Blackbar is an innovative game by James Moore and Neven Mrgan. Playable on iOS and Android mobile devices, the game is on the outskirts of interactive fiction. In many ways it is more of a puzzle game, with a word-based interactive element. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating play.
In Blackbar you decipher the communications between two young women, as well as reading the missives from the Orwellian named “Department of Communication.” The plot follows the story of Kenty, a young woman that has just begun to work for the Department and her communications with her best friend from back home, Vi. The clear black and white typewriter-esque font is broken frequently with the thick black bars of censorship. In an inventive move, play is constructed by filling in the censored parts of the messages with the correct, corresponding words. Designed as a puzzle, it ranges from easy, contextual clues, to full letters written only in black bars.
Blackbar is full of riddles and puzzles designed to keep you frustrated and engaged for days. As the characters realize the danger they are in, the prose moves from light-hearted conversations about mom’s health to questions about resistance. Peppered between these personal missives are official declarations from the “Department of Communication,” a local neighborhood group, and the puzzling communiques of the Resistance. Each of these holds a unique style, and the epistolary nature of the work is bolstered by their intelligent delivery. Having to fight to read the personal letters, to carefully piece together the censored language before continuing is a fantastic implementation of gameplay. It mirrors the frustration of the character at not knowing exactly what her friend is trying to communicate to her.
Since the game has been out for over a year, enterprising individuals have put together walkthroughs to help users through the more challenging puzzles. If you have the time to play the game, I would argue against that. The frustration from inability to parse out the words is akin to the frustration of being unable to communicate, and it’s an experience that thankfully few of us will have to go through.
The game is, at its heart, a drama about censorship, the human spirit, and resistance. However, it has moments of black humor, including several communications with the Department of Communication, as well as riddles passed between girlhood friends. This only serves to heighten the overall drama and the feeling of being constantly watched. The dystopian world inhabited by Vi and Kenty is one of fear and blind obedience, and there’s a feeling of pulling back a curtain after you decipher every message.
Blackbar is well worth the $1.99 price point. If you’re interested in dystopias, NSA surveillance, or simply well-written puzzlers, Blackbar is an excellent mobile interaction. For more particulars on the game, as well as it’s availabilty, check out the Blackbar website.