So here’s a strange autobiographical fact, or at least, a fact that felt strange when I started playing The Whisperers. I once made some plans for an IF in the form of a play. The players would not play any particular role, but would only make choices only at the end of scenes, choices that decided the final outcome. I can’t at the moment remember the title I had in mind (though I suspect I have plot sketches somewhere in a drawer), but I certainly remember the setting: that would have been Russia during the time of the Stalin purges. So… I guess those sketches can remain where they are, because Milo van Mesdag has very much beaten me to it!
Now my game would have been a piece of interactive fiction. Milo’s piece, on the other hand, very much wants to be a play, and one feels that he mostly put it in interactive fiction form because it’s hard to find a theatre group to performs one’s script! This is not to say that it doesn’t work as a piece of IF. But there are certain aspects of The Whisperers, including some of its most intriguing ones, that don’t translate well to the medium in which we currently experience it.
The most obvious of these is the whispering. Most of the characters are whispering most of the time (and should be heard through microphones – not sure if that really works to be honest, but maybe it does). That’s in part because this is Stalinist Moscow, and the secret police is everywhere. But it’s also because they’re all living in the same ‘paper wall’ apartment, where everyone hears everything. And they’re living in that apartment with a member of the secret police. A not insubstantial part of the characterisation is done through voice volume. Sergei speaks up, especially in the beginning, when he’s still a confident young officer of the NKVD. The Guide always speaks at full volume. But most of the other characters do not, or only when they forget themselves.
The main plot is fairly simple, and the choices of the audience don’t make that much difference. Young Agnessa has followed her brother Sergei to Moscow. But she’s not a Stalinist; in fact, she’s a secret Trotskyist who believes that Stalin has betrayed the revolution! She falls in love with the young architect Nikolai, and he with her, and gets pregnant. Her dream is to strike a blow against false ideology, and Agnessa and Nikolai conspire to bomb the foundations of the new Palace of the Soviets. (In reality, this megalomaniac construction project was dismantled and abandoned during WW2.) Depending on the audience’s choices, this may or may not succeed, but either way, they end up getting caught.
There’s a subplot about a middle-aged couple, a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman. The woman’s entire family has starved to death in Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine that Stalin intentionally exacerbated. She has taken to the dangerous practice of icon worshipping. And there’s a very minor subplot about Sergei’s ability to find enough traitors to condemn to death.
It’s all interesting enough, and the underlying research is immaculate. But I’m not entirely sold on the plot or the characters. There’s something nihilistic about it. The three men have all found ways to submit to the state. It’s only the women who dare to have any individuality: Dariya through her religious parctices, and Agnessa through her political action. But surely Dariya’s husband, Georgy, is right when he points out that God will also listen if you don’t endanger yourself with the possession of physical icons. As for Agnessa… in another review, I read the suggestion that we are supposed to empathise with her political ideals. But I don’t believe that. Sure, Trotsky looks pretty good when you compare him to Stalin’s terror and remind yourself of the fact that Stalin had him killed with an axe. But Milo has no doubt very carefully chosen to highlight one particular episode from Trotsky’s thinking in the play: his stance on the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion. In that rebellion against the Bolsheviks, sailors and civilians demanded, and I’m quoting Wikipedia:
reduction in Bolshevik power, newly elected soviets to include socialist and anarchist groups, economic freedom for peasants and workers, dissolution of the bureaucratic governmental organs created during the civil war, and the restoration of civil rights for the working class.
Hard to disagree with, right? Well, not hard for Trotsky, who signed the order to ruthlessly crush this rebellion. About 2000 of the rebels were later executed. So I think it’s clear that we are to understand Agnessa as just as much a blinded ideologue as anyone else in the play; in fact, the most blinded ideologue of them all. And this is underlined strongly by the fact that the terrorist attack she plots with Nikolai is incredibly stupid. I mean, what’s the point? Who is going to benefit from a delay in the construction of this building? It makes no sense! It’s hard not to understand it as the roundabout suicide of an ideologue who is addicted to purity. Really, the only sensible person in the play is Georgy, and his being sensible consists in his being as invisible as possible… which, you know, makes the whole play a pretty cynical thing (or, I suppose, simply realistic, given the actual history). A well-written and highly interesting cynical thing, but still.
Except, that is, for the second intriguing feature that does not translate to the current medium: the ability for the audience to revolt. If you check out the script, you’ll find that the idea is that when the final ‘sentencing’ scene comes along, a ‘plant’ in the audience starts booing and shouting that they don’t want to be bound by the choices given to them (execution of 25 years in prison), and if the audience joins in, the actors are to ‘improvise’ a scene in which everyone goes free. Now that is interesting, and that is not cynical. It’s just… not really in the piece that we have now. This thing really needs to be the play that it wants to be.
Actually, this make me realise that there’s also a way in which I beat Milo to ‘it’. Back in 2005, I wrote a little roleplaying game called Vampires in which you play a male vampire who gets power by abusing his female victims. It’s unrelenting in its bleakness and cynicism. And the whole point was… it was never played, as far as I know, so perhaps I should say… the whole point would have been that the players got so disgusted that they rebelled against the system. (I wrote about that in an accompanying essay.)
But to be honest, I’d rather go to Milo’s play than play my own game!