'Blackbar,' The Epistolary Game

by Nick Dinicola

26 September 2014

Blackbar is the only epistolary game I’ve ever played.

Blackbar may have beaten me, even though I still refuse to admit it, but just because I’m beaten doesn’t mean that I can’t still appreciate the game and its clever presentation of puzzles. Blackbar is the only epistolary game I’ve ever played and manages to turn a narrative style that’s all about passivity into something interactive.
The structure of Blackbar sets up its story as an especially passive experience. The epistolary structure is already inherently passive because it revolves around us reading about events after the fact. Something has happened, and we’re being told of those events by someone who experienced them or knows of them. If this writer, this narrator, chooses to change, twist, or omit certain facts, we’ll never know. We consume their story helplessly. Blackbar then casts the player as an actual character within the story, so we’re not just reading the letters of a stranger and piecing together the past. Instead, the author of the letters is talking directly to us. This seems to imply some interactivity since Kenty (the author) even responds to our own letters, but we never actually see or write those letters. Also, as I wrote last week, we can’t actually help Kenty when she asks for our assistance. We may be involved in the story, but that doesn’t mean we can affect it. We’re still just a passive observer of Kenty’s story.

This goes against everything a video game is supposed to embody. Most games are about doing something, usually that something is a physical action that is repeated indefinitely, but even if it’s a mental or abstract action that is the central action of a game, then we’re still acting to impress ourselves onto the world, to affect it somehow. A game is defined by our participation, and Blackbar refuses to let us participate.

Yet it still works as a piece of interactive entertainment and fiction because even if our actions don’t affect the story, they reinforce its themes and Kenty’s struggle. The game is about overcoming censorship, and so the gameplay has us doing just that. It makes literal this abstract battle: Kenty’s letters come to you with some words redacted, and the player’s role is to puzzle out what that redacted word is based on its length and the context of the sentence it exists in.

Even though I’m reading these letters, not speaking or writing for myself, I still feel like it is my own speech that is restricted. The puzzles have me constantly struggling to find the word on the tip of my tongue. I know what I want to say, but I can’t say it because I don’t know exactly what I want to say. I’m almost able to speak, but not quite, and my mental block mirrors the physical block employed by the Department of Communications within the game. Same result, different means. Even if we can’t affect the world, we can understand it and what it truly means to struggle against censorship (again, see my previous post on Blackbar).
Blackbar turns the normally passive act of reading into an interactive experience because it makes reading comprehension the key to its puzzles. This is Close Reading: The Game. And maybe this is just because I was an English Major, but I think that’s a pretty awesome game.

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