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The Whisperers

by Milo van Mesdag

Play, romance, historical, political
2023

(based on 13 ratings)
7 reviews

About the Story

An Interactive Play

The year is 1938, two newcomers have just arrived at their new home: a communal appartment in Moscow, the beating heart of Soviet power. But what will they make of their new lives? And what will their neighbours make of them? The Whisperers is a story of love, revolution, belief, and the choices oridnary people make in extraordinary times.

Or: the year is 1938 and you have arrived at your local soviet sponsored theatre, ready for a play lauded by the agents of the Department of Agitation and Propoganda as "the first truly socialist play", in which the audience, the people, decide the course of events.

Or: The Whisperers is a script for an interactive play, loosely adapted into a piece of written interactive fiction (while also featuring an annotated version for the ease of use of prospective directors and actors).

Content warning: Physical violence. Mention of executions. Mention of Holodomor (genocide by engineered famine).


Game Details


Awards

26th Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Start shouting, December 15, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

I’ve read a fair bit of Russian literature, and I tend to like political fiction. The Whisperers, then, is up my alley: it’s an interactive play that is set, and notionally performed, in the USSR in 1938, chronicling the lives of five inhabitants of a communal apartment in Moscow as they make an escalating series of poor decisions that eventually end in catastrophe (but I repeat myself: I already said it’s about the USSR in 1938, when the Great Purge reached its climax).

Before delving into the plot of the play, it’s worth sticking with the framing for a beat. The conceit is that the player is attending a performance of a novel entertainment – at scene breaks, one of the characters in the play will break the fourth wall and ask for the audience to indicate their choice of several narrative options via cheering; whichever one seems to have the greatest enthusiasm behind it will be chosen.

As a way to diegetically explain the mechanics of choice-based fiction, this is smartly done, and I actually wished the game had done more to explore it. At the beginning, you’re given the choice of how literally to take these mechanics; the author recommends a mode where the player’s decisions are given priority, making the game play like any other work of choice-based IF, but there’s also a mode where you just play one audience-member among many, with your voice not necessarily being determinative. I took a risk and picked the latter option, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t more explication of how the audience was responding to the play, and whether my hooting and cheering was making a difference. This is especially the case because some decisions involve resistance to Stalinist orthodoxy; the actor framing the choices swears that they’ve been given special dispensation not to report anyone who evidences signs of deviation, but that struck me as a hollow promise. The audience is already lightly characterized – the player’s given a choice of whether to sit among the proletariat, the party bosses, or those in need of reeducation – so making more explicit the implied social context in which the play is being performed could have enriched proceedings further, I think.

Another interesting aspect of the presentation is the use of stage directions. These are generally a bit more heavy-handed than I’d expect to see in a real theatrical script, but given that a player doesn’t have the benefit of seeing the actors’ interpretations, I think that’s a good choice. But among their idiosyncrasies is the approach to indicating the volume at which dialogue is delivered; the game notes that unless otherwise indicated, all lines are spoken at a whisper. On the one hand, this is both narratively and thematically apt: with five characters crammed into three thin-walled rooms, keeping one’s voice down is both polite and, given the police-state context, prudent. And keeping even extremes of emotion and distress sotto vocce suggests the ways that life in authoritarian states is lived; concealment is the default, rather than an exception. But I found the actual implementation challenging, because of course as I read the game’s text I’d often forget that injunction and assume that un-annotated dialogue was spoken full-volume; again, if the scenes were actually being performed, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the experience of reading the text on the page was different.

The play itself is quite well-written. There’s a certain quality of slightly-awkward effusion that I expect when reading something by a Russian author, and the dialogue captures something of that tone. Here’s a line from one of the two leads, Agnessa, a Trotskeyite idealist, on her feelings about one of her new neighbors:

"No, no it’s nice to see you. I do like you Dariya Yuriivna. I’m not embarrassed that you know it."

Or here’s a bit from the other lead, Nikolai, waxing rhapsodic about his romantic connection with Agnessa:

"Now. I have things now, I love my work, I love my books, I love … things, life! But sometimes, no, all the time; sometime, sometime, a long time ago, when I was a child, something changed. Dreams became safer than life. Yes, there were reasons to wake up. But there were reasons to stay asleep too. As well. I was scared, I guess. And I became bad. But now I wake up, straight up, childishly up, because I know that I might get to be with her."

Sometimes the characters come across as callow, or talk past each other, but that all generally rings true. I do think Whisperers does sometimes presuppose more familiarity with the politics of pre-WWII Russia than the abbreviated pre-game glossary can provide – there’s an extended riff that depends on knowing the context of what “socialism in one country” means, for example – but I think it still works well enough even if you don’t get the nuances. And the themes it engages with are strong: the central couple’s relationship dynamics drive the plot’s main clash, the tension between the political idealism to change an unjust world and the desire to nonetheless live a private, mostly-happy life within it. That conflict is echoed in a lower key by the marriage of the two older characters, as Dariya’s continued attachment to Orthodoxy is part of longstanding worry on the part of her husband Georgy. And then the fifth character, Agnessa’s brother, Sergei, serves primarily to up the stakes, since he’s an NKVD officer.

(Er, I just realized I’m doing the thing I dinged the game for at the beginning of the last paragraph: the NKVD was one incarnation of the Soviet secret police, part of the alphabet-soup sandwich between the Cheka and the KBG).

(Yes, that’s a terrible mixed metaphor).

It’s all solid and resonant – especially now, given the war of aggression the USSR’s succession state is currently waging – but I have to confess that I didn’t find The Whisperers quite as compelling as I expected. All the themes make sense, they’re played in a smart, historically-grounded way, the writing is strong, and the use of interactivity is well-considered. But I suspect the character work isn’t quite up to the same standard. The core due of Agnessa and Nikolai especially sometimes veer into caricature – she’s a true believer who at one point directly says that she doesn’t see a difference between fiction and real life, and he’s so feckless he seems to make decisions purely on impulse. I liked them, but they felt more like types than people. Sergei, meanwhile, is likewise mostly just a plot device, and while Georgy and Dariya have a world-weary charm, they get by far the least spotlight time (I also came across what I think is a bug that undercut the impact of their strand of the story; in my playthrough, I didn’t have Georgy burn Dariya’s idols, but the NKVD still couldn’t turn up anything untoward when they searched the apartment. From looking over the full text of the game via the included script mode, though, it seems like the bad consequences you’d expect to happen should, in fact, happen).

The related issue is that I suspect I didn’t invest myself too heavily in Agnessa and Nikolai’s relationship because it was clear from the jump that they were doomed. The fact that a story telegraphs that it’s a tragedy doesn’t mean it can’t work, of course. But I did feel like the latter stages of the plot hinged too much on, well, plot-y stuff like whether they would get away with their acts of defiance and if they’d have any broader impact – but of course they don’t, and of course they don’t. This is very old history at this point, and besides, I’ve read all three volumes of Gulag Archipelago, there aren’t really any portrayals of Stalinist brutality that can surprise me at this point. Focusing in on the emotions, conveying what it might be like to live in this horrible situation, could have worked, but here’s where I think the archetypal nature of the characters wound up being a flaw. Admittedly, there’s a plot branch that didn’t show up in my playthrough that I suspect might recast the emphasis of the final scenes (Spoiler - click to show) (my audience opted not to have Agenssa tell Nikolai that she was pregnant, which would presumably up the soap-opera quotient) so maybe one point of feedback would be to prioritize that choice in the mode where the player doesn’t get to make all the decisions.

The thing is, when I consider all the issues I’ve raised, it occurs to me that they all boil down to the same actually-kind-of-vapid critique: this is a play that I’m reading rather than seeing performed. With actors bringing life to the characters, and the immersive engagement that theater provides, I think these downsides would melt away, and the work’s very real strengths would be even more apparent. Of course, this is also a piece of IF that’s been entered into an IF competition; it’s entirely appropriate to judge it on the form in which I encountered it. But heck, I enjoy reading Shakespeare, even knowing that that’s far from the ideal way to experience his plays – if anyone ever puts on a production of The Whisperers, I’d be eager to see it, but in the meantime I’m glad it was entered into the Comp.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
We all play a part..., October 7, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: ifcomp

The Whisperers is an interactive game set in the late 30s Soviet block, where you are an audience member of an interactive “propagandist” play, of three “families” living inside a paper-thin-walled apartment. Throughout the story, you are asked for your opinion on how the play should continue. There are essentially 3-ish possible endings.

I personally hate plays where the audience needs to take an active part of the story, where immersion is broken because the audience must have a say. But as an interactive game, I’ve quite enjoyed it! The active participating is not only welcomed, but adds another layer of intrigue into the story (at least in this case). The awkwardness of waiting for the play to start again is not there, as the passage loads right after your choice is made.

As for the story, a morality take in two acts, it made me think of those typical contemporary French plays happening within an apartment, where miscommunication and personal drama becomes the crux of the issue. While it is not as vaudevillian, with the play set in Soviet Russia during Stalin’s regime, it is nonetheless cynical in its treatment of its characters. No one is good, no one is bad, everyone is stuck in their own situation (and some are maybe a bit stupid*).
*the characters felt at times a bit flat, or a bit preachy in how they discuss some topics.

If you take it at face value, it’s a pretty neat experience; and if you look deeper into it, it shows off the extensive research on the setting and the length taken to portray its intricacies, the horrors, and the hopes. It felt a bit like a commentary of the period. The play is fairly fast paced, and doesn’t overstay its welcome, ending just at the climax. The interactiveness of it is fun, with your choice mattering or being disregarded (depending on the mode played) – it could have been fun to learn whether these choices affected your position.
I found the hidden ending to be the most fun one.

But, I did have some issue with the formatting of the text itself. While I appreciated the inclusion of formatting options, with palette themes and text font/size*, it made it obvious when an aspect was not customised (link colour not contrasted enough, popup). But that’s a detail compared to…
*it might have fitted more inside a Setting popup, the buttons’ colours were too eye-catching.

… the passages not looking like an actual script. From the blurb to the game itself, it was clear we were meant to look forward to a play on our screen. But the text is vaguely formatted like one: the Act is centred on the page, but not the scenes or the character’s names; the actions or voice level* are made obvious in brackets, but end up feeling lost inside dialogue (especially in the Guide’s and Sergei’s monologues)… It might seem like a detail, but the essence of playwriting felt a bit lost because of it?
*the whispering aspect kinda felt like an afterthought after the first scene? The voice level of the characters didn’t seem to matter much in further conversations…

Visual friction aside, this was neat.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Morality Play for Make Benefit of Great Soviet State, December 22, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

Another terrific work from my favorite Russophiliac! Here we are presented with an ambitious interactive play, a play informed by periodic audience choices. Then repurposed into IF where the player takes the role of audience. So there are a lot of layers here! Let me diagram it, with ‘->’ shorthand for “inhabiting role of”

player (you and me, in our homes, in front of computers) ->
modern audience or audience member (maybe?) ->
post-War Soviet audience/member, making choices
about play's progress

With me so far? This is the worst of it, we’ll get there. It’s all made reasonably clear with some clunky but effective preamble. So, this is a morality play in the truest sense where the morality system in question is Stalinist Communism. That thought immediately conjures horrific collisions between Stalinist social expectations and actual human ethics. All these layers create a wonderful confusion. What is the point of the interactivity? Are we meant to play AS a Soviet audience, implicitly being judged by our ominous narrator/Guide as we make choices? Are we exploring Soviet-era ethical dilemmas from a smugly comfortable remove? So much promise in plumbing those questions.

The play itself is terrifically realized. To my only-superficially trained eye, the details of Soviet life and politics, and the charged paranoia of life under surveillance ring true. The cast are carefully curated to maximize drama, each an avatar for heightened social forces but also a character in their own right. By casting the proceedings as a play, we are expecting a certain artificiality of performance, where motivations, personalities and actions are tilted to the dramatic for performative effect. I found this aspect of the work also spot on. It read (and sounded in my head) like a live dramatic performance, where nearly every interaction was fraught with nonverbal tension and subtext. No casual, “Hey did you pick up some milk?” mundanities here! There are plentiful stage directions, the most powerful of which was “unless otherwise specified, all dialogue is whispered.” C’mon, top shelf stage conceit right there!

The plot is probably exactly what you dread: Stalinist society running roughshod over human wants and dignity, and real tension is wrung as the setups telegraph their climaxes. At the end of many scenes, the Guide comes on to ask the audience how a key decision point should break. The first few are fraught with overlaid pressures - “will this choice only reflect on the play, or am I, the audience also at risk here? Will a counter-Soviet choice even be honored?” It is a great and subtle use of the power of IF.

Aaand now I am courting spoiler territory. I am loathe to give up too much of the plot. Suffice to say, the choices are meaningful, and the resultant scenes are consistently well written. But you only get a few choices all-told, maybe five or six? before the play ends. I ultimately wanted more. Not even more choices, just more consequences. Early on, our Guide makes it clear that as a morality play, we are free to choose counter-Soviet paths, as a way to be instructed by the true depths of these awful Westernized choices. That messaging neuters half the tension, the crowd involvement half! Regardless of which audience I am, I’m not at risk! Additionally, most of the choices themselves unlock nifty scenes and dialogue, (Spoiler - click to show)but do not impact the arc of the play except in detail. Granted some details can be poignant. On the one hand this is almost certainly the artistic aim of the putative Soviet-author, if not the author-author. On the other, it is also kind of the most OBVIOUS construction? There is one choice though that… crap, helmsman, engage blur:

(Spoiler - click to show)At the climax you the audience can choose to rebel against Soviet doctrine and impose Liberal Western Mercy. Should you do so, the play capitulates to your demands in a wryly insincere way. What is the message of that? That collective action can overthrow autocracy? That seems too pat. That because the victory is so artificial it was a lie, that the Guide was still going to meet quota outside the theatre? That even if all you can manage is making the powers that be uncomfortable, still do it anyway? I felt like I wanted more payoff there, given that is the only (Spoiler - click to show)unique one of many endings.

Perhaps the best use of interactivity would NOT be IF, but an actual live audience, where you couldn’t undo, check other options and assess the entire artistic space. Maybe the best payoff would be endlessly asking yourself “Why did I make those choices, and how might it have gone differently?” IF format couldn’t deliver that particular punch with a determined clicker like me.

If you are familiar with my long litany of personal biases, this work hit so many sweet spots I was deeply Engaged. Hell I explored the entire choice tree and THEN reread the script! It was a Seamless implementation for sure. I am applying a penalty point because I felt like the interactivity itself didn’t live up to its own promise (both for the IF player, and a putative live audience), and boy are there lots of my biases baked into THAT assessment.

Played: 10/11/23
Playtime: 1 hr finished, another 1/2 hour exploring all branches
Artistic/Technical ratings: Engaging, Seamless, penalty point for interactivity left wanting
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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The Whisperers on IFDB

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Outstanding Historical Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best historical game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Suggested...




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