Black Marker - Michael Kielstra

The “About” page for Black Marker compares itself to Blackbar, another game about censorship, but Blackbar is a game about figuring out the words that must have been censored, uncensoring the text.

On the face of it, I think Black Marker would be more fairly compared to The Republia Times (by Lucas Pope, who went on to develop Papers, Please) or The Westport Independent, two games where you play as government censors controlling the news. But those games are about censoring the news media; Black Marker is about censoring government documents, presumably being released to the public under something like FOIA.

The author writes:

Of course, FOIA in the US allows the government to “redact” parts of the released text, especially for privacy reasons. “Redact” and “censor” are synonymous, but IMO they have very different senses in American English. “Censorship” is when somebody wants to say something but someone in power won’t allow it; “redacting” happens when someone is compelled to reveal documents publicly, but they want to hide some of that information from the public.

Bizarrely, when you click on text to censor it in Black Marker, it turns into a big red word “CENSORED.” So much for the “black marker!” I think I would prefer if the UI made the text appear in a black box, especially if there were a nice marker-ink animation, maybe with a marker “squeak” sound effect.

I think I found all of the endings:

[spoiler]* satisfy my superiors perfectly, get access to the final bonus document

  • total mid-game fail, sent back for “retraining”
  • kept on at the job, “boring” ending
  • fired at the end for being confident in poor performance

But one ending in particular seemed to really miss its full potential:

[spoiler]When marking up the final bonus document, “Reasons for the Dismissal of Alexander Krull,” the game doesn’t seem to care at all what I do with it. Censor everything? Censor nothing? Doesn’t matter, the “ending” is the same: “The document is released. Your superiors are pleased with your work.”

It seems like it would be a lot more fun to fork that ending, to let me infiltrate the Agency as the “perfect censor” only to do serious damage to the Agency by mismanaging the final document.[/spoiler]

Relatedly, despite the fact that the game says that this censorship is a life or death matter, nothing directly happens as a result of my actions. Nobody dies, nobody’s saved, nobody even tries to shut down CONDOR; the Agency doesn’t even claim that my actions have saved lives or caused deaths. It seems like this is something the Agency should say to increase the stakes of the game.

Also, there are no personal stakes in this game for the player character. This aspect is strikingly absent in comparison to The Republia Times or The Westport Independent; it’s a factor that I think Papers, Please handled really well.

Overall, this strikes me as a solid first attempt, but it would benefit a lot from another draft, even a rewrite, to raise the stakes.

I’ve gotten a couple different endings based on what I chose to censor on the last document.

Hey, you’re right! I guess I was confused because

both censoring everything and censoring nothing lead to the same ending

which I think doesn’t make sense.

I think it would be better to have the “anti-Agency protesters have new material to work with” ending if you censor nothing.

I think the idea is

If you censor everything, then there’s nothing to work with. If you censor nothing then yes, his concerns look reasonable and CONDOR is doing questionable things, but there’s a “they know best” and “for the greater good” justification there.

There’s a third ending for the final document as well.

Censor the first and third links.

I have posted a review here:

  • Jack