Monday, May 9, 2016

IOS Review #117: Blackbar / Grayout

Title: Blackbar, Grayout
Developer: Mrgan LLC
Platforms: iOS Universal, Android
Price: $2.99 each
Sometimes it can be easy to forgot the power of words can play in games. Often words are merely relegated to mere UI indications or the names of cool new loot. Dialogue, flavor text, and logs of lore remind us of their importance, while the Torments, Sunless Seas, and 80 Days of gaming show us how effective well-crafted prose can be. But outside of text adventures and word games, fewer still focus on blending the words themselves with the gameplay. Perhaps the most recent examples I can think of are Device 6's use of text to mirror the described environment and Type Rider's platforming journey through the history of typography.

Blackbar and Grayout are two narrative-driven text-based puzzlers that use their words to tell their stories and as gameplay. Set in a dystopian future, both explore different aspects of the same world through different lenses and mechanics.
Blackbar draws us into its heavily surveillanced and controlled future through the correspondence of two friends. One works in the government, and thus her messages and letters are censored by the Department of Communication. As you progress through the story, story context, past knowledge from other letters, cyphers and codes hidden in the text, and other means allow you to fill in the redacted words and phrases.

Grayout is a prequel to Blackbar, and explores a different element of its world. Rather than letters and messages, you're in the headspace of Alaine, a woman suffering from aphasia - a condition that affects one's ability to communication - and recovering from an industrial accident. At least that's what the doctors tell you. Grayout dives into the subject of medical experimentation; Alaine (and yourself) struggle to express your thoughts to the queries and comments of doctors and others in the hospital research lab where she is kept, choosing terms from a word cloud to respond.
Both games tell engaging stories that explore their world through interesting lenses. Blackbar's restrictive perspective of letters and offical mandates from the government hauntingly shift from everyday small talk between friends to unease fear, all presented through taut well-crafted prose.

Grayout's narrative is more intimate and personal, but expands on the merging of gameplay and text in a more clever, interesting execution. Understanding what you want to say, but puzzling out the correct terms from screen's word clouds mirrors Alaine's own struggle with her impaired communication, brilliantly placing the player in the protagonist's shoes through mechanics alone. Furthermore, Alaine's emotions and other narrative twists will affect which words are present, or even how words are spelled and colored.

Blackbar is available for iOS and Android, while Grayout is only on the App Store.

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