Every year at the beginning of the Comp I’m like “I’m going to keep the reviews short!” and then every year my word count climbs steadily upwards as I go and at some point totally gets away from me, but I feel like it happened really fast this year. Oops.
The central conceit of The Whisperers is that the player is an audience member watching a play in Stalin’s USSR. At various points in the show, the audience gets to vote on what the characters should do; the idea is that this is a teaching tool, meant to show, essentially, what happens to people who cross the Party.
The story revolves primarily around the doomed romance of two Trotskyist would-be revolutionaries, Nikolai and Agnessa. Agnessa’s brother Sergei is an NKVD officer, and their neighbors, the older couple Georgy and Dariya, show up occasionally to chat and offer advice. All five characters have things to hide from one another; this is presumably the reason for the game’s other conceit, the idea that the actors are whispering at all times unless otherwise noted. This is an arty touch that sits oddly with the play’s in-universe status as a piece of Soviet agitprop, a genre not really known for metaphor or anything that would open the intended meaning up to interpretation. (Though it may be that while The Whisperers the game intends the whispering to be symbolic, The Whisperers the play intends this entirely literally and the agitprop writer just thought that that was a normal thing for people in an apartment building with thin walls to do?)
Of course, no matter what choices you make, Agnessa and Nikolai’s fates are sealed from the outset. The only question is how much collateral damage will be incurred—making the characters do things the Party wouldn’t approve of naturally leads to worse outcomes for Sergei, Georgy, and Dariya.
The game is well-written in many respects. The setting is clearly well-researched, and the necessary information is communicated deftly to the player without any awkward “as you know” info-dumps (though there is a glossary to help anyone who’s lost). The characters also feel very real; Agnessa’s mindset of being unable to relax or do anything fun because the world is in a horrible state and she could be doing something about it, particularly, struck a chord. If you move in leftist circles at all you probably know a few Agnessas (although perhaps none who are quite so desperate as to take the measures she does). And while some of the choices don’t mean much, at their best they provide a window into the struggles of flawed people trying to live under intolerable circumstances and striving, however vainly, to keep their loved ones safe.
But I’m not sure how to feel about the theatrical framing. It has a distancing effect, especially given that you’re playing as either a faceless audience member or the collective will of the audience. You’re not inhabiting a particular character who can experience any consequences for the choices the player makes, and you’re constantly reminded that the characters who are experiencing consequences are fictional. This encourages the player to hold the whole thing at arm’s length, and I can’t quite figure out what it’s meant to add in return, or, alternatively, why it’s to this story’s advantage to be viewed at a few layers of remove.
(The secret ending in which the audience rebels and demands a happier ending for Agnessa and Nikolai does have interesting thematic implications—the audience as proletariat, perhaps?—so maybe the whole framing is just to build up to that point, but I don’t know if that’s enough payoff, especially as it’s missable.)
The author also provides a link to the script and encourages people to actually perform the show, and as an actor, I couldn’t resist taking a look with performability in mind. The first two-thirds or so seem quite doable, but toward the end, the combinations of variables to be taken into account become complicated and the text diverges quite significantly, going from changes to a few lines to, in some cases, entirely different scenes. I’ve seen a few pieces of somewhat-interactive theater in my time; usually there’s only a single point of divergence and it comes fairly late in the show, so that the actors don’t have to keep track of so many things and memorize so many different versions of their scenes. This is considerably more ambitious than anything I’ve seen performed. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but certainly I think you’d need a cast of highly skilled professionals to pull it off. I would be interested to see it done, though!