I don't think you necessarily have to be an industry insider to know that preview events aren't the most likely places for sincere emotional reactions to happen. After all, when you're in a room full of strangers trying to sell you something—and with the added pressure of looking like you actually know how to play video games—the situation usually leans more towards business-awkward than business-casual.
Yet, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the upcoming first-person adventure Blackwood Crossing helped a generous lump grow in my throat while I calmly sipped water as if to say, "Nope, this is just some regular, non-emotional swallowing going on here." All in all, that's pretty impressive feat for a game to pull off—especially a vertical slice of an unfinished experience.
Blackwood Crossing takes the same tack as recent hits like Gone Home and Firewatch by delivering an emotional, character-driven narrative through the means of a first-person adventure game. Ultimately, it tells the story of Scarlett and Finn: a brother-and-sister pair with deceased parents and a strained relationship. The two used to be incredibly close, but Scarlett's transition into adolescence took her away from Finn, leaving him hurt and isolated. Though it sets out to take the player on a pretty surreal ride, Blackwood Crossing sets out to tell a relatively simple tale of reconciliation and growing up—not to mention magic powers.
My mostly-hands-off demo took place a bit after Blackwood's intro, and did a great job of showing off the full game's potential. As with any game of this type, you walk along a pretty prescribed path, looking at objects and observing story beats, but Blackwood definitely surprises with the unexpected places it can take you. While the demo started in a fairly conventional train car, it doesn't take long to realize this world doesn't operate within the realistic rules of space and time. Climbing a tree rooted in the middle of one car, for instance, brings you up to an expansive treehouse, complete with a gorgeous view of a magnificent forest—and absolutely no train below. From the beginning, the designers at PaperSeven want players to know there's no telling where the next path will take them.
Blackwood Crossing also includes some puzzles which feel thoughtfully designed to keep the players engaged instead of stumped. When you first enter the train, you're tasked with finding the proper partners of NPCs who spout only their side of the conversation when prompted. Later, to access the aforementioned treehouse, you need to find four slides and then arrange their images in the proper chronological order. Again, it's nothing out of The Witness, but these bits of interactivity make Blackwood Crossing into much more of an active experience than it could be. Often, you're just asked to fetch items while dialogue plays out, or participate in simple on-screen prompts to help you connect more to the action on the screen. The latter works especially well in a flashback scene where Scarlett and Finn make paper butterflies together, even if the action itself isn't especially challenging.
To be honest, there's still a whole lot to be revealed about Blackwood Crossing: From my perspective, the demo mainly existed to give me a taste of the characters and flavor of the world. But even if I could stand to see a little more of the full game, the small amount of content on display definitely piqued my interest. With the writer of The Room (no, not Tommy Wiseau) and some Disney folks on board, PaperSeven definitely has the pedigree to make a great game. I'll be sure to follow up once Blackwood Crossing launches in early 2017 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.