The titular hall in the short narrative game Blackhaven is an 18th-century mansion in Virginia. Before it burned during the American Revolution, it was the home of the fictional Thomas Haywood, ‘America’s Forgotten Founding Father’, according to the nearby museum. The museum is resolved to remembering the mansion’s history, the Harwoods that lived there and “their commitment to American liberty and enterprise”.
Yet for college intern Kendra Turner, who spends her holiday working at Blackwood Hall, this official story is gradually revealed to be insufficient. As she spends time in the museum galleries and poring through the archives of the Blackhaven Hall Historical Society, Turner finds telling contradictions and absences.
Blackhaven is a first-person narrative game developed by Historiated. It was created in partnership with students and historians in the United States. Shearon Roberts, associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, consulted on the script, while James Coltrain, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, founded the game studio.
Historiated’s mission “is to bring past stories and spaces to life by transforming exhaustive archival research into richly realized digital experiences.” Blackhaven was released for free on the Steam platform in summer 2021. It is effectively a museum simulator, inviting players to participate in a story about American heritage and memory.
Swept into dark corners
Turner realizes that what was in fact a grand plantation house with a workforce of black slave labour has been reduced to a sanitised shrine dedicated to its white owners. Text in the galleries wholly attributes Blackhaven’s development to the personalities of figures like Samuel Harwood, who “labored greatly to expand the plantation’s workforce, earning a sizable fortune for his efforts.”
While testing the equipment for an audio tour, Turner learns that the museum describes slaves as “servants”. Scanning archive documents, she comes close to stories that do not surface in the galleries, tour guide or gift shop, but are stuffed away out of sight. Steadily, Kendra’s fully voiced commentary on her discoveries destabilizes the mansion’s official narrative.
The way plantations in the United States are memorialised is a recurring source of consternation and debate. Plantation tours have often been criticised for failing to mention the slavery on which institutions depended, for referring to slaves as servants, or for introducing costumed actors to sites of historic suffering.
Historic houses in the UK have also been subject to public reappraisal, although to a different degree. A controversial report by the National Trust in 2020 drew attention to the ways their properties have elided their connections with wealth derived from colonialism, instead presenting themselves as random and benign artefacts of British history.
These are the issues Blackhaven makes interactive as it portrays Turner’s discoveries of the ways in which black people and their history are diminished or trivialised: “silenced or repeatedly swept into dark corners,” as Howard W French writes in Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.
Reframing foreground and background
There is a technical accomplishment in Blackhaven’s detailed interpretation of a contemporary historic mansion. Clearly the recipient of great benefaction, Blackhaven mansion has been monumentalised with modern glass and steel. Its gallery features authentic objects and paintings, informed by real examples in comparable houses. The documents in its archives are likewise inspired by the historical record.
But Blackhaven’s value is in how it examines how the past is reported to the public through institutions, tourist attractions and the amiable facades of historic houses. Blackhaven mansion features a gift shop, which serves as an opportunity for the creators to demonstrate how myths of American history are commodified.
A children’s book fetishizes the orderliness of historic Blackhaven, when “everyone had a place”. Its entirely white cast discuss themes of freedom, memory and bravery, while the figure of indefatigable “Farmer Joe” substitutes for the black slave labour that worked within and without the mansion. Plastic “Farmer Joe” pitchforks are sold at $4.99, while “Farmer Joe Tricorn Hats” are $14.99.
Blackhaven’s premise is straightforward and the rules of its interaction are not novel. It bears resemblance to more sophisticated “walking simulators”, of which the first to come to mind is the unpublished folk horror game Winter Hall by Rob McLachlan, which explores the legacy of the Black Death in a Sussex village.
Its incorporation of historical techniques and knowledge, however, makes the experience of playing Blackhaven surprisingly compelling. It dismantles the ‘plantation myth’ of a charmed agrarian society in which enslaved people enjoyed the advantages of benevolent ownership while practising a sort of virtual, vernacular microhistory.
To borrow a phrase used by Sarah Churchwell in her chapter in What is History, Now?, Blackhaven excites by “reframing foreground and background”. The result is a potent framework for future games interested in the connections between past and present. Not least Historiated’s own follow-up Cassius, which continues Blackhaven Hall’s story at the time of the American Revolution.