Black The Fall isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it can certainly feel a little awkward. Bad signposting makes certain puzzles frustrating, sometimes backed up by controls that could only be described as malfunctioning. None of it was enough to kill my enjoyment of an atmospheric and competent puzzle game with often astonishing visual design. It’s obvious, however, that Black The Fall aspires to be much more than simply an enjoyable adventure in a bleak, totalitarian world, and this is where its more problematic shortcomings become clear.
The world of Black The Fall is a reckoning with the oppressive Communist regimes that controlled much of Eastern Europe in the time of the Soviet Union. The game's world is certainly an effective indictment: the ever-churning factories and decaying slums you visit are dehumanising places that exude a sense of despondency, melancholy and general malevolence. The dev team Sand Sailor Studio is based in Romania, a country whose totalitarian past and struggle against its regime lies within living memory, and it is clear that Black The Fall is an earnest project that touches on the personal and historical experiences of its creators and place. There is striking imagery here. Some, like the dystopian vision of countless workers powering machines via stationary bicycles, is metaphorical. Other sights, such as the victims of the regime laid out in hundreds of coffins before you, are very close to historical events.
That said, those resonant parts of the game rarely elide with what you’re actually doing on the screen. Black The Fall shares most of its gameplay ideas with games like Inside, whose influence goes far beyond the obvious aesthetic style. You evade baddies, jump across things that’ll kill you and solve physics and environmental puzzles. Those puzzles are partly solved via a device called a ‘designator’ that acts as a sort of remote for various machines, and mind-controls oppressed factory workers. Later, you’re suddenly accompanied by a robot buddy that you’ll have to use (and sometimes abuse) to get ahead.
It works as far as puzzle design is concerned and succeeds in creating both headscratchers and satisfying eureka moments. But it falls short of expressing anything particularly meaningful about this world and inhabitants. Manipulating machinery to open doors and clear obstacles is very familiar stuff, no matter how cleverly-designed it may be, and the historically-charged world doesn’t automatically imbue these mundane activities with meaning through association. The game does try to give significance to the players’ actions, and on occasion succeeds, but these attempts are inconsistent.
Using the designator to manipulate other oppressed workers communicates, in theory, the idea that this dehumanising system forces those who suffer under it to turn against each other to survive. It sounds like powerful stuff on paper, but mind-control is used in just a handful of situations, and they rarely feel like moral quandaries that entice you into harming your fellow human beings. They simply feel like puzzles. The presence of the admittedly very cute and nicely-animated robot buddy, too, feels like a puzzle rather than a part of this culture. What is its purpose in this dystopia beyond being useful and allowing more diverse challenges? Why is it here at all? It’s enough to give even rudimentary AI an existential crisis.
Black The Fall is at its most effective when it forces you to 'fit in' to escape the omnipresent gaze of overseers and cameras, hiding in plain sight among other workers going about their demeaning tasks or, in some morbid and affecting occasions, among the bodies of the dead. It’s not quite as clever or tense as Inside’s ingenious ‘synchronised walking’ sequence – in which you’re tasked to imitate the movements of those around you with near-flawless timing to evade discovery – but it’s one of the few situations in the game that conveys some of the pressure and constant scrutiny of a surveillance state through the puzzle itself.
How do you express something through the conventions of a well-established genre? Black The Fall tries to recontextualise those familiar tropes and actions to make them mean something more, but it fails more often than not. I can’t help but think of Lucas Pope’s brilliant Papers, Please, which basically invents its own language and sub-genre to explore the systemic pressures of a totalitarian Communist regime. Inside, on the other hand, stays within familiar genre confines, but mostly manages to avoid the pitfalls of Black The Fall, even as it deals with very similar themes of dystopia and social control.
Ironically, Inside expresses more than Black The Fall by ‘saying’ less. It remains vague and ambiguous throughout, its parts held together by evocative nightmare logic, inviting players to piece together the meaning of the whole thing. Black The Fall, on the other hand, doesn’t have a whole lot of ambiguity. Its primary message is that totalitarian regimes are bad. That’s true and without a doubt worth repeating, but it never goes any deeper. Demonising the regime’s overseers by turning them into hulking quasi-ogres may be a strong statement, but it also turns a serious issue into a simplistic caricature. Showing some restraint may have led to a more expressive game overall because, in the end, Black The Fall says both too much and too little.