Games

Censorship Is Not a Puzzle I Can Solve

In this case, cheating isn’t just an admission of defeat to the game, it’s an admission of defeat for the characters as well. And I can’t bring myself to make them lose.

Blackbar is an iOS puzzle game about bypassing totalitarian censors. You are Vi Channi, a common citizen of a totalitarian government who lives in a “Neighborhood” outside the big city. Your friend, Kentery Jo Loaz, has just moved to the big city where she’s set to start work as an employee of the Department of Communication. Your letters back and forth are monitored by the Department, and words that are deemed “inappropriate” are redacted. Your job as a player is to deduce what those redacted words are based on the context of the sentence and the length of the black censor bar. It’s reading comprehension as a puzzle.

The puzzles are pretty easy for the most part. You learn that most redacted words have a negative connotation to them, so much of the game is trying to figure out what “bad” word is X letters long and makes sense within the sentence. I flew through the game at a pretty steady pace until I hit one puzzle that stumped me and has left me stumped to this day. Normally I’d be happy to admit defeat and look up the answer, but in this case cheating, isn’t just an admission of defeat to the game, it’s an admission of defeat for the characters as well. And I can’t bring myself to make them lose.

Spoilers for Blackbar

As more and more letters are redacted and the Department starts intruding with their own comments, requesting you to keep your communications “in line with socially acceptable standards of decent and appropriate messaging,” Kenty gets sick of it all, gives up her job, and joins the Resistance. For a while then her letters come through unmolested, and she revels in this new freedom by swearing, and calling the censors “scaredy-cat jerks” and “humorless.” This continues for several letters until you suddenly get a personal letter from the Department of Communication itself.

You’ve received letters from the Department before, and it’s clear that they’re pre-written form letters. You can even tell where the entry fields are for things like names and dates. But this letter is not a form letter. It’s personal. The Department even refers to itself using both singular and plural pronouns, reassuring you that “I am, in fact, neither mentally deficient nor lacking the capacity for comedic understanding. Upon further consideration, we have concluded that I have even been known to exhibit tendencies toward comedic expression, in my own way and in my own chosen medium. Please note that I will illustrate said capacity in the attached letter...”

That attached letter is from Kenty, asking you to help the Resistance. She praises herself for figuring out how to intercept the Department's communication, and she needs you (Vi) to login to the computer of a Neighborhood Board Member and retrieve important information. Kenty can’t access that computer, but the Resistance has cracked the password. But it’s redacted. Beneath Kenty’s letter is another note from the Department that states, dryly and arrogantly, “Ha ha.”

The irony is terrifying. It's clear that Kenty has no idea that her message was intercepted and that she's still under surveillance. Her self-praise reads as foreboding. It’s the first time that the game becomes scary because it’s a moment that highlights the imbalance of power in fighting back against this massive surveillance state. All the Department has to do to derail the Resistance is redact a single word from a single letter. It's a simple, effortless act, and the Department knows it. Their monotone corporate-speak takes on a sinister quality, and that dry, mocking text-laugh highlights our powerlessness.

More than that, this particular puzzle is far harder than the rest because there's no real context to help us guess the answer. We're literally trying to outright guess someone’s computer password. We can make a few educated guesses based on this being the computer of a Neighborhood Board Member, but so far all my educated guesses have been wrong. Normally I would be angry at a puzzle game for breaking away from its formula in such a frustrating, difficult way... except that that's the point here. This puzzle is meant to be harder. It's meant to seem impossible.

As a result, I can't in good conscience look up the answer. That would be admitting defeat to the Department. To cheat on this puzzle, this one word, would be to contradict everything that Blackbar is about. It would represent a failure to fight back against the censor. And yet, remaining stuck is also an admission of defeat. Sure, the game may remain frozen in time, waiting endlessly for an answer, but I'm not. Every day that single black bar remains in place is another testament to the power of the Department.

Blackbar is a puzzle game about fighting censorship, but it seems that censorship is not a puzzle I can solve.



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