A game of unspeakable sadness and pain…
Even though the modern videogame industry moves as much money as Hollywood, novelists have gradually drifted away from the idea of being directly involved in videogames. Things were different in the nineties: Harlan Ellison got directly involved with the development of the game I have no mouth and I must scream, Arthur C. Clarke did the same with Rama and so did John Saul.
As stated in the manual’s introduction, he has always been a fan of adventure games, “since the days of textual adventures”. Even while writing the Blackstone Chronicles series, an episodic chronicle, inspired by what Stephen King did with The Green Mile, he felt that the material was perfectly suited for the gaming world. So, with the help of Bob Bates of Legend Entertainment, who gets co-writing and designer credits,the graphical adventure game based on the Blackstone world sees the light of day in November of 1998.
You step in the shoes of Oliver Metcalf, the son of the last superintendent of a psychiatric hospital that has just reopened after many years, reborn as a sort of “museum of psychiatric history”. You soon find out that it’s actually more of a “museum of the history of mental patients treatment” and you’re obviously trapped inside as the game begins. Our protagonist will be tasked with saving his child who has been kidnapped by none other than the aforementioned deceased father, back from the dead with a sinister plot in his ghostly mind. Chronicles employs a first person perspective, a rather obvious choice since the players will spend all of their time walking around the psychiatric hospital in the company of the main antagonist, Oliver’s father, who will advance the plot while speaking telepathically with his son.
John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles is one of the most effective horror adventure games I’ve played. Even though gameplaywise there’s really nothing worth mentioning, this is one of the few adventures working on two different levels. It is both a pure horror game, with the usual foreboding atmosphere, traps and sudden dangers to avoid, and a dreadful stroll down history lane, uncovering how horribly people with mental conditions were treated, even as late as the 1940s.
The patients relate their stories through diaries or letters and hearing their first-hand accounts is pretty depressing and disquieting. Those terrible events will stay with you long after you’re through with the game, thus earning it his subtitle: “an adventure in terror”. Indeed. The plot itself, conceived as a sequel to the events narrated in the Blackstone Chronicles novels, which were okay but really nothing to write home about unless you’re a die-hard horror fan, is just alright. There’s no need to know any of the books in order to enjoy the game, which is a wise design choice. Further good news, most puzzles are consistent, either inventory-based or pure logical conundrums; nothing is terribly hard or obtuse and they won’t get in the way of you walking down the sanitarium’s halls. Only the timed events, where you either win the race against the clock or die, can be a little tiresome if you have no idea what to do; those would have been best left on the cutting floor.
As I mentioned above, most of the narrative consists of texts and voiceovers, we don’t get to see the tortures and the ordeals the poor patients went through and that is probably for the best, trust me. Voice actors are generally pretty competent, with a few notable exceptions, like our main protagonist. Since most of the plot is developed through talks with the several portraits hanging on the walls of the hospital and with a ghost, Blackstone Chronicles’ nature is not that of an exciting horror action-adventure. Since I actually introduced it as a “first-person adventure game of the nineties”, I’d reckon nobody was expecting anything of the kind. The musical score, while not memorable, is also, for the most part, pretty good, and does its job as a “serious eighties horror” soundtrack. Finally, the cover art: while I don’t think they were aiming at a cheap horror VHS from 1985 look, the vibe is exactly that.
I’m not sure that the Blackstone series was famous enough to warrant any kind of faithfulness to the books, but, if there happen to be any fan of the books out there, as far as I remember, the game employs a similar tone and shares some of the characters with the original novels. Frankly, I found the game way more interesting than the books, make of that what you will.
The Blackstone series being quickly forgotten, only to be found on used paperbacks (like I did) is possibly what prevented the game from becoming much more popular. This is something that did not happen with the Harlan Ellison’s novel that inspired the I have no mouth game.
Once you’ve finished the game, you will have ended up learning something while being entertained, which is pretty rare even for 2019, let alone for 1998. So, if you like your horror games to be real slow burners with lots of reading and disqueting information on how actually horrible the human race is and always has been, well then, Blackstone Chronicles will definitely rock your boat.
Mental health was a rather beloved subject for other horror adventure games back then. The same year saw the release of a much more famous adventure game set in a mental asylum, Sanitarium. I’ve always been the most strenuous defender of this game, buying it the day it came out, but it didn’t really bring anything new in 2d adventure game design and the plot, despite some interesting ideas, never rises above its good intentions and premise. Some of its sequences irritated me so much that I’ve played it ten times and only finished it maybe twice. And yet, it’s much easier to find today than Blackstone Chronicles, it was even ported on Android.
A modern heir to Blackstone Chronicles is a little indie game called The Town of Light, developed in 2017 by LKA, an Italian developer. The game brings the player back to the days when the Psychiatric Institute of Volterra (near Pisa, in Tuscany) was still operational. It follows the story of young Renée and allows you to learn about the various treatments and abuses the patients would receive.
Though not all encompassing and detailed like Blackstone Chronicles, it works in a similar way juxtaposing personal drama with the treatment of mental illnesses. Besides, being developed with Unity, ToL sports modern 3D graphics and a much more immersive experience than just reading letters, especially ’cause the old Institute was recreated in 3D with wonderful care and attention. Obviously, Town of Light is more akin to a “walking simulator” than an adventure game, there are no puzzles to speak of and all the player needs to do to advance is find pages or objects. The two titles employ radically different gameplay styles but, in the end, achieve similar narrative results.