Dull Grey’s reference points are away from gaming. It sits somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the prose of Haruki Murakami; a short story that aims to capture a mood and setting, rather than worry overly about interaction or gameplay.
You play Kiryusha, a boy on a journey with his mother. It is the day where you must meet the Navigator, and choose a career that you will be tethered to for the rest of your life. The journey takes you through a frozen wasteland, where everyone is bent low by twin oppressors: constant environmental disasters as geysers burst upward, and an authoritarian state called the Progress-Program, which watches everyone constantly and scrutinises every communication. Damaged robots and ruins of buildings are scattered across the ice.
As this is a momentous day in your life, people are keen to ask what career you will choose. You meet your aunt, grandma, mother’s lover and random strangers who ask what you will be, and these form the only meaningful interactions in the game. You can choose to be a Lamplighter, maintaining the transport networks, which is a hazardous task in Dull Grey: one that your father chose, and led to this death. Or you can choose to be a Tallyman, acting as an agent of the state and spying on communications. It’s safe, but largely despised.
Regardless of what you choose, your mum will interrupt and answer for you. You are a quiet and noncommittal boy, and the implication is that – in a world where your career is the only decision that you will make – your mum is likely to take it away from you. As you near your destination, there are whispers of revolutions and people hacking the Progress-Program, which give some indication that there might be ways to deviate from the tracks in front of you. But then the journey stops at the Navigator, and you must make your life-changing decision, and the game ends.
The landscapes are beautiful and stark, like chalk sketches on grey paper, but with black, sharply defined buildings inked on. As you approach each one, you zoom in and the game becomes something like a visual novel. The best of these scenes are the ones that embrace the strangeness of the world: a sequence involving a malfunctioning but potentially dangerous robot who won’t leave you alone is particularly memorable, while a scene where you watch a Lamplighter die is poignant. After each, you have that same Lamplighter and Tallyman choice.
It’s in capturing a mood and setting that Dull Grey is at its best. This is a world that is inhospitable and horrifying, but everyone treats it so matter-of-factly, having adapted to it. The result is oppressive and atmospheric, which is impressive considering that Dull Grey has so few pieces to play with: there isn’t much more here than an ambient soundtrack, some landscapes and brief dialogue with the characters around you. The closest you get to seeing a character is a silhouette in a more personal moment of the story.
But while Dull Grey conveys a mood, it struggles to make it mean anything. The choice between helping the people or helping the state – between potential death and becoming a social pariah – is a difficult choice but has no meaningful consequence, outside of a few paragraphs that act as a coda. It doesn’t say much about this world or ours, and all of Dull Grey’s eggs are in this one basket, as it is the only choice that it will let you make.
For the sake of spoilers we’ll be vague, but there is the ability to make different choices by Dull Grey’s end. You are not necessarily limited to Lamplighter and Tallyman. But the method of unlocking these alternate choices is obscure and poorly signposted, it can be laborious to unlock every one of them, and their existence says little about the world. Why am I being rewarded for that action? What does that action have to do with anything? We’re not convinced that Dull Grey has an answer, other than wanting to sprinkle some Easter Eggs into the game.
And Dull Grey certainly needed more of something. We compared Dull Grey to a short story because it is extraordinarily short: we played from start to finish in fifteen minutes, and replays are shorter, particularly as there is almost no divergence in the choices that you make. Playing through will be a means to an end, as you look to unlock those mysterious alternate endings and achievements that we mentioned above. The choices have no impact, as they are placeholders for that final choice: you can choose Lamplighter or Tallyman all you want, and no one will bat an eyelid. The only meaningful choice is at that very end, and all it will change is the final few paragraphs. You spend fifteen minutes winding up Dull Grey’s machine, and the output at the end is no more than a few new words.
Without interaction or choice, and only fifteen minutes of runtime, a huge burden is put onto the prose. It needs to hold its own as a short story, both warranting the price and justifying it over other celebrated short stories. While Dull Grey is effective in parts, it can’t clear the huge bar it places in front of itself. The writing lacks coherence, scattered with the odd mistranslation, and characters fail to break through the grey mire that surrounds them. When you could be reading Murakami or McCarthy, Dull Grey cannot hope to compete, and the writing doesn’t meet the standard set by other visual novels or narrative games.
As a snapshot of a frostpunk future, Dull Grey on the Xbox is evocative, if ineffective. At fifteen minutes long, it’s too short to be anything but a sketch, it offers only one meaningful choice over its runtime, and it struggles to say anything that sheds light on its world or ours. Far from dull, then, but grey in the sense that no clear picture emerges.