[IF Comp 2019] Dull Grey by Provodnik Games

(I'm here analysing a fantastic piece of interactive fiction, and the analysis will contain spoilers. So do yourself a favour and play it first!)

The first thing one notices about Dull Grey is how it looks. Provodnik Games's previous piece, Railways of Love, was presented as a retro pixel-art game, which was nice enough; but for Dull Grey the authors have chosen to use a large-scale visual background. As the story progresses, we move and zoom through the white, grey and black landscape, focusing on one or another location. The art style reminded me slightly of the cover art of Radiohead’s Kid A, the haunting and sometimes obsessive sounds of which would in fact work nicely as a soundtrack to this piece. Speaking about soundtracks, Dull Grey in fact comes with background music. It gets perhaps a bit repetitive on subsequent playthroughs, but it does set the tone nicely.

Like Railways of Love, Dull Grey takes place in the world of the Progress Program, which I described last year as a science fiction version of Marxism-Leninism. The exact politics are perhaps not too clear and not too clearly communist, but it is important that in Dull Grey we are still in the world of Marxism-Leninism rather than that of Stalinism. The wide-eyed, somewhat naive hope for the Programme that the male protagonist of Railways of Love had, is gone. There’s little hope among these people that there’s a better future in store for them. But we’re not in a repressive, totalitarian world yet. Several characters voice criticism of the Program, and there’s not a hint that they’re afraid of being shipped off to the Gulag. Rather, the Program seems flawed but still animated by good intentions. I have to stress that all of this is based more on the atmosphere of the work than on any overt political analysis it might contain. The game is not really interested in the latter at all; it is interested in the lives of common people against a certain societal background, a background that makes itself felt more as an emotional state than as an ideology. Everything in the game – the world building, the prose style, the characters, the music, the art – serves to build up and reinforce this complex emotional state.

The story of Dull Grey is very simple. A son and his mother – referred to as ‘son’ and ‘mother’ – take a trip with the intention of choosing a job for the son, basically by registering his preference with the Program, who will then take care of the rest. The trip passes through several locations where we meet relatives and friends of the family, or are otherwise informed about the characters and their world. It’s all entirely on rails. The only choice we ever get is that between two professions: lamplighter and tallyman. But there are some peculiarities here that are absolutely essential to the experience. First, we do not get this choice once. We get it again and again, since everyone we meet wants to know what we have chosen. And there’s nothing that forces us to make the same choice again and again – in fact, it is clear from the outset that only at the end of the journey will we make a final choice. So as we learn a bit more about how people think about these two professions, we might change our mind.

We? Our? The second crucial feature of these choices is that they are not "lamplighter" and "tallyman", but “Mother: lamplighter” and “Mother: tallyman”. It’s always the mother who states what the son’s choice is. And this is true even though the son is the focal character of the story, which is made clear by several short segments where the two are separated. The story always follows the son; but as soon as he is asked about his choice, his mother barges in and announces the decision for him. Does the son agree with her? Has he made up his mind at all? Is he being repressed? Certainly not the latter, at least not in a strong sense. The son does not have a different idea that he is afraid to give voice to; he is childishly leaving the choosing to his mum and seems content with that. This becomes clear from the little scene where we are told that he is going to finally execute a plan he has been hatching. What will he do? Escape from the Program? Go on without his mother? Nope. He hacks into a computer system that contains records of his school friends, and he adorns their photographs with moustaches and other bad joke material. This guy chooses not to grow up, chooses immaturity, although the choice is no doubt unconscious. And of course we, as the player, realise that this day may be his last chance – at least his last good chance – to grow up and take his fate into his own hands. If he can.

Can he? At last we come to the crucial scene of choice. The colours on the screen change. There’s no doubt about it, we will now select a decision. I had been playing the mother as someone who was determined that her son would become a tallyman, and so I chose “Mother: tallyman”. And that’s when something fascinating happens. The Program Official tells her that she has chosen an unhappy future for her child. Does she want to reconsider? And we get to make the choice again. So perhaps we choose “Mother: lamplighter”. Again, we are told that this will be an unhappy future. “Is there no other way?” the mother asks. There is, she is told. It’s not about the decision you make, it’s about how you make the decision.

But how do you make a decision? You click a link, right? And so I decide – as the player – to not settle for either of the two options. There must be another possibility. There must be something I can do to escape from this dichotomy. And then, as I’m waiting for something to happen, some thought to pop into my head, some element of the interface to suddenly take on a new meaning… a new link appears. “Son: I don’t know.” That’s a moment of genius. If, and only if, you, as the player, decide to not be satisfied with the choices you are given, will a new choice be given to you. And of course it’s the choice it has to be: the son finally speaking up for himself, finally choosing maturity, finally growing up. It doesn’t matter what profession you choose afterwards: you have arrived at a happy ending. It wasn’t about what you chose, but about how you chose, namely, that you chose. Fantastic. And the descriptions of the endings are very good too, making it clear that maturity and happiness are not achieved in one moment, but must be achieved again and again. Otherwise, we succumb to dull grey.

One of the structural criticisms one could have of Railways of Love is that it was too easy to miss the final content, which was also where the greatest satisfaction was to be found. It’s therefore very good that Dull Grey shows you its four endings (unhappy/happy lamplighter/tallyman) and the percentage of players that have reached these endings. If you missed the happy ending, you know it’s there, and hopefully you’ll go back to find it and discover for yourself how the game works.

Wait, did I say four endings? There’s a special fifth ending which, as of this writing, only 1% of players have found. But how to get there? (To be clear, a massive spoiler will follow!) I asked one of the authors, and was astonished to learn that not just the choice at the end, but literally every choice in the game has the option “Son: I don’t know” if you wait long enough. If you had explained this design to me in advance, I would have expected it not to work; surely, certainly, any player will see this happen by chance at some point along the road? Well, no. I at least did not; I saw it only when I had been carefully prepared to look for it. I admire this courageous design decision and the fact that it works out so well. That this possibility is there all the time and yet one never notices it… astounding. And a brilliant thematic comment about choice and freedom. Playing the game through in this way also turns the son into a very different character, a character who really knows that the future is wide open; and the special ending you end up with is intriguing. As I read it, it conveys the message that freedom can never be found within a system. It is left carefully ambiguous whether it is freedom or the system that will fail when the two come into conflict; but I like to read the ellipses at the end as the system shutting itself down because its necessary failure has become transparent to itself.

A deep and touching work; one of my three favourites in the competition. (The others being Skybreak! and Heretic's Hope.)

Comments

  1. Your experience of this piece was very different from mine! I felt like it was clear from pretty early on that the choice didn't matter much, because both options were bad and either one would make for a miserable life. And then the story did nothing to change this assessment, but still kept asking over and over if I had changed my mind. And on top of that, it was, as you point out, always the mom making the decision for him -- which I think reduced my perception of agency, even though it was still really me making the decision regardless!

    The overall effect was that by the end I was just clicking through every choice without giving it a moment's thought, because anything more seemed so pointless. To an extent, I blame the UI for this as well: it only displays a few lines of text at once and makes you click to advance it, so I came to think of the choices as just a slightly different kind of click-to-advance prompt.

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