Black The Fall
Primo Levi writes in The Drowned And The Saved of how Nazi concentration camp overseers secured the cooperation of certain inmates against their comrades, exposing a “gray zone” between oppressor and victim. In Levi’s view, the horror of a system such as National Socialism is that it doesn’t merely destroy people but “makes them resemble itself”, turning the subjugated into their own exploiters. This is an idea crucial to Sand Sailor’s cinematic platformer Black The Fall, a dystopian fantasy loosely modelled on firsthand experience of the Soviet occupation of Romania, in which the mechanisms of escape are also the mechanisms of tyranny. Among the game’s key puzzle props is a laser pointer, obtained from one of the flabby bullies in welding visors who stomp around the game’s cyclopean factories directing sentry turret fire with a guttural roar. As a fugitive machinist heading for the border, you’ll use it both to trigger objects such as elevators and to command other workers, stooped and shrunken souls pierced by radio antennae – ushering them toward switches you can’t reach with managerial brusqueness.
At other times, you’ll treat your fellow downtrodden merely as camouflage, pedalling away on an Orwellian parody of an exercise bike alongside hundreds of fellow proles as you wait for the syrupy glare of a motion sensor to pass by. Later on, you’ll serially mistreat a canine robot after freeing it from a cage, ordering the friendly little creature into grinding cogwork to stall a piston, or even using it as a projectile to stave in a door. In the process, you’ll walk a troubled line between struggling with the game’s apparatus of brutalisation and benefitting from it, a highwire act that links Black to Inside and the venerable PS1 Oddworld titles.
Sand Sailor’s debut isn’t quite a match for Playdead’s clearly influential output – its thematic architecture isn’t as grotesquely evolved, its puzzles rougher around the edges. It also inherits the Limbo developer’s taste for trial and error, with pitfalls that leap out at you sadistically from pitch blackness, and stealth sections that punish detection with immediate death (thankfully, checkpointing is extremely generous). Nonetheless, this is both a sturdy genre piece and a poignant, adroit excavation of a torrid period, blending raw sciencefiction theatrics with an array of delicate, naturalistic details. Among the grander instances of the former are the boxy robot ogres that roam the game’s shellshocked exteriors, forcing you to cower behind huge canisters of fuel while scaring up crows as a distraction. Among the lovelier examples of the latter are the candlelit memorials that flower in certain corners – shows of quiet defiance amid the crushing darkness of the architecture.
Like Inside, Black pitches austere mechanics – running, jumping and climbing on a 2D plane – against a 3D backdrop of harrowing immensity and mystery, where each turn of the on-rails camera unearths another ominous artefact or prospect. In the factory that constitutes the game’s opening third, you’ll look on from a gantry as crowds of indoctrinated serfs assemble to bay their hatred at images of the Statue Of Liberty. Out in the wastelands, you’ll gaze upon the elephantine cadavers of spent industry, torn pipes and gutted warehouses stretching to the misty horizon. Portraits of political leaders glare unexpectedly from some windows. In what feels like mockery of its own strait-jacketed design, the game sometimes lets you interfere just a little with the environment beyond the 2D plane. One switch allows you to activate an enormous Ferris wheel, a wilting spiderweb glimpsed through a jumble of fairground stalls. A puzzle involves guiding an on-rails security camera into an alcove you can’t actually enter. Intriguingly, your robot-dog ally is able to forage in three dimensions, circling you attentively as you trot from left to right – a trait that occasionally causes frustration when you need to clamber on top of it to reach a handhold, but which possibly acts as political commentary. This is a world in which to be mechanical is to enjoy a mobility no longer afforded to the organic.
If the game’s art direction can be astonishing, the puzzles don’t always enthral. There’s reasonable variety – standout ideas include a section in which you avoid hazards by ear alone, the ability to reflect your laser pointer onto a sensor through a gap in the floor, and a piece of heavy machinery which requires you to time how long it takes your robot ally to cross the screen. But that variety, coupled with the modest four-hour runtime, also means that certain promising concepts are discarded before they’ve had a chance to mature.
While the pacing is elegant – the transition to a daylight world is particularly well-judged, arriving just as you’re beginning to tire of the factory’s monolithic shadows – there’s a peculiarly detached quality to Black The Fall, a sense of hurrying through scenes of depravity and decay rather than catalysing a narrative. The story does end by thrusting your character into something like a pivotal role, but this seems more the by-product of your ongoing journey from left to right than any belated heroic aspirations. The path even continues beyond the end credits, as you jog past photographs of the Soviet regime’s eventual overthrow and pictures of the developers themselves as children. In this regard, Black The Fall is a less satisfying game than any of those that inspire it; players hoping for more of a psychological and literary trajectory might want to investigate Tarsier’s Little Nightmares, another homage to Playdead’s work. But you could make the case that it is more honest – a bleak meditation on the idea that the most one can do in such difficult times is to keep your head down, and keep moving.
This is both a sturdy genre piece and a poignant, adroit excavation of a torrid period