A rabbit-headed man and a traumatic life experience: that could sum up Donnie Darko. Or even Alice in Wonderland.
But now it also summarises an equally unusual game: Blackwood Crossing.
The title, which features its own weird and intriguing rabbit character, won UKIE's Game of the Show at Gamescom — and developer PaperSeven couldn't be more chuffed.
It was a brilliant surprise and a great reward for all the team's hard word,” enthuses studio head Alice Guy.
Guy co-founded PaperSeven in 2011, alongside technical director David Jefferies and art director Ryan Guy. All of them used to work for the now-defunct Black Rock Studio, which was shut down by Disney in 2011.
Since then, they have mostly been working on third-party mobile games — until 2014.
In the last two years we've transitioned over to doing our own IP and have moved on to consoles and PC,” Guy explains. We were very keen to develop games with some deep, meaningful stories behind them, and experiences that make the players think and feel. Blackwood Crossing is entirely our own IP and it's kind of our baby.”
"You always face the challenge that the general consumer doesn't understand the level of work you have to do to produce games."
Alice Guy, PaperSeven
This story-driven first-person puzzle-adventure game revolves around the relationship between two orphaned siblings, Scarlett and Finn.
Guy continues: They have recently started to grow apart as Scarlett is entering adolescence and leaving her childhood behind. The game starts in the quite ordinary context of a moving train, but it quickly evolves into a sort of magical mysterious story, which explores the themes of life, love and loss.”
The siblings' train journey features a lot of enigmatic characters, creating an eerie and threatening atmosphere. But Guy wouldn't say too much about what lies ahead for Blackwood Crossing's heroes.
We don't want to say too much about the rabbit-man at this point cause he's quite a mysterious figure, but he appears throughout the game and you rapidly find out more and more about him. But initially, neither you — because you play as Scarlett — or Finn knows who he is and what he's there for.
Having Scarlett, and not Finn, as the main character was actually a big deal for PaperSeven, Guy adds.
We're very keen to explore characters that go against the traditional clichs of certain games. I think it's just important that we always make sure we're thinking in that way and challenging the way we create characters in games.”
She observes: Titles like Life is Strange have come out since we've been in development. That's another game in which the ‘teenage girls' theme has been explored. But I think there's a still a long way to go. I don't think we'll ever be in a situation where there won't be games that sexualise women.
It's unfortunate, but I think if you can balance that out with strong female characters and always question yourself over the sexualisation of your characters, you can bring more balance to the industry.”
But having a strong female character was not the only priority for PaperSeven. The studio also put emphasis on creating a believable brother-sister relationship.
Having orphaned siblings was also very important to us, because it creates a bond between them that's very special and unique. But still, you're able to create a relationship that most players will be able to relate to and draw upon their own experiences while playing.”
In order to make their relationship convincing, the studio worked very hard on the script”. Blackwood Crossing's writer is Oliver Reid-Smith, who also wrote 2012 mobile puzzle game The Room. But even with a great writer, Guy says that getting it right didn't come without challenges.
I think just developing the story alongside the game was one of the challenges. But an exciting one to resolve,” she smiles. That goes a long way to bringing elements such as your brother being slightly annoying or playful or, from a characterisation point of view, making sure their features have got continuity. Also, we worked with Side on the voice-over [the firm behind the VO of triple-A games such as The Division, Hitman and The Witcher III], to make sure we had the best possible experience. We made sure that, when we were casting them, their voices suited each other. But a lot of it comes down to the script and also to the animation and how the little nuances between them work.”
The animation was actually another challenge for PaperSeven.
We've done all the animations by hand, it's quite a stylised art style, so just the level of animation that we have had to do has been quite a challenge for the team,” Guy explains.
Ultimately, I guess another point is we've tried to create a nice balance between the narrative thread of the game and the puzzle-exploration moments. We've worked very hard to keep those puzzles and the exploration contextual to the story. So there's enough to keep the player's mind turning but without breaking the story flow.”
Blackwood Crossing is coming out on PS4, Xbox One and Steam early next year.
Some indie developers take their games to Kickstarter, but not PaperSeven. Instead, the studio got in touch with investment company Standfast Interactive.
Blackwood Crossing was a concept that we developed over time, and then went into production in around June last year, having received funding from Standfast Interactive,” Guy explains.
Standfast Interactive is an organisation based in Liverpool, which provides funding for studios and has set up a publishing arm called Vision Games Publishing [through which Blackwood Crossing is going to be published]. It just keeps the games they fund within a sort of publishing stable. We are only the third or fourth game they will have published.
What makes Standfast Interactive an attracting source of funding is that we're able to retain control of our IP,” she adds.
PaperSeven did consider self-publishing Blackwood Crossing but appreciates the support of a publisher in the end.
As a sort of young studio looking to develop a high-end game, it would have been challenging for us to raise sufficient funds independently,” Guy says. ”And also it allows us to focus on the development while the publishing side and the community side can be worked on with the publisher. So we get a lot of benefit from working with a publisher.”
It's always a challenge from the indie point of view to obtain the funds you need to create the experiences that the players expect and demand,” Guy adds. You know, I think when you look at recent games like No Man's Sky... that's an exceptional achievement by such a small team. Yet, you still always face the challenge that the general consumer doesn't understand how games are made, and the level of work you have to do to produce these titles. Expectation levels continue to be very h