett) feels a growing intimacy towards her younger brother, Finn. Part of this is contrasting the darker moments with lighter ones; also, scripting a natural-feeling dialogue of the kind that nearly all siblings engage in, however tragic a situation they find themselves in.
AL: The world in Blackwood Crossing brings about many fantasy-related themes that all take place on a train. Could you tell us more about the train or how it relates to these themes?
AG: From the outset, we’ve been keen to create our own set of rules: our own logic that we could apply to our world and our universe. We figure that, as long as we continually reference them, then our audience will make sense of them and just go with the flow.
The train is a good example of this. Trains are something that the player is going to become very familiar with. But trains are pretty…’samey’. They’re basically corridors on wheels. So, we think about them differently, and you quickly learn this isn’t a normal train. Scarlett at one point remarks, “I feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass”.
We introduce surrealist elements in small, bite-sized chunks: so, when the player walks into the carriage and there’s a tree growing out of it, they don’t get spooked. It becomes the new normal, and they freely climb up the tree. When they go to the very front of the train, they aren’t met by the locked door of the guard’s compartment, but an open doorway into a greenhouse that looks onto a garden: mysterious statue-like characters appear and reappear throughout.
But again, none of this feels jarring.
We really like the idea of the player going into a carriage and things not being exactly as they seem: that it’s in itself, playing a part in the story. The train can change and indicate a change in mood, a more sinister chapter. It can be darker; the audio angrier; the train louder – all these shift the player to a new emotional branch in the story.
AL: There are puzzles through the game that players must complete to progress the story, but it was said that the team worked hard to make these puzzles not feel “mechanical.” Why is this important in a story-driven game?
AG: Blackwood Crossing has a clear story to tell. It’s written and designed to make you think and feel; to have an emotional connection.
To succeed, the player has to bond and connect with the characters, and remain immersed in the narrative. If a puzzle doesn’t feel relatable to the experience, or have any context in the story, then that immersion is broken. One example from the game would be an early password puzzle: traditional fare. But it’s solved by finding a series of Polaroid photos that, in turn, lead to Scarlett recalling memories of them playing together with their shadow puppet theatre: we get to know them that little bit better.
Finn is with you, often leading you through, which means your bond develops naturally.
AL: Now that we are close to the game’s release, what is the atmosphere like at the office?
AG: A real mix…pride, excitement, nervousness, relief!!
It’s always a funny feeling at the end of the game. PaperSeven’s art and design teams have been off the game for month or so, some longer, as the code team focuses on the final bug fixes. Then there’s the inevitable false starts with first-party submissions. So things can feel disjointed, and a bit frustrating, for a while: the release of a game heralds everyone coming back together, which is brilliant for the team.
We’ve put our heart and soul into Blackwood Crossing’s development and so we hope that, a) people hear about it (we’re still a little-known indie), and b) people connect with the world and characters we created.
AL: What ultimately led you to want to tell the story of Scarlet and Finn in Blackwood Crossing?
AG: When we started PaperSeven, it was as much about our desire to create works of art, with style and substance, as it was to create commercial games.
We share a passion in wanting to tell meaningful, well-thought out stories – one of the things that being part of Disney showed us was the power of story – alongside visuals that are stylish and rich.
Perhaps it’s influenced by the fact that the three of us who started the studio are all parents. Perhaps we’ve grown up! But we want to explore experiences with depth and meaning, and create characters and relationships that are believable, and which people can relate to.
When we first started throwing the concept around, we knew we wanted to tell the story of two orphans: “The Disney Effect” coming through again! But there was more focus on the immediate after effects of their parents’ death at that point. When Oliver joined us as writer and lead designer, that was when the core focus became the relationship of these siblings and the story became what it is today.
AL: Being PaperSeven Studio’s first game, do you feel like Blackwood Crossing is a perfect example of the style of games to come from the studio or do you plan to try other genres and story telling techniques?
AG: Blackwood Crossing is the studio’s first console/PC title, and is definitely the style of game we want to continue producing. But, no doubt we’ll continue to develop new techniques and gameplay mechanics. We’ve learnt so much during Blackwood Crossing’s development and it’s always exciting to look ahead and think how we can do it differently next time.
For now, we enjoy the release of Blackwood Crossing; but plans are definitely afoot!
AL: What are your thoughts on the Nintendo Switch, and perhaps could we see Blackwood Crossing making its way onto the new console?
AG: It’s definitely an exciting proposition – a console/handheld hybrid – and one that suits interactive narratives. Everyone I know who has one loves it (and Zelda!).
Obviously, the range of games available is questionable, but hopefully that should ramp up significantly by the end of the year. Right now, we have no plans to develop Blackwood Crossing on the Nintendo Switch but hey: never say never!
AL: Is there anything you’d like to say to those who are planning on purchasing Blackwood Crossing and perhaps those who are just hearing of the game now?
AG: Blackwood Crossing is a brand-new IP from a small UK studio. It’s an ambitious take on the indie-buget interactive narrative with a host of fully-animating characters and handcrafted animations. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s a game that’s designed to take you on an emotional and thoughtful journey. It’s a game that has heart: all for the price of a movie ticket. So I’d say, “Go for it, jump in! What have you got to lose?”
Blackwood Crossing is available now on PS4, and will release for Xbox One and PC on April 5th, 2017 – stay tuned for our upcoming review for a closer look inside the game.