If you could talk to someone from the 19th century, the last woman hanged in New South Wales, what would they say?
That's the ephemeral experience of The Black Widow, an Aussie-made indie about the case of Louisa Collins. Collins was hanged in 1889 at Sydney's Darlinghurst jail over the alleged murder of both her husbands, but because her hanging was such a grisly, gruesome affair, Collins ended up being the last woman to be hung in the state.
Collins' case is a fascinating window into Sydney at the time, not only for the machinations of the justice system — the mother of 10 was only found guilty after four jury trials — but also what life was like for common folk of the era.
Her story gained prominence in the last few years thanks to a few books, first from journalist Caroline Overington, Carol Baxter's Black Widow and Janet Lee's first-person novel, The Killing of Louisa. Sydney developer Richard Fox has gone on to reference Overington and Baxter's work to retell Collins' life and trial once more, but through the form of an indie game that's out now on Steam, iOS and Android.
The Black Widow follows a similar model to Sam Barlow's Her Story, where actor Amber Cunliffe superbly illuminates the life of Collins and her ten children, including her experiences with her first husband Arthur and what life was like with Michael, a wool washer who began boarding at the Collins' household and would marry her later on.
The Black Widow is played through the form of a photograph containing Collins' trapped soul, something a little akin to a ouija board. In practice, the game plays out almost identically to Her Story, albeit without the fullscreen video clips. That's probably for the best, since recreating the entirety of Botany in the 1800's, and the various locations described, would be a nightmare for a solo indie developer.
The game starts off with a simple query — GUILTY — and you're given 10 audio clips to listen to. The objective is to basically listen for key words and references throughout the clips, which give you more clues to search for, uncovering more of Collins' story.
As you go on, the frame around the hanged woman gradually colours in. Each of the audio clips contains some light animations in the picture, but most of the work is done by Cunliffe's voice acting. Collins' real-life story, and many of the details presented in the game are fascinating for history buffs, but without her delivery The Black Widow would fall completely flat.
I played through the game on PC, although the best experience is probably had on your phone, in bed with some earbuds. There's a foreboding to the background audio and the grisly details of what Botany was like, particularly the simple manner in which perfectly healthy humans could pass away in the blink of an eye. It's not giving away a great deal to say that sanitation systems in the 1800's weren't sophisticated, and hearing these details read aloud — moreso than Collins' protestations at having to go through four jury trials, her monotony with the expectations of women in the era, or the matter-of-fact recollections of her children that never survived to their first birthday — are some of the game's best moments.
But more than anything else, The Black Widow is an excellent example for institutions, governments and archives in how modern tales can be told. Ten years ago, an exhibit on Collins' murder would have been a logical course of action for State Records, local Botany historians or other heritage librarians. All of The Black Widow's video segments are privately stored on YouTube, with the game accessing them only when required. It's a dealbreaker for anyone hoping to play The Black Widow offline, but from the perspective of developers and historians looking to reuse this format in the most cost-effective and time efficient manner, it works real well.
You won't get more than a couple of hours out of The Black Widow, but the game is hardly expensive to begin with ($8.50 on PC, $2 and under on mobile). Much of Cunliffe's script is lifted from historical letters, records and testimony, and knowing that in advance changes the experience from a video game into more of an advanced, interactive exhibit.
It's a great mechanism for telling history, and something more local institutions (particularly NSW and Victoria) could invest in. The Black Widow as a game certainly isn't for everyone, but if you have any interest in Australian history, or Her Story, then there's a solid couple of hours entertainment here.