Did you play 2013’s Blackbar? You should have. It’s about censorship. Specifically, it has you filling in the black bars that the authoritarian regime, The Department, has used to cover up certain disallowed words in the letters sent between two women. It has a touching narrative, an underlying critique of state power, and it’s all wrapped up by simple, prodding interactions that have you steadily grasp the power of language.
Neven Mrgan, the studio that made Blackbar, has now brought out a prequel called Grayout. This time, the subject at hand isn’t state censorship (although it’s certainly connected) but medical experiments. You get inside the head of a woman called Alaine, a member of the totalitarian community The Neighbourhood—part of the same dystopia that Blackbar is set in—who wakes up in a hospital unable to move and struggling to put her words together.
The doctor that sees to her informs Alaine that she was in an accident that both nearly killed her and left her paralyzed. She also has post-traumatic aphasia which Neven Mrgan neatly describes as “the experience of having a word on the tip of your tongue, the frustration of knowing what you mean but not how to say it, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the runaway thoughts inside your head and struggling to reign them in.” You’re probably familiar with any one of those frustrating experiences, but those who have aphasia suffer it at all times, whether reading, listening, or talking.
Your role in Grayout is to help Alaine form sentences as she talks with the doctor. After he has said his bit you’re left with a word cloud with which you must piece together the correct sentence in response. The stem of the problem is that you don’t know exactly what Alaine wants to say. There are no hints as to what the sentence might be so you find yourself trying to grasp Alaine’s way of thinking. It can be pretty tough, especially when you have tens of words and no idea how many you need or what order they should go in.
But that complete lack of help, and the consequent frustration, is part of what makes Grayout at least conceptually superb. When you do struggle it feels like you, too, are going through some of what Alaine is supposed to be with her aphasia. The game acknowledges the parallelism of the experience when the doctor notes that Alaine—but also you—is struggling. “I imagine that right now you probably find it challenging to form sentences, choose the right words, say what you mean—is that right?” he says at one point.
As minimal as it is—text and a background—Grayout makes use of every one of its components to try to bring you closer to Alaine’s state of mind. The unused words in each conversation are a great example. None of them are random. Instead, Neven Mrgan uses them as an opportunity to help describe Alaine’s feelings in each moment, as if the thoughts whirring around in her mind, but which aren’t intrinsic to what she wants to say. It might be “struggling” or “collapse” or “panic.” The background color helps along as it changes to suit Alaine’s mood: a hospital-teal when she’s talking to the doctor calmly, orange when she’s concerned, and red if she’s hurt or upset.
In later parts of the story, the doctor starts to use experimental drugs on Alaine, which enact changes in her thinking processes as well as the textual options presented to you. He tells her what each drug will do to her speech but it doubles up as a way to instruct you as to what kind of sentence to put together. It might be a full and poetic sentence or one with improper syntax, or maybe the drug has a caustic effect that makes every word seem hostile (which is represented by a random mix of upper and lower cases). Adding to all of this, and opposing the austere silence of the Soviet state-inspired Blackbar, Grayout‘s futuristic 1970s dystopia has a soundtrack of eerie synths worthy of a John Carpenter score. Each phase of the story gets its own chilling soundscape that helps express Alaine’s gradual, appropriate terror as she struggles to find the right words.
You can purchase Grayout for $2.99 on the App Store.