Fall into Black the Fall
How does one express life under the Soviet Union? How do you convey the fear, the surveillance, the censorship, the propaganda, the feeling of being trapped [EN: Here’s a good place to start.]? How do you put into words the bleak uniformity, the idea of being another cog in a lumbering, industrial machine? Black The Fall (BTF) simply has you experience it first-hand, by playing it.
Taking their experiences in Cold War Romania, the creators of this title have turned Orwellian communism into a participatory metaphor. The masses pedal away — for unknown ends — on stationary bikes, powering imposing machinery made from huge, steaming pipes and slow, grinding gears. Right alongside the constant panoptic surveillance, cameras, sweaty overweight guards, and colossal bipedal robots cast red, penetrating glares to emphasize your insignificance. Your fellow workers are nameless, frightened tools, striving to go unnoticed through their unwavering obedience. And not a word is spoken to guide you through this experience (in the media demo, anyway). The entire message is delivered through gameplay.
Unique with proven mechanics
Black The Fall (BTF) does not offer a revolutionary gameplay experience; it’s a side-scrolling stealth platformer. There are elements of FEZ present, since the scenery rotates, often allowing you to ascend spiraling catwalks on grimy, dark, iron structures. There is also a kind of Oddworld-style play where you can tell other units to flip switches or distract enemies so you can advance. In other words: none of these elements are all that original – except maybe one section that has a listening puzzle – but the mechanics still manage to tell the story in a deftly accurate way.
The choice to make it a side-scroller means you constantly have the feeling of ever-narrowing options. You can go forward, and sometimes you can go back. You can jump, but for the most part everything you interact with is on the same plane. That means there’s only one seemingly hopeless way past the imposing sentinels standing between you and the next puzzle. The FEZ-like rotation allows for you to feel the full depth and breadth of the endless industrial complex, which has apparently spread ubiquitously throughout society, by scaling its support beams and crawling along its network of pipes.
Stealth was also a great choice. Not only does it give a tangible feel to the shadowy, minimalist aesthetic, but it also raises the stakes for our protagonist as he decides to make a run for it, despite knowing nothing of the path that lies ahead. The waiting time the stealth mechanic requires allows you to look at the scenes that have been constructed and ponder them.
Finally, the puzzles are given some spice and variety when you find a pointer device that can give commands to workers and robots. While the controls for wielding this device are a bit slow and imprecise (I opted to use a controller instead of keyboard and mouse), that only reinforces the feeling of panic and helplessness that someone who has stolen such a dreaded device might feel. You use it to order your comrades around, highlighting that they have been perfectly conditioned into mindless masses. The companionship you get from asking for their help is placed behind the barrier of the system by the fact that you’re using the oppressor’s tool to communicate with them – and, indeed, throw them under the bus from time to time.
BTF started as a black-and-white game, and although more details have been added, the overall aesthetic is still minimalist. Shadows traverse your entire screen, occasional pierced by lights that sometimes act as beacons; other times, deceive. The music manages to be simultaneously industrial, spooky, and tense, while maintaining the same minimalism.
Overall, the aesthetic is completely appropriate for the narrative. The dingy, dimly lit scenes of endless rows of drones pedaling away on bicycles occasionally give way to garish communist symbols on crimson backgrounds, to great effect. Lines of frail workers line up at a checkpoint with a lazy yet brutal guard wearing a futuristic and menacing red visor. Eventually, the black, void-like interior of the factory gives way to the bright expanse of the surface world, cluttered with wreckage and the decaying elements of normal life at the fringes of black towers rising like obelisks, which are guarded by roaming weaponized robots. There is little I would change about this visual and auditory experience – it’s utterly grim – but there is something about it that feels muted. The contrasts of light and shadow, of dull colors and bright red enemy gazes, of emptiness and weighty machinery all do their jobs but it still somehow manages to feel quiet and solitary at times.
There are no words, spoken or written, to set up the plot (other than promotional materials), and, as noted, this isn’t a bad thing. There are some questionable moments, for example, you will eventually reach the part where you meet your robot companion, but it doesn’t come off as touching as the marketing materials make it sound. You simply turn the robot on and it follows your pointer – the same one which allows you to command other workers, and which your enemies can actually use to take over your robot ‘friend.’ So, any kind of companionship feels literally constructed, because the robot has no choice but to follow your orders after you simply happen to find it.
At the same time, putting in some kind of dialogue or humanizing the bot past its little “yes” or “no” robot sounds would probably be too on-the-nose. I get what they are trying to do – just look at Portal’s Companion Cube. The Companion Cube is simply a cube with a heart on it and a name to tell you that you’re its friend, yet it is one of the most effective parts of the game. In Portal, this was a commentary on our willingness to attribute humanity to things that aren’t human, but in Black The Fall it may serve a different purpose. As play progresses, it feels almost like the robot is there to provide slight relief from the bleakness, but the atmosphere of alienation is still simultaneously maintained by the robot’s mechanical nature. In the end, the robot is a mere tool that you use to help yourself escape, but it still manages to give a kind of hope through the illusion that you are not alone.
Without getting too far into analyzing this title, we should take a step back and note that the mechanics and aesthetic are in place, but the overall plot is yet unknown. This preview included what the developers called “a collection of scenes.” Each of these scenes is well constructed, with all the necessary elements or a powerful story. How these scenes fit together, however, is yet to be revealed. Hopefully, it’s in a way that fulfills the potential that this title promises.
The OPN Dev Talk with Christian Diaconescu, Creative Director
Black The Fall has the makings of a deep and emotional retelling of life under a totalitarian communist regime. The literally dark, oppressive, and intimidating imagery combines with the music, sound effects, and mechanics to narrate scenes without using a single word, and that alone has to be respected.