Technophiles would have us all believe that you need a VR headset or an augmented reality app to have an immersive gaming experience. Grayout from Mrgan proves that an authentic, mind-wrecking, reality-manipulating experience can come from a few words on a screen with a colored background.
The premise of the game is that you have awoken from a trauma and have aphasia — a language disorder that hinders your ability to communicate as you would normally want or be able to. You come to realize that you are in a hospital within a totalitarian community. You are a member of the resistance and as such, not everyone who visits you is actually there to help you.
As the game progresses, medications and other stimuli affect the words you are able to say, the order you say them, the syntax of your sentences and even the structure of words themselves. After someone speaks to you, you are expected to respond using a precise combination of words from which you are “thinking” at that moment. Each interaction then is a mini word puzzle inside of a larger narrative that you are piecing together as you learn more and more about the scenario you have found yourself in.
One of the most important components of game design is determining the constraints (or rules) within which your player must operate. Grayout is exceptional in that the constraints do not create a simulation of an experience, they actually create the real experience of struggling to find the right words. Some effects of drugs or other restraints, I mean, constraints, caused such a transformation in my communication methods that I could barely recognize words as English; but with time I was able to adapt.
As I struggled through each conversation, I would stare at the combination of words I had to choose from, trying to divine some meaning, trying desperately to make sense out of them so that I could communicate properly with the person before me. Gratefully, there are hints within the text. Some of the words themselves reveal the structure of your required response, such as “spork” appearing next to “foon.” Specific questions asked of you, such as “try to respond in a complete sentence” or the last words spoken to you will also give you clues on how to construct your response. Aside from the unique syntactical constraints, the game also employs compelling visual effects on the words themselves while the background color of each screen changes with the emotional state of the speaker.
The gameplay provoked from me surprisingly intense emotions; frustration, desperation, and often empathy for people in the real world actually struggling to communicate due to a stroke, dementia, or a traumatic brain injury. However, my one major grievance with the game is that there is absolutely no assistance whatsoever and you can get stuck presumably forever. There were some conversations that took me days to solve and there was no way of knowing how long it would take me to gain the fresh perspective to find a solution.
Grayout is exceptional as a game, as a compelling narrative, as an experiment in communication. It is simple, poignant, and horrifying. Be warned, the story is one of psychological torture and manipulative terrorizing. But it is a privilege to experience. Enjoy your stay.