The Socialist Republic of Romania fell in 1989, early into the life of game developer Cristian Diaconescu. Living under communist rule is a childhood memory, but one that has stuck through adulthood, much like it did in the minds of his friends, colleagues and contemporaries. In 2014, he decided to make something from the recollections.
“We were having discussions back then about us as a nation, about how important the communist period was for us as a generation,” Diaconescu tells me over the phone. “I think a part of what we are today was constructed in the early years of our life. So that’s why we thought this could be a great theme for a game. It would give us the opportunity to explore our childhood.”
Black the Fall is the result of a collaboration between Diaconescu and artist Nicoleta Iordanescu, along with a team of designers and developers, to work on a project that expressed the realities of communism in Romania. Instead of a documentary, the team at Sand Sailor Studio decided to make a puzzle-platformer video game. Instead of creating a digital simulacrum of pre-1989 Romania, they decided to blend scenes pulled from reality with science-fiction robots.
In a style reminiscent of Oddworld Inhabitant’s pioneering platform game, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, the player of Black the Fall moves from left to right across a screen, solving puzzles that will extract them from a sinister complex. In Abe’s Oddysee the player must liberate their character and his fellow slaves from a satirically hypercapitalist meat processing factory. In Black the Fall, the target is communism, and the player must learn to manipulate others to escape a building lined with pictures of Lenin and Stalin.
“We tried to make puzzles that are inspired by manipulation,” says Diaconescu. “This is something that people used to do back in the day. You didn’t have any friends. You didn’t know whom to trust. The only way to survive was by manipulating others.”
Visually, the game also brings to mind Playdead’s 2016 title Inside; another game that took the puzzle-platformer form and used it to tell the story of a lone individual struggling against a vast, mysterious system. Whereas that game shies from iconography that ties it to a particular political ideology, Black the Fall is laden with scenes and images pulled from the developers’ memories of Bucharest under communist rule. This connection to reality is, according to community manager Andreea Vaduva, part of the game’s strength.
“There is a hunger for authenticity,” she says. “I think the greatest art is very authentic. There are other big games that are formed around metrics: what people like most, what they play most, etc. They’re successful and entertaining, and some of them are really good. But the success for an indie game is solely based on authenticity.”
Crucially, both Vaduva and Diaconescu pitch their game as a piece of personal expression. Much of the game is pulled from their own experiences, and from what they’ve heard from parents and grandparents who lived day to day under a repressive regime. I ask them why, if that’s the case, did they decide to mix this historical authenticity with robotic companions and a visual aesthetic that wouldn’t look out of place in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil. Why not keep the whole thing grounded in the realities of communist Bucharest?
“Because we wanted to make something that’s unique and deeply ours,” Diaconescu replies. “We decided to let all the cultural aspects that influenced us be part of the game.” He mentions the effect of seeing Star Wars as a child, and reading books like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. For someone who was a child during the final days of The Socialist Republic of Romania, it makes sense for his memories of Bucharest to fuse with those of fiction, of Darth Vader and Big Brother. As a piece of self-expression, Black the Fall is therefore more an impressionistic sketch than a historically accurate document.
Will the game’s cocktail of fantastic and actual oppression work out? Will it give an insight into a still tender chapter of Romanian history, or will the generalised tropes of dystopian fiction drown out this authenticity? We’ll be able to tell for ourselves when the game is released on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, on 11 July 2017.