Version tested: iPhone
In light of recent events, a game about a draconian regime desperate to monitor and control the flow of information feels particularly timely. A text adventure with a twist, Blackbar offers a potent reminder of the power of the written word.
It's not unusual for a game to leave gaps in its narrative for you to fill in, but here that's literally what you must do. The game begins with you receiving a letter from your friend Kenty, who's beginning a new job at the Department of Communication, an organisation which has been set up to monitor all communication and censor anything controversial or negative. Any words of that nature are covered by the titular blackbar, and it's your job to unpack the missing words in order to move onto the next letter, and the next part of the story.
The conversation is one-sided but the writing smartly references your own, unseen missives. Soon, certain trigger words in those replies prompt direct warnings from the Department, as Kenty gradually becomes uneasy about her job. Her disillusionment soon turns to anger, then fear, as the Department tightens its grip. What follows is surprisingly riveting, and shouldn't be spoiled.
Context is your only clue to the missing words, though typing in your guess gives you the number of letters, after which a bit of trial and error should see you reach the right answer. It's always entirely logical, though, and while there's no prize for guessing right first time, it has that wonderful knack of making you feel clever every time you figure it out quickly.
The early puzzles are simple enough, but later you'll be asked to solve riddles, decipher codes, and refer back to previous letters for clues on how to progress. It's forgiving enough to give you a little leeway, occasionally allowing more than one answer: 'censored' and 'redacted' are both accepted in an early letter, while one expletive-filled message gives you the chance to choose your favourite four-letter profanity.
It would all fall apart if the writing was no good, of course, but Neven Mrgan's prose is taut and intelligent, capturing the escalating desperation of its protagonists' plight. Much of the threat is couched in official language, which makes the later glimpses of humanity in the Department's interference all the more disturbing. A sense of playful malice permeates, and there's one sudden, chilling flash of verbal violence. Some may find it too restrained, but those notes of ambiguity make it all the more fascinating.
Your own role in all this, limited as it may be, is strangely empowering, too. While I half-wished I was able to bash out the corrections on an old-fashioned typewriter instead of using the generic iOS text input - like a member of an embattled resistance group forced to rely on old technology to communicate - there's something about circumventing the censorship that feels wonderfully defiant. With each word you correct, you're rebelling against the system, raising a middle finger to oppression. It's a good feeling, and it's prompted by nothing more than black text on a white background. That's the power of the written word, all right.
8 / 10