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

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