Any parent of a toddler knows this maxim of human nature: The fastest way to interest someone in something–anything–is to say “you can’t have it.” Redacted documents full of blacked-out text are a graphic symbol of this basic urge to revolt against censorship, and now an iOS puzzle game called Blackbar harnesses it for fun and profit. It’s unlikely to become the next Letterpress–the self-serious concept and $2.99 price tag are quite a barrier to viral popularity–but as a piece of elegant, actually fun game design combined with subtle, zeitgeisty storytelling, Blackbar deserves a cult following. (Letterpress creator Loren Brichter, for one, loves it.)
Blackbar’s concept is deviously simple: You get to read someone else’s mail, which has had portions redacted by a shadowy corporation, and in order to read the next letter, you have to correctly guess what words lie under those grim black rectangles. The “game mechanic,” in literal terms, is nothing more than typing text–no more sophisticated than a classic game of hangman.
But that’s not what drives the fun (and, er, more complicated emotions) of playing Blackbar. It’s the compulsive thrill of eavesdropping, of sleuthing your way through someone’s backstory. Who are these people writing the letters? Why is the corporation censoring them? And by decrypting the redacted text, are you a hero undoing the efforts to muzzle free speech–or a villain conducting your own personal version of PRISM on someone else’s private communications?
Created by Neven Mrgan and James Moore, Blackbar has a parsimonious design that would please Dieter Rams. There are no tutorials, no bleeping feedback to reward a correct answer or punish a wrong guess, and no clues other than the context of the letters. (Well, that’s not entirely true: The visual shapes of the black bars are themselves an important clue to guessing what lies beneath.) Playing Blackbar is silent, cerebral, and furtive–just like cracking codes and reading someone else’s mail should be. And it goes to show that interaction design (or, for that matter, political art) doesn’t have to be flashy or self-consciously “innovative” to make a lasting impression.