New Video Game Confronts Slavery’s Legacy Through a Historical Mystery
“Blackhaven” finds a fictional intern working to uncover a colonial estate’s hidden history while facing present-day racism
A young woman starts her summer internship at a historic site dating to the time of the American Revolution, only to begin turning up violent pieces of the estate’s history that have been intentionally hidden from the public. That’s the premise behind the first-person video game “Blackhaven,” out now from Historiated Games.
Founded by James Coltrain, a historian and expert on game design at the University of Connecticut, Historiated Games describes itself as a “historian founded studio making story-driven games.” As E.L. Meszaros reports for CBR, the company’s first game, “Blackhaven,” immerses players in the realistic—albeit fictional—landscape of Blackhaven Hall Historical Society, a ruined colonial estate restored as a museum. The mansion once belonged to Thomas Harwood, who, in the world of the game, was an American Founding Father.
As Kendra Turner, a sophomore at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and the society’s newest intern, players complete tasks including testing a guided tour and scanning documents. Gradually, they discover clues not only to the history of slavery at Blackhaven but also to modern racism. Kendra digs out disturbing documents from the estate’s archives and discovers emails from her boss showing that the historical society resented hiring someone from an HBCU but did so to get credit for diversity.
“I could relate a lot to Kendra’s experience,” says Tia Alphonse, a graduate student at the University of Missouri who worked on Blackhaven’s script as an undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana, to Connecticut Public Radio (CPR)’s Patrick Skahill. “A lot of times when you enter these spaces that don’t reflect your identity … if someone has an issue with you, you’re trying to figure out whether or not this issue is related to me personally or if it’s related to racism, or sexism or some other aspect of my identity.”
She adds, “You have to go through this, almost like investigative work, to figure out whether or not you’re the problem, or … they’re the problem.”
Alphonse and other students worked on the game with Coltrain and Xavier communications scholar Shearon Roberts. As Roberts tells CPR, the game can offer a jumping-off point for players interested in exploring real historical events and the way they’re commemorated.
“The video game genre is something you can return to, that you can customize. That you can stop and dwell on,” she says. “You can encounter a document and then you can pause and you can go Google and do your research about it and say, ‘Is this real? Did something like this happen in the real world?’”
Reviewing the game for Pfangirl.com, Noelle Adams notes that the game features reproduction of real artifacts and architecture, along with documents based closely on real ones. She writes that the character of Kendra, voiced by Darby Farr, prevents the historical material from coming across as dry.
“The combination of sharp, contemporary writing and Farr’s natural performance create the effect of sitting in a college lecture next to a likeable smartass who’s giving a running commentary on the class,” Adams explains.
Coltrain tells CPR that he hopes historians will become more engaged with video games, which provide an entry point into history for many people today.
“There’s somebody who suggested that ‘Call of Duty,’ the World War II series, might be the most influential interpretation of World War II in the last 20 years based on the amount of people who have consumed it,” he says. “Historians regularly are involved with things like movies and museums and things like Hamilton … but they haven’t done a lot with video games.”
Per a statement from the University of Connecticut, Historiated is also developing a related game, “Cassius,” set for release next year. Set in 1781, the first-person experience will allow players to explore Blackhaven Hall as it is evacuated at the height of the American Revolution.
In the meantime, “Blackhaven” is available on Steam as a free download for PCs.
“I want [‘Blackhaven’] to stand on its own as a piece of narrative entertainment, but I also want it to be something that illuminates some themes about history and also is as faithful as possible … a game that you want to play,” says Coltrain in the statement. “I’m going towards a high degree of historical accuracy, but total historical accuracy is just not always going to be possible.”