Dull Grey (Provodnik Games, web) is a choice-based game about restricted choices. The protagonist, Kir, is a youth on the verge of adulthood, living in a remote and frozen region of a vaguely-defined but very Soviet-feeling future society. The time has come for him to choose a career – a fairly irreversible decision, it seems – and he and his mother go on a journey to officially confirm this.
The art and music are absolutely crucial to the mood of the game. I was going to say ‘I am seriously impressed’ but that undersells it: the game’s foundation is the aesthetic resonance between its soundscape and landscape. The music and art are what make the text work; they impart a weight to it that it might not have sustained in a plain-text version. And they take pressure off the writing, relieving it of a lot of the setting and mood work that it would otherwise need to carry, which allows for much more terse, focused writing. The prose is technically English-fluent, but not at the degree of fluency where I fully trust the intent of its delivery: and the work done by the music and art made me more inclined to work through that, to read moments of strangeness as a matter of distinct voice rather than awkward flaw.
(Some folks have suggested that it looks designed for mobile, but I’m not sure about that; it’s fine on mobile, I guess, but the animation of the scenery runs a whole lot smoother on desktop. It’s possible that it’s designed for tablet, but I am pretty confident in saying that a phone is not its ideal platform. I think it’s honestly at its best on a medium size: on a 27″ monitor the scenery starts to look a bit artefact-heavy, but on a 15″ laptop they look great.)
There are some strong Frostpunk vibes going on – a lonely frozen world with a big old crater in it, full of gouts of steam and the occasional huge spidery robot, where every life is at once very precious as labour and fundamentally expendable. The worldbuilding is very sketchy: much is touched on but not explained, and we are very much seeing the world through the eyes of a naive kid from the deep bush. We are not really told whether Progess-program, the technocratic (machine-intelligence-based?) planned-economy government running this society, is a horror or a boon; for most of the people in this world it’s just a fact of life, and even the character who describes himself as a revolutionary doesn’t offer much account of it. I like this approach to worldbuilding a whole lot: there is a pretty good sense that someone knows how this all works, without needing to infodump everything onto the reader.
It places itself relative to a Soviet literary tradition of stories about choosing a profession. My knowledge of Soviet literature is – well, OK, if we confine it to Russian Soviet writers who I can remember well, it’s pretty much just Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, so I wasn’t even aware of this trope and can’t really say much about how this relates to that. So it is entirely possible that much of what I say here is talking about the type as much as the token.
There’s a very particular trick with agency here, a take on the triangle of identities that I haven’t seen before. The question of the story is for the young man to choose a profession. This is the only question you are asked, and you are asked it by everyone you meet, over and again. But regardless of who the question is posed to, it is always the mother who answers. Sometimes the question is asked of her, sometimes she barges uninvited into a conversation in order to answer it. That’s explicit in how the menu-options are phrased, even: you do not make the choice under the illusion that Kir is the agent.
(Again, we are not entirely shown what it is to be a lamplighter or a tallyman. We have vague, general ideas, the impressions a child has about a job. We get hints, but we do not fully see where these jobs fit into their world, what their social implications are, how it shapes the person you will become.)
The first time I played, I had the mother stick with the same choice throughout. (I expect that’s common – people like to stick to their choices, even if those choices are only guesses.) Played that way, she seems implacable, grimly convinced of the essential misery of the world and resolute beyond reason, the very stereotype of a hard Russian woman. Played with less consistent choices, you notice her frailties and strains more, how one answer is shouted over the shoulder to placate a robot, how another is yelled at an aggressive drunk to get him to back off, how much of this is cuts harder for her than it does for her son.
The son, Kir, is the same formless lump of a child that begins any bildungsroman. He is not more likeable than his mother, or less; there is too little about him to like. Most of the point of the story is that his mother eclipses him. His love interest seems mostly interested because she is young and lonely and inexperienced and her other options are terrible. The game wants to put you in Kir’s shoes, to see his mother as damaged and controlling, but Kir is frankly kind of a schlemiel.
The game closes on something that looks like an old Telltale gimmick, a recording of choices made by other players. The difference here is that Telltale games didn’t usually obscure possibility from players: the choices that were recorded were usually choices that everyone saw, that everyone explicitly chose. The interest of the percentages on those choices wasn’t about what story-branches other people had found: they were about what other people, presented with more or less the same narrative, had chosen. Here, the point isn’t to give you an insight into where you fit into a normative ethical compass; it’s to express the scope of possibility in a story where choices are sometimes hidden. It’s functionally closer to Steam achievements than Telltale end-of-chapter stats: it exists to say ‘this is what is possible, and this is how difficult each possibility is.’ And that’s very useful in a game whose themes are so fatalistic! because otherwise I might very well have assumed that the story I got was pretty much the only possible one.
This is definitely in the upper tier of this year’s games. I think the basic quality of the prose and dialogue is holding it back a little, and I’m not sure how much that’s on the writer or the translation. A provisional 8.