Skillful Escape, Hollow Rebellion
The Greatest victory of Communism, a victory dramatically revealed only after 1989, was to create people without a memory – a brainwashed new man unable to remember what he was, what he had, or what he did before communism.
– Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance
Life in 1980’s Communist Romania was stupidly harsh. Freedom of speech was nonexistent. Any anti-government whisper improved the chance of receiving a terrifying visit from the Securitate, Romanian secret police, which pressured families and neighbors to snitch on one another. Writer, journalist, and photographer became some of the most dangerous professions; citizens who engaged in these passions risked, for the crime of “denigrating the socialist reality,” a minimum of six years in prison or a maximum of being disappeared, never to be embraced or gazed upon by loved ones again.
As though political and psychological oppression wasn’t enough to keep Romanians fearful and dispirited, the government, lead by ubiquitous president Nicolae Ceausescu, instituted a strict austerity policy, a move meant to, on the weary backs of its citizens, help the country manage its $13 billion debt to western creditors. Prices for goods and services increased. Real income gradually diminished. Support for social programs such as healthcare, education, and science and culture were dramatically butchered. Energy was rationed, leaving most without heat and hot water for the majority of the butt-clenching winter months. Food shortages became a commonality; people stood apprehensively in line for up to twelve hours with hopes of receiving basic foodstuffs. During the roughest periods, many recall surviving purely on bones and frozen fish.
From these dreadful, unbearable conditions spawned a cultural and economic malaise so potent that in December 1989, the people revolted – violently overthrowing the communist government, executing Ceausescu by firing squad, and ending 42 years of communist rule.
After 28 years of political and economic reform, the suffering has subsided, but it’s yet to be over.
The effects of Ceausescu’s policies still haunt Romanians psychologically and economically to this day.
Black The Fall – a side scrolling, dystopian puzzle-platformer that’s in a similar vein to Playdead’s Limbo and Inside – seems to be Romanian developer Sand Sailor Studio’s reflective way of remembering, interpreting, and sharing a semblance of the atmosphere and horrors of its country’s history with communist oppression, as well as the fortitude it took to overcome it. While the protagonist’s escape is infused with simple but fulfilling puzzles, a poignant tale that is inferred, rather than explicitly told, through stirring environmental design, and bipedal sentry drones monstrous enough to effortlessly t-bag a battalion of RoboCop’s ED-209’s into a heap of squealing scrap, the inevitable rebellion comes off as a premature chance encounter that feels narratively undeserved.
The escape begins in a factory so dark and devoid of spirit that a Tolkien troll would have trouble discerning a hobbit’s leg from a subterranean toilet plunger. Laborers, your people, are forced to toil, pedaling away on stationary bicycles that transport odd parts for an unknown purpose. Red vision beams of guards and surveillance cameras intermittently switch gazes between the workers and key access points, ensuring that no laborer misbehaves or attempts to flee. Taking on the role of a machinist cut from a cloth of cleverness, you decide that now is your chance to sneak and outwit your way beyond this hell-hole of slave labor.
To do so, you’ll have to run, jump, climb, crawl, sneak, and solve environmental puzzles, all while remaining unseen by the agents of oppression, which take dutiful joy in immediately terminating you on detection. Thankfully, you come across a laser pointer, and a robotic comrade pooch to aid in said puzzles. These tools make those quick and constant deaths, from which you are nearly instantaneously reloaded to a generously placed checkpoint, a manageable component in the trial-and-error process.
Extensions of your will to survive, the laser pointer allows you to interact with machinery, and manipulate fellow workers into pulling levers and lurking into areas where you clearly aren’t authorized; the pooch o’ bot follows orders from your laser pointer. He can access areas that are too tight or too high for the ordinary humanoid. He can contort his frame into an adorable stepping stool that permits you access to higher platforms. He can distract beefy, super-shredded ED-209’s as you dash to and from cover. He’s your only friend in a place where, for some, the cultural maxim has become “Every man for himself.”
Regarding gameplay, the puzzles are entertaining and manageable. Most are not difficult enough to frustrate, nor are they too easy as to be unsatisfying. Some solutions will be instantly perceived, while others will take a potentially tedious amount of trial-and-error tactics to uncover. However, there are two puzzles that have a probability of irritating you to the point of launching from your chair and performing the “what in dystopian hell am I supposed to do?” stomp.
Fortunately, when you’re not overcoming puzzles or losing your composure in the newest anti-dictator dance craze, you’ll be absorbing the sights and sounds of a land as black, grey, and desolate as the hearts of the selfish, maniacal men who made it so. As you sprint through a trench and take in the sight of a collapsed ferris wheel in the background, or tromp through empty streets as scared citizens brace themselves behind wooden doors and closed windows, you really get a sense that these people have been broken. Anything that could grant them momentary respite from the gloom has either been destroyed or appropriated.
All of this thematic and visual darkness is contrasted beautifully by a stark, furious red and a suggestive orange that facilitate interactivity. Red is used to highlight your oppressor’s visual range, and it also happens to be the color of your laser pointer. Orange is used to showcase machinery that can be manipulated. These colors simultaneously add character and, dare I say, emotion to the cheerless environment, as well as offer visual cues as to what can kill and what can aid.
If I have one issue with Black The Fall, it’s the finale / rebellion. It isn’t atrocious, by any measurement. It’s actually quite touching. Yet for me it felt unearned. You see, your character is a selfish man. You spend the entirety of the two to four hour getaway looking out for no one but yourself, using fellow laborers and machines to guarantee your survival without ever offering a helping hand. You witness many things. Bravery isn’t one of them. You never receive any intimation that the people are ready, or preparing, to fight back. And yet, we go from hopelessness to revolt within the span of a single transition. The final scene is meant to make you a victor by ironic circumstance, and in this it will be successful for most. But I couldn’t help but feel hollowness in triumph. And maybe that’s the point.