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Gaming

Blackbar makes a game of subverting censorship

A new text-based iOS game sees you trying to fill the [redacted] in order to subvert a Big Brother-style totalitarian regime.

A new text-based iOS game sees you trying to fill the [redacted] in order to subvert a Big Brother-style totalitarian regime.

(Credit: Neven Mrgan and James Moore)

You've received a letter from your friend Kenty. She's gone to the City to work for the Department. You and the folks back home have no other decent way of keeping in touch — but you don't approve of her new job, which makes things rather more difficult. In order to keep negative and dangerous ideas to a minimum, you see, the Department censors any words that could convey those ideas.

Thus begins Blackbar, a text-based game by Neven Mrgan — co-creator of The Incident — and James Moore.

(Credit: Neven Mrgan)

Right from the beginning, the Department is reading Kenty's letters to you, blacking out the words that it deems unsuitable. Using contextual clues, you have to fill in the blanks to receive the next letter. As things start going badly for Kenty, things start going strange for you: mysterious letters from an unknown faction that seems to be on your side, and communiqués from the Department, which is noticing the increasing use of verboten words in your correspondence with Kenty.

It's not a long game, but as it progresses, the letters become increasingly difficult to decipher. Often, all you have are the surrounding words and the number of letters in the missing word for clues, while the letters from the mysterious faction grow stranger in order to circumvent the Department's censors.

It kind of reminds us a little of Winston Smith's forbidden diary in 1984, and the curtailment of nuance of language through Newspeak and the Ministry of Truth in order to limit freedom of speech and, from there, freedom of thought and ideas.

In Blackbar, the ending is never certain. As you draw closer to freedom, so too does the Department draw closer to you, even taunting you. Yet, there your involvement is passive, too. Always you are the reader, never the writer, so there's a sense of inevitability about it all, and the uncertainty over what the inevitable ending will be — the triumph of human freedom or the oppressive victory of a totalitarian government — keeps the gameplay tense, even while you pore over your phone's keyboard looking for the right answer.

On the other hand, the complete lack of ludonarrative adds another layer of dictatorship. At only one point in the game does the protagonist act and, even then, ironically, you the player don't get to decide what that action is. You can only type in the "right" word — the word the game wants you to choose. You're effectively bound by the words the game wants you to use — just as Kenty is bound by the words the Department wants her to use.

In spite of all this, in the end, it was vaguely disappointing. We can't help but feel that there was more that could have been said with Blackbar, more that could have been done with its mechanics. The ending felt rather abrupt, after puzzling for so long over the letters, and the single, linear narrative left a lot of unanswered questions — as if Mrgan and Moore had run out of steam. We wanted more depth to the world and the characters.

As a stand-alone game, Blackbar feels unfinished. However, it would work as an excellent introduction to a fascinating world. We hope that Mrgan and Moore will return to flesh it out and expand on its ideas and its inhabitants.

Blackbar for iOS (AU$2.99)