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Wot I Think: Black The Fall

Best when outside, not Inside

In development for quite a while, Black The Fall [official site] meandered through Early Access (then removed), Kickstarter, and Square Enix's Collective indie publishing label. And today it's finally out. But can it survive its inevitable comparisons to Limbo and Inside? Here's wot I think:

Inside was a game that divided people. Some people - right-minded people - recognised that it was a turgid pile of drivel, while others were wrong. But we need to put those differences aside now, and approach Black The Fall afresh, and sadly note it makes similar mistakes without the same imagination. There are lovely moments, but they are scattered within a lot of unlovely.

Outrageously similar, Black The Fall starts out as yet another side-scrolling-yet-3D puzzle platformer set in the dark. You play some guy. Some guy with an aerial sticking out the back of his shirt, much like the other shirt-aerialled people seemingly enslaved in this achingly heavy-handed representation of a communist factory. To the right you must proceed, until you spring a trap that kills you, reload, then avoid the trap until the next trap springs.

People's tolerance for games killing them in order to communicate they need to now not be killed varies. For me, I thought Limbo's handling of this was exquisitely well done, delivered with a deft hand, an arched eyebrow, and a commentary on itself and all of gaming. When Inside tried the same but with all the wit and nuance removed, I found it cumbersome and often plain idiotic. Others didn't, but it's harder still to justify Black The Fall's incessant surprise deaths, so often strung together in groups of three.

And if Inside had the vestigial remains of Limbo's commentary with its delivery of this mechanic, BTF is just a hollow bleat. Its commentary is reserved for endlessly shouting "COMMUNISM WAS SIMPLY DREADFUL!" at you like you hadn't heard. (More on this below.) But then it steps out of the dark.

Once the first third of the game is out the way, you appear outdoors into the crumbling remains of this oppressed world, and it's as if this reveal of what a pretty game it is had an effect on the developers too. While its random-o-deaths are still a problem, the game starts to feel fresher, more reasonable, and less obnoxious.

It doesn't start to make a lick more sense - this is a game in which the fascistic regime has not only painted pictograms showing how your character can escape from a situation, they've even included diagrams of your Xbox controller - but it starts to feel more rewarding. A huge part of that is down to how gosh-darned beautiful it looks once someone remembers to switch the lights on.

Along the way you pick up tools that let you solve puzzles, like a laser beam that can open doors, or even control the brains of other workers via their aerial. Later there's a spider-dog robot thing, with whom you work in tandem. None of these puzzles are particularly witty in their implementation, nor surprising in their execution, but they're all - well - something to do. Some puzzles are badly communicated and solved only by tiresome picking away. Others are close to lovely, and satisfying to complete. None make you think, "Gosh, wow, what a brilliant idea."

Let me give you an example of the sort of problem, even when it's not just about springing surprise traps on you in the pitch black:

You realise the solution to a puzzle is to command your spider-dog-bot to run ahead of you, drawing the fire of a distant robot. You do it and this affords you the ability to run into cover. You do it again, and it works again. You do it a third time, because the circumstances presented are identical for a third time in a row, but this time when you run across it turns out that the flooring tips up as you run onto it, catching the robot's attention and instantly killing you.

You could notice the pivot on the flooring, although you could easily as not. But say you did: even if you try to dodge off the wobbly floor in time, the game will still kill you just for triggering the trap. It's the game saying, "Do this to get over there. Do it again. Do it- HA HA TRICKED YOU!" Which is supremely dickish. It doesn't help that the solution in this particular example can be found, used, but still not work, which leads to hair-pulling.

It can't resist going back into the dark near the end, too, and this results in a dull and uninspired ending in which frustrations are driven deeper by even slower movement and terrible checkpointing (which is mostly good before this point). But that middle act does shine, although admittedly partly because the opening and close are quite so poor.

It's worth noting a technical snafu - when I try to run the game in a resolution higher than 1920x1200, it expands the image above and below the edges of the screen, making it impossible to play. Which is annoying.

But the biggest issue is the clumsiness with which so much is delivered. Too many puzzles let you go past a point where they can be solved, and too often present seemingly viable solutions that are surprise deaths, meaning so much is a process of elimination rather than inspiration. That, and how utterly ridiculous it is to build a game so amazingly beautiful and then put half of it in near pitch dark.

I want to talk a bit more about the presentation of communism throughout. The developers are Romanian, where communism is clearly a heavy spectre rather than a mere feature in history books. It wasn't until 1989 that it was overthrown after 43 brutal years, and they state on their website that they intend to talk about this in their games. Great. But I just don't understand how this was intended to work in Black The Fall.

Discussion of oppressive communism and autocratic rule is not unusual in gaming. Many games portray this with the depiction of cruel regimes, the effects of mind-washing on populations, the act of rebellion by the player character, and drive home their message through subtext, fantastical interpretations, or abstract presentation. But Black The Fall just shows you actual pictures of Lenin on the wall, in between crowds of workers cheering mustachioed faces, or seething in rage at the Statue Of Liberty's face. This feels so oddly jarring and as a result so overbearing when combined with the science-fiction elements of the game. Robot spiders, magic mind-controlling lasers, enormous robotic killing machines and so on make it clear this isn't a literal game. So the conflation of these with real-world communist leaders, posters referencing the Romanian Revolution of '89, and just in case that were too subtle, a really strange final sequence of showing you photographs from Romania's history in a wildly incongruous way, results in something that just feels way off. It's as clumsy as an iron fist. Maybe I'm entirely wrong, but I feel like these things can be effective when presenting brutal history, or impactful allegory, but not both together - one seems to undermine the truth of the other.

I feel pretty certain that I'm going to be bemused by other people's enjoyment of the game's fuck-you death traps, just as I was after Inside. And frankly, when so many endorsed Inside's ending, which I found utterly moronic, I feel like I may as well be clucking in the wind. So I don't doubt that Black The Fall will find its fans. I actively hated Inside, but I didn't hate this at all. For me it felt far too derivative of Inside (it was of course in development before Inside's release, but looked awfully different), which was itself derivative of Limbo, and without the precision of either. Utterly beautiful when it remembers to be, but more irritating than fun in execution.

Black The Fall is out now for Windows for £11/$15/15€ (10% off at the time of writing) via Steam

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