[GDC 2013] First Impressions: ‘Blackwell’s Asylum’

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This article is the third and final regarding games I first saw at GDC and went home to play. If you missed the first two articles, you can find them here and here.

Written by Hayden Dingman, @haydencd

I’m going to make a lofty claim here: Blackwell’s Asylum is the most unsettled I’ve felt while playing a game since Amnesia.


It’s an even loftier claim once I tell you it started life as a student project.

Like Pulse, one of the other games I saw at GDC, Blackwell’s Asylum was a finalist in this year’s IGF Student Showcase. The design aesthetic alone—dim hallways, cast in sickly green—was enough to convince me to give the game a shot. It’s free, if you’re inclined to check it out.

I was so inclined, and made a note to download the game when I got home, away from the crowds and the fluorescent lights of the Moscone Center. Waiting was the right choice. Like Amnesia, Blackwell’s Asylum is a game made for playing alone, sitting in the dark with headphones in.

Blackwell’s Asylum takes place in—you guessed it—an asylum. An 1800s-esque asylum, to be exact. The game grew out of the real-life story of Nellie Bly, a journalist who in 1887 got herself checked into the famous Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in order to do undercover research for an expose. The resulting article, Ten Days in a Mad-House, revealed the widespread maltreatment of the asylum’s patients.

Quite a lofty starting point for a game.

You play as Nellie in Blackwell’s Asylum. Right from the start, things are pretty unsettling. You’re being held down by an orderly as a doctor preps a syringe, inserting it into your arm and drugging you.

When you awake, you wander out of your cell and start navigating the winding, twisted hallways of Blackwell’s Asylum. You don’t ever really know where you’re going, and the game’s seemingly-straightforward hallways are anything but. It’s the drugs.

The drugging aspect at the beginning of the game really plays deep into the overall feel of Blackwell’s Asylum. You don’t walk down the hallway in this game. You weave down the hallway, desperately trying to reach the next door. The hallways themselves (and indeed, every object in the game) are modeled in the best surrealist fashion. There’s not a single straight hallway in the asylum. Instead, sections of the walls fold inwards or outwards, zigzagging.

The furniture is similarly designed. Rather than a tall, straight-lined cabinet you get a leaning, collapsing mess. Layered over the top of all this crazed geometry is an additional visual effect, almost like a fisheye, that causes the world’s appearance to further distort when the camera moves. It’s an arresting visual style, allowing you to inhabit the drug-addled mind of the character (though it also made me, a video game veteran, extremely motion sick after a while, so be careful).

And as if the visuals weren’t already enough to creep you out, you’ve got the terrifying wardens to contend with as you try to stealthily navigate the asylum. There’s no combat, so if you’re spotted be prepared to run and hide. It’s the same system as Amnesia, and it works just as well here. I felt extremely vulnerable throughout the entire game, to the point where I almost gave into my tension and quit playing.

The game also has a clever system for when you’re in hiding. If you hide while the warden’s around you have to manage your breathing by pressing the spacebar at regular intervals. If you mess up the outer edges of the screen iris off, cutting your field of view. It’s a simple mechanic but further serves to heighten the tension.

The audio is what draws all these elements together though. The sound design in Blackwell’s Asylum will quite literally set your teeth on edge. Most of the time the main background track is simply a droning hum. If you’re sensitive to audio, it’s a maddening sound. The only other audio for most of the game is the swishing of your character’s dress, maybe a footstep here and there. This is a lonely game.

Which makes the moments when the soundtrack bursts to life—say, when the warden yells and asks you what you’re doing out of bed—pants-pissingly scary. Even when I knew it was coming, I still freaked out. The combination of the jump scare audio and your feeling of utter vulnerability makes for great high-stakes moments and kept me engaged even though most of the game is just wandering aimlessly through corridors.

There’s also some other stuff to do with level geometry that I won’t talk about here because I think it’s best discovered for yourself. I’ll just say I’m amazed at the way Blackwell’s Asylum made me feel as if I were lost the entire time I was playing, but I still managed to end up going in the right direction. The game is a lot more complex than it looks on the surface.

I won’t guarantee the game will scare you as much as it did me, but Blackwell’s Asylum is a game worth checking out if you’re a horror fan. After all, it’s both short (took me less than an hour) and free. No word on whether the team is going to expand the game later (they disbanded after the current release) but regardless I hope some of them continue working in the horror genre. There’s obviously a lot of talent here.

PS: Seriously, take some Dramamine or something if you’re susceptible to motion sickness.