Blackbar is a puzzle game for the age of ********** and government *******
No game escapes being a product of its time. Every game, knowingly or unknowingly, carries hallmarks of the era in which it was created, but few are quite so obvious as Blackbar.
Blackbar is the perfect game for the current moment in time, a tiny opus for the age of government leaks, whistle-blowers, and redacted information.
Blackbar is a simple game, but its simplicity packs considerable punch. You read a series of letters sent back and forth between four parties throughout the course of the game. The main character is Kenty, a young woman who is just beginning her first job at the Department of Communication, a governmental intelligence organization. She corresponds with her pen pal Vi, as well as a mysterious interloper, and the Department of Communication overlords who continuously monitor all communications.
It's that last bit that is most important to Blackbar's game play. Throughout the game you'll be reading these letters, and many of them will have been censored by the Department of Communication. It's your job to figure out and type in the word or words that have been censored.
This mechanic is nowhere near perfect, and some of the puzzles are entirely too difficult to puzzle out, but the story keeps you interested and driven. You're trying to bring meaning to documents that have been through the hands of government censors.
The story itself seems strangely peaceful. The two main letter writers joke about the censorship and move along with their correspondance, but the looming presence of the Department of Communications gives it an almost ominous, forboding feel. No story about an overzealous government stays peaceful for long, and this often feels like the the calm before the storm.
Screenshots by CultofMac.
It's the sort of game that sticks in your mind for hours after you've put it down as your brain works continuously to puzzle out exactly what words might be blocked out. It doesn't help to be close, you need the exact word. This becomes important later when the wordplay escalates and you're forced to actually think about the typography of the stage you're playing.
That leads into the one unfortunate aspect of the game though. Some of the puzzles are just a bit too obfuscated, and the answer can seem to fall out of thin air. Most levels are tough, but give off that wonderful “eureka” moment of the best puzzle games. Occasionally, a level will just be too much. I had to consult an online guide a few times in order to progress, and some stages seem impossible to solve on your own.
The difficulty comes from the fact that there are no clues about what word you need to input other than the context of the sentence. You'll see an open space and the number of letters than can fit in it, but other than that you've got the entire English language from which to choose.
Character > plot
The story is interesting and told well. Delivering narrative through correspondence means that the game is almost entirely character development rather than plot. It's a game about people and what it feels like to have a government hover over you.
The only thing that could have enhanced the game more is if there was more of an attachment between the words being censored and the story itself. The words being blocked are words the letter writers shouldn't be saying, but they're rarely crucial to the overall narrative. There's no sense of dread or excitement about discovering the next detail hidden beneath the black bar.
Blackbar is overly difficult, but it's not that big of a hassle to cheat once or twice with an online guide and the tale is good enough that you'll want to do so in order to find out what happens next.
The theme of a government obsessed with secrets is all too relevant in today's world, and it's great to play a game that reflects that reality by making you feel a small percentage of what it's like to be ________ by an overbearing, all-seeing government bureaucracy.