gamesDivision Featured Review
the accursed share(ware) Black Box

RileySoft/Transreal Interactive
PC and Mac
Action (?)
Release date: TBA

Black Box, from first time developer RileySoft, warrants lengthy description before I can justify its excellent rating. Be forewarned, as quite a few spoilers are ahead--the main one of which is the solution to the game, a revelation that's required if I'm going to properly praise its glory. I advise everyone just to find the game (good luck, as RileySoft was never able to find a publisher and has since made it available only through the net. Find your copy at . and play it (to which I must advise, good luck, again--see below). Alas, everyone knows disclaimers are as out as fat laces so let's just get into it.

First off, the packaging, which is ostensibly a superficial arena to review, but as most people will never see Black Box in purchasable form I want to talk about it. Fortunately, I got a copy of the game in what was to be its as-you'd-find-it-at-EBX form (for more on Transreal Interactive's 1998 abandonment of its developers, see Skullman's Newsfeed). The game came in...a black box. A perfect, black-matte plastic, unadorned cube. No screenshots on the outside anywhere, no game description, nothing. You had to actually cut the thing open to get to the contents inside. A CD-ROM lay suspended in a lace of plastic anchors in the center of the cube, situated thus, I guess, to keep it from bouncing around in the box (which would shatter the illusion (?) of the emptiness inside.). Aside from the CD and its elegant plastic brace, the inside of the cube was empty.

Now for the game itself (I'll spare you the game-within-the-game that was the installation of Black Box-- but don't be surprised if you see bigger, more public developers emulating this idea in the months to come, albeit with less personal sacrifice on the part of the player). It's a standard first-person POV affair of above average graphics. Though Black Box supports 3D acceleration, the software version loses little by way of the game's atmosphere. And, boy, what an atmosphere! You begin the game at night in an empty countryside, standing on the rim of a valley, staring down at what seems to be a military installation. There are guards patrolling the area, a guard post by the gate, a wide perimeter fence (electrified), searchlights at the corners, but--in the center of the field that the fences protect- is nothing but a single black box.

What follows is a bit of hair-raising action as you inevitably end up in a gunfight with the guards. This part is quite intense, especially after you get your hands on some of the higher-level weapons (see sidebar). Pretty soon reinforcements come by way of assault helicopter, and the actions starts again. This part of the game seemed, at first, a little too hard, even for a Quake2meister like myself (until I came to end of the game, and I realized the game's true definition of difficulty). I fought through it, though, and with zest, and before long I noticed something really weird: every time I killed something, be it grunt or helicopter or paratrooping boss, I lost points. By the time all the enemies in the game were dead I was in the red by 32,000 points!

I ignored this oddity because I could finally try to get at the black box behind the electrified fence (who could resist so seductive a power-up placement?). And here's the conclusion one comes to after hours and hours of trying: no matter what you do, you can't get to the box. You can't climb the fence (you fry), shooting the lock on the gates won't help you (it's electronic), none of the guards' passcards work (invariably riddled to ruin with your gunfire), and you can't capture a helicopter (they pass overhead, paratroops jump out, and go on their way). In fact, every time you try to get at the box, you lose more points (some tricky code there, I bet).

RileySoft must be congratulated for the game's ability to forestall frustration and boredom. The more futile is seemed to try and get at the box, the more I was inspired to do so. I played all night, just to see what was inside of the box. Sleep set in, however, and I awoke three hours later, never having left my desk, with my character still looking fruitlessly at the black box behind the fence. Then I noticed that my points were slowly climbing back towards the positive. I wondered how this could be. Was not playing the point of the game? Did the three hours of just looking at the box, without trying to actually get to it, in some way resigning oneself towards the box, did this result in the increase of my score? Did I have to, in some way, come to terms with the box to win? I made myself a bowl of cereal and watched as slowly my point total climbed back towards zero. It was impossible not to be excited. Black Box is the only game I've ever seen where you have fun simply by not playing.

By midday my total was back to zero, and by this time I had already called Skullman, breathlessly telling him to come check this game out. We watched the game religiously, just as our character watched the box. We did not move the mouse. We did not hit a key. We did not want to upset the balance. We waited for our score to rise higher, for some positive sign of our obedience. We waited for thirty minutes, an hour.

Then our points started to drop.

Not since those days at the skate-center did you experience such blind panic--you're sitting there at Karate Champ taking all comers, so good at the game the girls start watching, making that holy Man in the Middle declaring "Red!" time after time, and then the Sklutch arrives, the one guy at the arcade you can never beat, that you will Never Beat--I was losing the game!

So I moved my character. Skullman started yelling at me, "You've broken our concentration!" But I had it figured out. RileySoft wouldn't let you win a game just by leaving your computer on. That would be reward without actual work. I went around to the other side of the fence and stared at the box from that side. After a few minutes of contemplation, the lessening score tally halted. After a few more it went into the positive. I had done it! During the next few hours Skullman and I studied the box from all sides, staring through the chain-link fence moments at a time, watching as our score went through the roof.

What a masterpiece! In so many games we are forced to accept low-count polygon representations of actual objects, to suspend our sense of disbelief, and, by God, we've gotten good at it. Black Box's triumph is to show us that we have never really studied any of these objects (save perhaps for a competitive sense among game artists), to invest the scene in the monitor with something other than technological resignation. Here we were virtually considering the validity, purpose, and being of this simple, untextured shape. The experience was manifold and original; not since Elevator Action have I seen its equal.

As for the end of the game, that is for you to find out (a hint: how easy it would be not to think of a black box?). Pay the fee and download this game now before RileySoft's website disappears forever. It is the first (and probably only) game in gameDivision's history to achieve a perfect rating.



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