The Night Is Grey

PC, Mac

The Night Is Grey is a dark and beautifully sad game. Those are the words that looped in my head as I played: “beautifully sad.” They’re not the words I have after the credits rolled, and that’s complex. But overall, this is a very special, very smart point-and-click adventure of the sort I haven’t played since 2018’s Unforeseen Incidents. (Apart from maybe Norco.)

Graham is not OK. Stumbling through the woods, pursued by a pack of wolves, this older man is lost, scared, and not entirely in control. Following a sound in the distance, he stumbles upon a dark, wooden shack, but on entering is immediately threatened with a shotgun, held by a terrified small child.

In the conversation between the two, we learn almost everything we need to know about Graham and who we’ll come to learn is Hannah. Graham is tired, fed up, and defeated. Hannah is impetuous, confident, and has a mouth on her. As she alternates between mocking and threatening him, he barely controls his frustration with the child, and there’s a large part of him that seems like it’d take the bullet right now. However, in his attempts to calm Hannah he promises to try to get the power running again, and help her find her missing mother.

Graham’s plan is to get the girl to her grandma’s house in a nearby village, but because of the slavering wolves blocking the path back through the woods, is forced to make the incredibly dangerous journey through some abandoned mines, precarious woodlands, and a near-abandoned national park. On the way, we learn about why those mines were abandoned, about the terrible stories that live in the town’s history, and endless allusions to the awful, cruel past that haunts Graham.

As I say, it’s dark. And it’s far darker than you might be thinking. Appropriately, given this tone, the game is also aware how farcical it could be to match such a story with puzzles about improvising novelty items via inventory combinations. Instead, when needing to leave a note, Graham scoffs at a player’s instinct to create a pen through finding a stick and burning its end etc etc. He points out that he could instead just ask Hannah if she has one. (That there comes a point where Graham does improvise a couple of items in a far more gamey way is, itself, an act of grim satire, with a slap-in-the-face punchline.)

This is instead a game about struggling, about only just making it through situations, all accompanied by Graham’s self-punishing inner-monologue about his own worthlessness. What’s so fascinating here is that constant, nagging sense that you don’t know if he’s right. (I’m going to add here, because I hate the idea that my ambiguity might imply something far, far worse: other than the allusions to the cruelty of Graham’s childhood, this game features no child abuse of any sort.)

Each chapter of the game begins with a quote, presented on screen in stages as if delivering great words of wisdom from Aristotle or whomever, but instead the uncredited abuse Graham received from his mother as a child.

“Are you afraid of the dark? I’ll show you darkness.

Look in the mirror. You have your father’s eyes.

His dark seed lives through you. I see it every day.

I wish I’d never had you.”

That throughout this Graham is attempting to help a small child find safety feels like it should be a counter, and their relationship is constantly fascinating. She’s infuriating, and he’s infuriated by her, but he genuinely is driven to keep her safe. Video games have taught us that this is to be expected, the trope of the proxy father figure – think Last of Us and The Walking Dead – and it’s brilliant how The Night Is Grey tilts this expectation.

As much as it does try to avoid some of the tropes of point-n-click games, The Night Is Grey succumbs to a fair few too. There are a couple of clumsy puzzles, and despite Graham’s sneering, some moments where combined inventory items are a touch unrealistic. (I’m not convinced even the sturdiest butterknife would make a great saw handle.) But most of all, there’s a sequence in the mines where you must choose the right directions without a lamp running out, that reminded me of every awful maze section in every early 90s adventure, and stands out as the low point of an otherwise excellent game.

What’s far more interesting is what it does so very well. The art is fascinating, with backgrounds that I can’t quite work out – I’m not sure if they’re rendered in a 3D engine and then filtered, or combined with actual photographs, but either way it makes for a unique look. One made even better by the hand-drawn, gorgeously animated characters, that are transposed on top. The soundtrack is perfect, haunting and melancholy, and the decision not to voice the main characters is, I think, a brilliant one, no matter the rationale. Graham would have needed to be Hollywood perfect to convey such a complex character, and Hannah would either have had to be a grown woman doing their squeaky child voice, or have all the issues of an actual kid actor, and neither would have been better than the voices they had in my head.

The ending has changed an enormous amount of my feelings about the game. I’ve written the above from the perspective of how I felt throughout the 99% that preceded it. And no, I’m not saying my opinion got worse… just a lot more complicated. And the more I reflect on it, the cleverer I realise the game was, and that’s a rare treat in all of gaming.

This is a dark story, and it’s one that has allusions toward historical acts of rape, cruelty and death. It’s a game very much for adults, and its melancholia is very affecting. It’s also astoundingly well written (this is from a Portuguese team, and the English is perfect), beautifully delivered, and the all-too rare treat of a solidly well-made adventure game. That this is developer Whalestork’s first project is mindblowing. I am fascinated to see where they go next.

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