When Cristian Diaconescu and Nicolete Lordanescu started working on what would become the atmospheric puzzle-platformer Black the Fall they weren't trying to make a commercial video game, but an art project that used games as the medium. The two creators shared the goal of somehow using interactive media to communicate their feelings about the not-so-distant past of their homeland, Romania.
From the end of World War II the former Axis state of Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union, who steadily established communist rule in the country. By 1947 the Romanian King was forced to abdicate, and the Romanian People's Republic was formed. Until 1989 Romania was gripped by communist totalitarianism, and it is only in recent times that the people of Romania have been able to experience freedom from an incredibly oppressive regime.
Diaconescu and Lordanescu's original art project was very well-received, inspiring the duo to consider a full-sized project. After gathering some like-minded developers and running a successful Kickstarter campaign, the newly formed Sand Sailor Studios began work on the full-fat version of Black the Fall. Fans of Playdead and particularly the wonderful Inside will instantly see the similarities in approach, but this is coming from a very different place.
A dystopian future or a familiar past?
"For my generation, we were the last to catch communism in the later stages," says Diaconescu, speaking to me from Sand Sailors' Bucharest-based studios. "We were kind of young when it crumbled, but we were old enough to understand and to feel the idiosyncrasies of it in Romania. The project was supposed to be something neo-expressionist using the medium of video games, talking about not only communism as it was in Romania, but also our memories of communism."
Of the 9-strong team at Sand Sailor Studios, almost all designers, artists and programmers are old enough to remember the country's communist regime in full swing, and even the younger members have plenty of family stories. "We were kids back then. It was tough, life was tough. There were shortages of food, and a lack of music and TV," Diaconescu remembers. "Looking back it's a mixture of melancholy and also frustration. We understand now that these shortages placed us in a difficult position, and the effects are still there today, especially when compared to the west."
The creators' memories of the time mean Black the Fall can't help but be something deeply personal, though it's also not a straight presentation of 'Romania under communist rule.' The game's atmosphere may come from the real world, but it's set in a dystopian future.
"The game itself does not have any written text or spoken language, but the background and the actions of the protagonist are filled with our memories about how you are supposed to conform, and not speak your mind," says Diaconescu.
"As kids we weren't even allowed to speak to our friends about what we had in the house... we were all living in fear. Some of the neighbours might want to rat you out to the police — you can see that scattered all over the background of the game. We have a very powerful background narrative that speaks about the oppression, about the fear of being open to one another.
"But of course the game is not historically accurate. It's mainly about the people who made it, everyone on the team had something that they put in at one point."
Anything to survive
Sand Sailor Studios have woven this narrative through every aspect of the game, including important mechanics. Early on in the game you'll be handed a 'designator', a device that allows you to control both machines and NPCs. On the face of it this seems like a handy puzzle-solving tool that helps you progress, but the whole concept of 'control' in this landscape has an eerie resonance.
"Even those who had just a little power were very manipulative," says Diaconescu. "I remember the grocery stores particularly — we didn't have privately owned grocery stores, they were all owned by the state, so whoever had access to bread, meats and vegetables also had power. They used to ask people for 'favours'... they were like small kings of the neighbourhood. We wanted to add that into the game. Basically, the way to survive back then, as I remember it, was to have enough influence over the others, so if something went wrong, you could do what you had to do to escape. It was a very dehumanising experience.
"I think that was the basic rule of surviving. You either went corrupt and worked for the government, spying on your neighbours and your coworkers, or you tried to outsmart them by playing nice, by dodging enquiries, by bribing officials. Our character is not a superhero. It is a metaphor for what you had to do back then to survive."
History repeats itself
When you're creating a game like this, so deeply entwined in personal experience and political history, surely you can't help but draw comparisons to modern-day life. I ask Diaconescu if he could see any of his game's themes returning in the current global climate.
"It's a funny question because we were talking the other day about the new changes that were taking place in Europe, and the rise of autocratic leaders, such Erdoğan in Turkey, and of course Trump in the US. It kind of resembles what happened in the past before communism came to power in Romania.
"Communism didn't start at once and democracy cannot die at once, it takes a period of time. But we kind of see the signs again and it's rather disturbing; especially for Romania. The game can feel very real, like its happening today, but it's also very important to remember that it is a dystopian vision."
The trailer for Black the Fall has received some attention and, interestingly enough, Sand Sailor tell me they see trends in the comments section depending on where in the world viewers are watching from. Apparently Eastern Europeans have become very pro-western in their views, but Russians comment in a more anti-capitalist fashion. There's also pro-socialist opinion coming in from some parts of the US and Western Europe, and a wave of pro-communist support in South America.
"One thing that I can say is that Eastern Europeans, when they see the images of the game — if they are old enough, they are instantly transported back to their childhood and that's amazing," says Diaconescu. But in the makeup of the game's potential audience, there was one last twist of the knife.
Younger Eastern European players, those under 30 years old, don't have the same reaction. Diaconescu says they see Black the Fall as just a dystopian sci-fi game, rather than a reflection of their region's recent past. Perhaps that's the most inadvertently chilling thing about the game — how quickly the world moves on, and how soon we forget. Then again, that's why humans create things like Black the Fall. This is both videogame and cultural document, an effort to make an entertainment that resonates and in some senses educates about its inspiration. It's a way of trying to make sense of the world — even if that particular time and place is never coming back.