I’ve already lied to you: this isn’t a review of Blackbar. At least, there isn’t going to be any number at the end. This is because Blackbar isn’t really a game.
This is, I concede, the coward’s way out. Perhaps a more bull-headed game critic would slap a number on Blackbar and then move on to reviewing kitchen appliances and subatomic particles. I won’t do that, but I’ll tell you what I thought of it.
If Blackbar is a game, it’s a game the way a lever is a machine. It’s the simplest embodiment of the concept. You can’t even say that Blackbar is properly a member of the game family it most closely resembles, interactive fiction. In a gamebook like Sorcery! you’re having an impact on the plot, or at least what you see next. In Blackbar everything’s been predetermined. You’re strictly along for the ride.
It’s a pretty interesting ride, though.
Blackbar is an epistolary story — but the flow of letters is strictly one-way. You receive letters from a few different correspondents, starting with your life-long friend Kenty, who has just started a job with the Department of Communication. The department reads every written word that passes between two people, and censors parts of the letters, sometimes in a logical manner, but often in a random deletion blitz that recalls bed-ridden Yossarian in Catch-22.
Playing the game is about reading the letters and then filling in the redacted portions. If you’ve filled in the right words, the next letter is unlocked and you get to progress forward. It’s a strictly linear affair — if you get stuck on a particular letter, all there is to do is keep trying until you get it. Sometimes the word you’re looking for is frustratingly mysterious because there really isn’t any trick to these puzzles: no skill you can acquire, no knack you can gain. It’s like playing Mad Libs with an obsessive-compulsive. Your only clue is the number of letters in the missing word.
The story told is one that grows quite big in scope, drawing out a whole character arc for Kenty and eventually a revolt against the Department. That’s quite a big sweep for a story told entirely through a few dozen short, single-spaced letters. The time you spend with it never gets visually boring, either: Blackbar is made with a loving attention to detail in typefaces and white space.
But this is a story that you’re here simply to observe. Though you spend the whole experience inputting text, it’s not intended as a way of you making your stamp on the world — all you’re doing is exposing something written by someone else.1 There’s one moment in all of Blackbar where you register a voice of your own on the page, but like everything else, your defiant response has been ironically pre-determined.
Blackbar is a good story and a beautifully designed app. Despite the timing of its arrival, it’s not the pointed critique of the NSA that I suspected it was last week, which leaves the story free to pursue its own ends. I can’t promise you a game (Blackbar itself denies that it is, at one point), but I can promise you an experience unlike any other on the App Store.
1That may well be a commentary about the illusion of choice in RPGs and video games in general.