I've always been a little bit bewildered as to why so many blatantly lost, lonely, unhappy people flock to videogames. I've always found games to be quite cold, sterile, impersonal things. I've found escapism in videogames, but I've never found any companionship. I've rarely found any warmth. They are very sparse, utilitarian things; even when they feel their best, they feel very lonely.
Blackwell is a series about loneliness. I mean, it's a series of point and click games about a failed writer who exorcises ghosts in New York with the help of her sarcastic, misanthropic, fedora wearing ghost sidekick, but - y'know, fundamentally. Fundamentally it's a series about loneliness.
In the Blackwell games you play as Rosangela, a neurotic, anxious, and awkward woman plodding through her late twenties. She has achieved little of note with her writing. She has seemingly no social life. She is (what I think most people would call) a loser. Spend time with her, though, and there's nothing broken or ugly about her. She's not feckless, or weak willed. She's not worthless. She's not weak. She is a decent person, someone who is doing her best to get by.
What is a loser, exactly? A loser is someone in need of help. It's significant that we use this term as an insult.
Rosangela finds one day that she has been given the powers of a medium. Her job, as she's told by her spirit guide Joey, is to find ghosts still lingering in this world, and help move them onto the next. Ghosts are more often than not unaware that they are dead. They've hidden that knowledge from themselves. With your new power as a medium, you see these people now. They litter waste ground; they pace back and forth in quiet corners of derelict buildings; they stand unnoticed in the bright of day, right in the middle of the street.
Your role in the game, ostensibly, is to wake these people up to the fact of their death, so that they can come to terms with it. But that's not really what you're doing. The fact that they have died is not what terrifies these people. What terrifies is the suspicion that their lives were wasted.
What did your life amount to, in the end? Was it a good life? Was it all it could have been? Was it worth it?
I grew up in a little village in Scotland. As a child I suffered ill health, which led to poor schoolwork, which led to depression (the progression was hardly that linear, but all those pieces fit in somewhere), and so didn't leave home for quite a long time. When I did finally leave, I moved to a small bedsit in Glasgow. Glasgow is a small city, but it is still a city, and very much not a small country village. I left behind my lifelong support network, and for the first time since I was a child, I had to make new friends. I found this utterly overwhelming.
When you live somewhere small, you matter. Simply by virtue of existing, you matter. Your world is so small that each incidental person in your life feels like a necessary cog in the operation of the universe. The man who owns the pub, the woman who runs the village hall, the guy you see watching TV every time you walk past his house: you've never really spoken to them in your life, and you probably never will. You don't need to speak. All you need is a glance; all they need is a glance. In a world so small, the smallest detail is significant. Just being caught in someone's peripheral vision is an affirmation of your existence. Everything has its place. You have a place.
I didn't realize how fundamental a shift living alone in a city would be.
I'm living back at home now. I'm doing okay, and I aim to leave again - better prepared - this summer. Living alone crushed me, utterly. I'm glad to have stumbled across the Blackwell games when I did, because I think I otherwise would have been crushed a little quicker.
Playing Blackwell in those early months of living in Glasgow was not an act of escapism. Escapism, for me, means rendering your life subservient to fantasy. Your life is a necessary evil- a mere carrier for the fantasy worlds that actually feel meaningful. Leaving those fantasies of accomplishment and agency to return to real life is dispiriting and draining. Videogames, I find, encourage an emotional dependency on escapism, and so encourage a minimal engagement with life. Blackwell is that rare videogame that I feel gave more to my life than it took. It was mentally and physically refreshing and energizing.
Playing Mario - and most other Nintendo games, in fact - when I'm depressed feels absolutely terrible. It's actually quite exhausting, I find. Itâ€™s like being the only person not laughing at a stand up gig. They are very densely designed games: every interaction - every run, every jump, every coin collected and goomba stomped - is meticulously crafted to make you feel good. And when you don't feel good, you notice. It doesn't feel good to be repeatedly reminded that you're not feeling good.
Blackwell - and my other favourite series, Silent Hill - doesn't care about making you feel good. Not in that way, at least. It's not a series that thinks of its players as a series of spinal cords to be satiated. It's that rare series that thinks about its players as people.
Blackwell is a series that soothes. It soothes not by shielding us from existential angst with glib, sugary sweet optimism; nor does it soothe by plunging self-indulgently into nihilistic wailing. It soothes simply by acknowledging our doubts, the doubts that are universal, doubts that we all feel creeping on us when we are left alone for too long. It's a series that will sit with you, patiently, as you work through them. It just sits there with you, knowing it needs to do little else. In time, you will pick yourself up, and try again.
It's a series that feels like it was made by people who actually like people. That should be quite an inane thing to say, but I don't think it is. I think the stereotype of game developers as people in retreat from the real world is a stereotype that holds true. I don't know any game developers personally - I just know their games. What we end up playing generally feels, if not actively misanthropic, then at least aggressively apathetic towards people. Games are not interested in you. They are interested in things. As a result, gamers , often the people who need companionship most, are the people most starved of it.
I don't think Blackwell set out with any express purpose to buck this trend; I think a deep empathy in the designers unconsciously, irrepressibly surfaced. I think this because the games don't ever fully capitalise on their strong characterisation - to the very end, they remain strictly plot driven affairs. I don't think this unintentionality means that the compassion and deep feeling of these games is any less meaningful. The fact that they are not front and centre of the games suggests that these are virtues embedded unselfconsciously in their creators.
Blackwell knows you're probably not doing okay. Blackwell knows that there is a decent possibility that you will never be okay. But it really, really hopes that you will be. And in the short term, it does what it can. Evenings spent prowling the gloomy city streets with the company of Rosa and Joey readied me for days that I might otherwise have spent shut up in bed. It made me feel less alone in my loneliness.