In 2014, Cristian Diaconescu and Nicoleta Iordanescu from Bucharest, Romania set out to create an art project that could convey the distrust and dehumanization that is driven into a population by communist regime. This lead to the birth of Sand Sailor Studio and Black The Fall – a stealthy, noir-like black and white platformer with puzzle elements set in an overbearing dystopia. Following their success while competing for the Square Enix Collective program and funding Black The Fall via Kickstarter, Sand Sailor Studio received a scholarship for their prototype game to take part in Execution Lab’s accelerator program. During this time, Black The Fall underwent some dramatic changes to better reflect the the doom and gloom of living, and escaping, an oppressive communist system.
After expanding to a team of nine, Sand Sailor Studio debuted Black The Fall at Gamescom 2016, where it racked up nominations for Best Narrative, Best Art, and Best Indie Game.
Black The Fall’s dark and brooding atmosphere is incredibly fitting for the tale of oppression that is the basis for the narrative. The opening scene sets the stage with our protagonist stuffed into an elevator with countless other men, all of whom are uniform in their non descriptiveness. Even the player is unaware of whom they’ll take control of as they push forward on the thumbstick. The protagonist that moves forward could be anybody, nameless and dressed in a simple gray uniform. He blends in perfectly with the cold, industrialized setting. The game’s communist overlords use the power of men to fuel their machine, which is a metaphor in and of itself, and thus the protagonist hops on a stationary bike and begins pedaling to move little mine cart back and forth, opening the door. What happens here, and for the remainder of the game, is up to the player. The old machinist can continue to pedal indefinitely, there’s no timers and no risk of enemies here and doing so is an achievement for the game, or they can take a risk and make a run for freedom. Once the player has used their wits to get through the door, the alarm is raised and the hunt for the machinist who has dared to go against the rules is on.
Relying on their own experiences under the thumb of an oppressive government where freedom of speech was only a pipe dream, Sand Sailor Studio has done an exceptional job of creating a world where players must use their wit and intuitiveness to overcome the obstacles laid out before them. Each step toward freedom in Black The Fall is a step toward another challenge as the protagonist, armed only with a laser pointer that can control other workers and various switches, must carefully move through the factory that is heavily guarded by tracking lights and turrets. One wrong move means instant death for the machinist. Being obliterated by turrets is a fitting death mechanic, but Black The Fall wants to tell a very specific story – one that does not benefit from constant set backs and punishments for missteps. Failing to be stealthy or figure out a puzzle may lead to death, but players respawn with just a press of the button, and will find that they’ve not lost any progress upon doing so. Instead they will simply be reset at the beginning of the current obstacle so they can try again.
Our hero is susceptible to steam, but if he’s to reach the outside of the factory he must first navigate a pitch black pipeline that bursts of steam occasionally shoot across . Before entering the pipeline the game suggests having a pair of headphones on hand via a discarded sign at the entrance. Players must rely only on the sound of the steam getting closer or stopping completely to know when they can move through the total darkness. Its a creative puzzle that adds an appropriate amount of tension to the Black The Fall at just the right moment.
Once out of the factory, the machinist continues platforming and puzzling his way through the ruins of the world on his quest for freedom, while a giant mech seeks him out for destruction. In a junk yard the machinist locates an unlikely ally, a robotic ‘dog’, that he can control with his laser and use to solve the puzzles to come. As with the beginning of the game, most of the puzzles are fairly straight forward and can be sleuthed out just by taking a few moments to look over the situation before diving into it. Slow and steady wins the race in Black The Fall, and often times the trick is just to wait for something to move in your favor in order to progress. This was a good thing for me, as I was about three quarters through the game when I ran into a glitch that caused my protagonist to become The Invisible Man. Only the laser pointer on his arm and a beanie hat that was picked up earlier as part of an achievement marked his location in the world. This glitch stayed with my game, despite restarts and forced quits, for about a quarter of my progression (and resulted in the screenshot above), until a cut scene toward the very end brought the character back into view. This particular glitch seems to have been something limited only to my game, however, as I’ve yet to see anybody else run into the same problem.
Black The Fall is a harrowing narrative that shines light on the very human need to be free that anyone in the world can connect to. Despite the dark atmosphere of an industrialized dystopia the environments are hauntingly beautiful and detailed. If anything, Black The Fall’s greatest sin is its short run time. Even players that struggle with stealth and rack up impressive death counters like myself can still complete the campaign in under 2 hours time. While it is possible to use chapter select to revisit parts of the story to reclaim missed achievement opportunities, the story itself does not offer much replayability.