There’s minimalism, and then there’s Blackbar, a game which discards every frippery it can in order to appear as nothing more than a series of partially redacted letters from one young woman to another, both eking out a life in a lightly sketched dystopia. There’s no title screen or fancy font work here, just words, words, and more words.
They’re mundane ones to start with, too, the kind of pleasantries and platitudes you’d expect in any discourse between longtime friends newly separated; Kentery’s got a new job in the city, while Vi remains at home. Gradually, however, the details trickle in. Kentery’s new job title, listener for the department of communication, is pretty ominous, as are all the censored words in her correspondence. Your job as player is to fill in these missing words – and the triumph of Blackbar’s storytelling (not counting the prose itself, which skillfully captures up a cluster of unique voices across the game’s brief duration) is in the way you build a picture of this dystopian regime’s philosophy from the words it tries to take away. Not content with removing sensitive information, this Big Brother dislikes negativity, too.
At times, Blackbar feels restrictive, even constrained. It’s minimalist to the point where getting stuck really does mean staring at an unchanging, clue-free wall of text. And you will get stuck, because inevitably you’ll think up a perfectly valid word that doesn’t happen to be what Kentery had in mind (though Blackbar does predict some of these synonyms). Still, Blackbar tells a satisfying dystopian short story, one that invites you to engage directly with its censorship theme.
Blackbar is out now on iOS for $2.99 / £1.99 / €2.99. iPad version tested.