In 1962, Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The novel focused on life in the gulag, of which Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience. When I first read Denisovich, I’d heard about Solzhenitsyn, and I knew a little about the horrors of the Soviet labour camps – so I expected to be reading through an awful gritty tale of survival against all odds. Something like Maus, something that threw back the covers on the whole rotten system. That’s not quite what Denisovich is. It’s an indictment, for sure, but it’s not raw and ragged. It’s gentle. It’s understated, and even noble. It has a dignity of spirit that came across as maybe more of a gesture of defiance than if it had gone down the rage and thunder route. The story follows Ivan Denisovich through a day of his life in a gulag. He scrounges for food, tries to avoid trouble with the guards, works hard, and actually comes out having had a pretty alright day. I mean, it’s all relative when you’re talking about the gulag, but that’s how the novel ends – Ivan thinks to himself that he’s had a pretty good day. And that’s enough. It’s a testament to an unbroken spirit, to a humanity that remains intact despite everything that it’s put through. Anyway, we’re not here to talk about any of that. We’re talking about Black The Fall.
I’m getting a little tired of the 2D side-scrolling ‘person runs through hellscape’ genre. They often feel like they don’t have anything to say – all style, no substance. That was one of the things that initially drew me to Black The Fall. It took that idea of ‘2D person runs through hellscape,’ and applied it to the context of the Soviet Union. Fair enough – that’s an intelligent setup. It’s taking an established mechanic and using it to discuss a specific period or idea. It gives you an opportunity to explore a wide range of places, as you’re always moving from one area to another. You can see all of the different manifestations and impacts of the system you’re living under. You move through factories and living quarters, propaganda centers, manufacturing plants, ruined wastelands. At every turn, you observe how your countrymen are treated, as you evade guards and security systems, and search for freedom from this totalitarian nightmare. There’s even – I thought this was cute – a giant screen that shows a Soviet leader, and everyone cheers, and then it shows the Statue of Liberty, and everyone goes ‘booooo’. Straight rip-off from 1984. I appreciated it.
I’ll be honest, though, I have to wonder if this sidescrolling travel mechanic actually works against the message of the game. It makes the main character feel disconnected from the society that he’s observing. He’s not in the crowd, he’s above it. He’s a transient, a drifter. The effects of totalitarianism are things that we see happening to other people as we run past them, rather than things that we as players experience ourselves. With Denisovich, we follow a man who is deeply entangled in totalitarian society. He’s living in a Soviet gulag, day by day, alongside other Russian prisoners – his countrymen. His friends. And you as a reader understand the horrors of the totalitarian state more deeply by being brought into the mindset of someone who is actively living under it – who can’t escape it. In Black, it’s more like zipping past the gulag from the outside. You give Ivan a quick wave, and then you’re off. As players, we engage with the society in Black through the perspective of the main character, who largely exists outside the system. We are never invited to contemplate the horror of totalitarianism from the inside, and I can’t help but wonder whether the game is weaker for it. Plus – and this is something I’ve said before, about another game (Beholder, over here) – you don’t really feel the full force and power of a staggeringly oppressive state when the main character is able to topple it over the course of a two or three hour game. As I said back then, 1984 doesn’t end with Winston toppling Big Brother, because that would undermine the supposed strength of the system that he’s facing.
And – I mean, this is where it gets complicated, isn’t it. Because Black The Fall isn’t like Denisovich or 1984. It’s not about a system that ultimately overcomes the main characters. It’s about the Romanian Revolution. Black The Fall is made by Sand Sailor Studio, a Romanian game dev company. They talk extensively on their blog about how their game was inspired by Communism in Romania, with specific scenes and areas drawing explicitly on historical images from the time. Now, if you’re not familiar with the Romanian Revolution (and I sure as hell wasn’t), it was part of the fall of Communism in 1989. Basically, in one year, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania all threw out their Soviet governments, with November 1989 seeing the fall of the Berlin Wall. Apparently Romania’s revolution was particularly violent, with the execution of the Communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, on Christmas Day. Romania then abolished the death penalty two weeks later. The difference between Black The Fall and Denisovich is that Black The Fall is about the end of Communism. It’s about the first moment of freedom – and it’s about Romania’s ongoing struggle for freedom. The game ends with the main character walking past historical photos from the Revolution. The final photo is more modern – it’s still in Romania, but it’s from 2017, during widespread protests against government corruption. It seems pretty clearly implied that the people in the photo are the developers. Their struggle continues.
So maybe let’s scratch that last comment. This game ends appropriately. Is the point about the main character’s disconnect still valid? Well, let’s use Beholder as a point of comparison. In Beholder, you play a landlord set over a block of flats. The game embeds you into the social fabric of totalitarianism and encourages you to spy on your tenants and rat them out for profit. It uses your position in the social fabric to explore how a modicum of power in an authoritarian state can turn you into one of the bad guys. Black The Fall never has that sort of experience, because the sidescrolling move-from-place-to-place mechanics mean you’re only ever passing through. You see totalitarianism happening to other people, and then you do a physics puzzle where you and your robot dog have to jump onto a raft at the same time to give it the momentum to get across a lake.
I don’t want to be too disparaging towards the puzzles, actually. The physics gimmicks are irrelevant to the thrust of the story, but more broadly the puzzles also contain a pretty brilliant motif – one that I think ties together some of the tensions of this game. It’s less a mechanic, and more a way of thinking about the puzzles that are in front of you. In many cases, the solution to a puzzle involves appropriating or impersonating the proper processes of the totalitarian state. You steal a control glove that guards wear, and use it to order other citizens to push buttons and unlock doors. You jump on a stationary bike and pretend to be generating power so that the security cameras don’t spot you. And, in one grizzly scene, you climb into a casket and pretend that you’ve joined the ranks of the dead. That one – yeah, that one really fucked me up, and that was before I saw the real photo that it was based on. (It’s down the bottom.) There’s something compelling in that motif. You duck in and out of the system, engaging with it, impersonating it, subverting it, repurposing it for your own ends. It was playful, deceptive. You toy with the ideas and structures of the totalitarian state, pretending to obedience as part of your rebellion. You’re an outsider and an insider, a subject of the state and part of the resistance. The cracks are starting to show. Laws can be parodied with impersonations of obedience rather than the genuine thing. There’s a type of liberty in there that, at the end of the day, Solzhenitsyn may have not been able to imagine. Different place, different time. Different points in the history of Communism. Could it be that simple?