Censorship, language, and the triumph of wit - 6 questions for Neven Mrgan on Blackbar

Controlling the words

Censorship, language, and the triumph of wit - 6 questions for Neven Mrgan on Blackbar
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| Blackbar

Blackbar is a game unlike anything else you've played.

In this tale of censorship and rebellion, Neven Mrgan tackles huge, important subjects, while telling a small personal tale of love and loss. The game is, in short, brilliant.

We gave Blackbar a Gold Award when we reviewed it, calling it "a moving and sometimes painful experience" that "deserves to be played by as many people as possible".

I caught up with Neven Mrgan, one half of the Blackbar development team, to talk about the inspiration behind the game, how its unique style came about, and whether he was ever worried about Apple rejecting it.

Pocket Gamer: First up, could you tell me about what inspired you to make Blackbar?

Neven Mrgan: The idea for Blackbar came from thinking about the issues of privacy and transparency that have been in the tech news recently - issues stemming from the increasing amount of information we all give to private and public agencies (often in return for some very nifty services).

This got me thinking about the slightly out-of-date - but still very much recognisable - notion of redacting interpersonal communication, a standard practice in the Soviet Union and often in the Western world.

I grew up in communist Yugoslavia in the 1980s, so I was somewhat familiar with how this affects average people. The idea that made me the most frustrated was this devious policy in which references to censorship itself must be censored, making it impossible to talk about the thing that's making it impossible for you to talk about it. It's ingenious in its awfulness.

I should note that the game was written and designed prior to the recent NSA scandal, so it wasn't directly influenced by that particular story.

That said, there's no shortage of recent and ancient examples of surveillance and redaction - this sort of thing will always go on (or at least be talked about) in some fashion.

As long as there are middlemen carrying the information we send to one another, we'll be suspicious of them.

Blackbar looks very different from anything else on the App Store. How did you settle on that style?

Blackbar is virtually 'unstyled', containing no home screen, start screen, credits, Help section, settings, Pause menu, or anything like that.

It's just the game, from start to finish. I wanted to make the player feel like the letters in Blackbar were arriving to the player, on the player's device. The player's imagination can fill in the missing style.

I also wanted to experiment with doing things "the wrong way", i.e. the opposite of "what makes a successful app". I've jokingly referred to Blackbar's look, icon, and marketing as "App Store poison".

Just the other day, I got an email in which it was suggested I add social features to the game. While I'm sure that would actually increase downloads, I've already drawn a line in the sand. It's an admittedly 'artsy' game, so anything that makes it look too much like a 'product' is a no-go.

Were you ever worried the game might be rejected by Apple because of its subject matter?

I only pondered this for entertainment, imagining how deliciously ironic it would be for Apple to 'censor' (that's not quite the right word) a game about censorship. But I never thought we'd run into any actual problems.

One interesting aspect of the game is its parental rating. The text of the game doesn't contain swear words. However, it's implied that some of the redacted text is foul language.

The player can enter anything from "crap" to the more shocking four-letter words in these fields. The game will accept equal-length synonyms.

Ultimately, though, I reasoned that it's the player who's using this language, in that case. The game won't 'teach' you, or 'require' any words, you don't wish to use on your own.

What would you like players to take away from the experience of playing Blackbar?

The final message of the game is, I hope, about the triumph of human creativity over the human desires to control and to comply. Almost by definition, people will always be more motivated to creatively subvert crummy authority than they will be motivated to enforce it.

The censor in Blackbar is following orders and applying a logic dictated by someone above it, based on a set of (despicable) rules. The censor's got its hands tied by its own oppressiveness, in a way.

Meanwhile, the protagonists are free to use the entirety of human cleverness and expression to get around these rules. That sort of freedom and wit wins, in the end.

And for the more development-minded player, who looks at Blackbar as a designed game and not just an experience, I hope it inspires that person to pursue game ideas that include stories in which the player isn't just moved from one shooting zone to the next.

Stories can become intertwined with interactivity, and ideally the two should fully depend on each other. There are so many fascinating ways to make the player "move the story along" that don't just involve dialogue screens and decision forks.

Will we see Blackbar on any other platforms?

We'd love to offer Blackbar on as many platforms as possible. It's a technically simple game, so I feel guilty when people can't get it on their phone or computer.

The reality is, however, that we're a two-person team working on this as a side-project. We're short on time, resources, and skills.

So, long story short, I'm all for Blackbar on Android and Windows Phone, for instance, but I have no clue if we can actually build this or how soon.

What are you working on next?

I've been developing the iOS / Mac game Space Age with Matt Comi for a while now. We're hoping to ship that soon-ish. Beyond that, I'd like to prototype a few more simple, story-oriented game ideas and see if they're fun.

And, of course, I'll be working on pro apps at Panic, making sure creative people have good tools with which to work.

Harry Slater
Harry Slater
Harry used to be really good at Snake on the Nokia 5110. Apparently though, digital snake wrangling isn't a proper job, so now he writes words about games instead.