Finding the Right Words: An Interview with Neven Mrgan About Grayout, the Prequel to Blackbar

Grayout
By: Mrgan LLC

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I was a couple of years late to the party with Neven Mrgan and James Moore’s censorship game Blackbar, but it’s a trippy experience that I recommend trying if you haven’t yet. It uses dark humor and absurdity to warn us about relying too heavily on surveillance and censorship. I loved the tone of the game, so when I heard they were working on a prequel called Grayout, I was definitely intrigued.

I had a chance to play the game in beta ahead of release and have spent a lot of time with it. I’ve also been chatting quite a bit with Neven, so I thought it would make for a fun interview instead of the review I was working on. You’ll still be able to get an idea of what I thought of the game from this, but hopefully it will be more interesting. There are some minor story spoilers in the interview, but I put a warning right before they start.

For those who aren’t aware, Grayout takes place in the same dystopian Neighborhood we saw in Blackbar. You take on the role of a woman named Alaine who wakes up in a hospital bed with trouble communicating, also known as aphasia. The game evokes this feeling by providing a group of words on each page from which to choose your responses.

As the App Store description states, “Grayout simulates the experience of having a word on the tip of your tongue, the frustration of knowing what you mean but not how to say it, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the runaway thoughts inside your head and struggling to reign them in.”

It’s surprisingly effective and the game is a perfect fit for mobile devices and touch screens, even more than Blackbar was. There’s no keyboard this time; you just tap the words or letters to select them. The story and puzzles felt more fleshed out to me than they did in Blackbar, as well as the way the two blend together. The game also does a great job of making you feel Alaine’s struggle, her helplessness, as well as her determination. Most of the game is basically about trying to find the right words, and yet it’s so effective. It’s a simple idea executed brilliantly. If you liked Blackbar even a little, you should definitely check it out. You can see a little spoiler-free gameplay video I made below.

AppUnwrapper: Hi Neven. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. As you well know, I’ve spent a lot of time with Grayout. It’s a really simple idea, and I initially had my doubts about it. But as I continued playing and the story and puzzles progressed, I got sucked in. I may be a bit weird, but the uncomfortable, trapped feeling is what had me hooked. There aren’t a lot of games on the App Store that strive for that effect. So what makes you keep returning to explore the macabre?

Neven Mrgan: It’s true that I gravitate toward darker, unsettling narratives. Even when I don’t “enjoy” reading a particularly gruesome or upsetting story, I respect it if it can really sting me in that way. It all probably started when my teenage aunts “babysat” me by taking me to the movie theater to watch horror flicks with their teenage friends. This is how a biopic about my life could open, if anyone’s making one.

That said, I like a lot of other kinds of stories and genres as well! One reason I chose a decidedly un-“fun” theme and design for my first game, Blackbar, is that I saw too many iOS apps shooting for a bright, colorful, friendly tone. There’s nothing wrong with that, but eventually it feels like eating candy for dinner every night. I suppose that in the buffet of the App Store, Blackbar and Grayout are the goat curry. Like all things that aren’t exactly in the middle of the mainstream, off-center games are maybe harder to like, but easier to love, if that makes sense? If you click with them, they feel more “yours”.

Both games are, in a sense, “frustration simulators”. They put you in the shoes of someone struggling with a severe limitation. I like how this immediately provides the game mechanic, the heroine’s motivation, and it hopefully also breeds empathy in the player. It’s cool to play a superhero, a rugged soldier, or a flying ace—but just as books and comics eventually moved away from such simple, romantic protagonists, I now enjoy games which explore “smaller” stories about less invincible people. I’m more impressed when a small child braves a snowstorm than when a billionaire flies around in a spaceship, you know?

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AU: It’s interesting you say that, because I don’t necessarily seek out depressing stories, but I feel the same way if one manages to disturb me. I saw the movie Suffragette before release and it made me sick to my stomach. That, of course, made me recommend it to everyone I know.

I’m completely with you on the flashy games. My senses are so overloaded, that when a game comes along that gets straight to the point, I’m grateful.

Despite Grayout’s dark subject matter, it’s a pretty relaxed game without timers or anything tangible to rush you. But I found the music did a great job creating a sense of urgency to find the right answer in a timely manner. It only seems slightly jarring at first, but the more time I spent staring at a page, the more grating it became. It definitely helped drive home that helpless feeling. Can you talk a little about the soundtrack?

NM: Blackbar didn’t have a soundtrack; being somewhat Soviet-inspired in its design, I didn’t have a clear point of reference for its world’s sound. Grayout is, in my mind, set in a futuristic 1970s dystopia, and I very much have an idea of what that sounds like. As I wrote it, I could almost hear the music of John Carpenter, Goblin, Boards of Canada, and Wendy Carlos.

The soundtrack was done by Peter Bosack, a prolific musician here in Portland. He was in the band Pancake Breakfast with my wife Christa, and I first worked with him when I asked him to record a cover for me. See, my very first game, The Incident, had this beautiful, melodic theme written by Cabel Sasser. I figured it would be fun to get some people to cover it in different styles. Pete did as a heart-rending spanish-guitar piece, and it was lovely, crisp and haunting. Right there and then, I knew he could nail a given style.

Pete and I talked about different things that might inspire a game set in an experimental hospital. I suggested sounds of medical equipment, of being underwater, of having a post-traumatic ringing in your ear; as well as early electric keyboards, broken music boxes, post-apocalyptic textures. He loved the challenge of creating unsettling, ominous music—probably the opposite of what most clients expect when they commission soundtracks!

The Grayout soundtrack works really well on its own as an album of dark electronica. Pete is looking into releasing it soon. I’m super excited about this. I don’t think I’ve ever felt cooler in my life than when amazing musicians have devoted their time to a small project of mine.

AU: Ha, yeah I hope nobody avoids the game because I called the soundtrack grating. It’s rare that I would use that as a compliment, but I think it’s so effective here. I also love how each color has its own track. And speaking of colors, what made you shift from the blacks and whites of your last game? The title had me expecting a lot of grays.

***WARNING: MILD STORY SPOILERS AHEAD!***

NM: Blackbar was black & white, with splashes of highlighter-yellow. For Grayout, I had already picked a “hospital teal” color because it was part of the image that popped into my head when I thought, “hm, what if we’re dealing with a pharmacological game mechanic…” The original prototype of the game used just that color; I had already decided that black & white would be an obvious and boring look to go back to.

The next issue I tackled was, how do I introduce a variety of voices into a story that doesn’t explicitly identify its characters? Dr. Groznik and Alaine don’t “sign” their messages since they’re not writing letters (or emails or whatever). It must be apparent from the voice who it is that’s speaking. So I developed styles for each character: Groznik is fairly neutral, with a corny/sadistic streak. Alaine’s thoughts are purple prose, florid and oblique. Eston and Nurse Eigenkamp get typographical ticks as well: he types in all caps, she capitalizes nouns teutonically.

This made me consider if I could codify Alaine’s “moods” as well. When she talks to Groznik about her condition, she’s in the “hospital-teal mood”. When she’s concerned, her world turns orange. If she is hurt, it’s red. It’s a simple queue that hopefully adds some flavor in an efficient, primal way. Plus, I love rainbows! I’ll take any excuse to build a rainbow of colors.

AU: Ahhh the teal is for scrubs! I can’t believe I didn’t make that connection. But I think that was a good choice, reinforcing each character or emotion with color and sound. Simple way to get the message across. The teal pages also seemed to be the trickiest ones? That music is what started to get to me first. 😉

Speaking of which, I found some pages in the game more effective than others. Some of my favorite ones were those where just about every word in what I’ve been calling the “word cloud” is meaningful and reflects Alaine’s emotions. Sometimes the unused words below the line say as much as, or even more than, those above it. This page below is a great example. Can you talk a bit about your process for choosing those words?

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NM: I’m glad to hear you picked up on the significance of the unused words! They’re never really “random”. Sometimes they paint Alaine’s emotional state, as you said—imagine being so overwhelmed with emotion that you can’t find the right words to express it, so thoughts flood your mind. Other times, the words are instinctive reactions which she acknowledges, but doesn’t really want to share; they’re simply there, projected on the screen of her consciousness, bubbled up from the subconscious. There are also pages on which Alaine realizes exactly what Dr. Groznik’s next drug is doing to her, and she’s trying to navigate around its effects like a minefield, working through the puzzle of it herself: can I say this? What if I try that?

It’s also worth pointing out here that while not EVERY “valid” sentence is acceptable in the game—you’re playing Alaine, after all, and you’re saying what SHE wants to say—there’s usually more than one solution to a page. Often, there are quite a few! I loved the comedic ones you shared with me while testing the game.

AU: Yeah, the first time I played through, I focused on getting the right answers so I could complete the game. But I’ve been having fun revisiting it, trying to see what crazy sentences I can come up with. It gives the game another layer and some replay-ability. You do need to restart the game to do so, which is not ideal, but I still think it’s worth it.

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It’s a bit late in the interview to be asking this, but how did you come up with the whole idea for the game? Blackbar’s puzzles seemed like the obvious fit for the accompanying story, yet I found Grayout’s puzzles and story blended even better.

NM: The core of the idea came to me in a rainshower one day. My brain was furiously trying to spoonerize some street sign I had read—something my brain does constantly. It occurred to me that this felt frustrating in a sense similar to Blackbar’s “what’s that word…” challenge. So the idea for the mechanic of the game came then.

I also knew I wanted a different theme, a look that wasn’t so Soviet. Now, I have a medical condition called Wilson’s Disease—it’s not super problematic in my case, but it does have me visiting doctors very frequently. Hospitals and labs are unsettling spaces. You feel such a loss of control and agency as all these people enter the exam room and leave it, type private notes about you that you can’t see, interpret tables of data that mean nothing to you. Combining that with the cool, racing-stripe pharmaceutical packaging I remember from my childhood seemed to give a look that’s both “clean” and “disturbing”.

The next step was to build my protagonist. I felt that they had to have some connection to the world of Blackbar, and the character there that was the biggest mystery even to me was fRiENd. The quick game prototype I coded up to test my game premise was thus titled “Stranger & Friend”. Exploring her back story was fun because she has this slightly unhinged streak. In Blackbar, she helps Kenty & Vi, but she appears to enjoy doing so in an obfuscated, cat-playing-with-captured-mouse way. She’s not a goody-two-shoes, helpful-adult character; she’s stubborn and rebelious, both in the political sense and the apolitical one. All this emerged through the writing of Grayout. When I started, I only knew what her predicament was, but not how she’d react. Through writing her interactions with the staff and Eston, I came to learn why she has this haunted quality.

Then I went googling for medical terms that happen to have colors in them. A “grayout” is a temporary dimming or desaturation of vision caused by irregular blood flow in the brain; pilots sometimes experience it. While it’s not exactly what Alaine is going through, it’s close, and I like it—I don’t always want my names to be so on-the-nose. (Blackbar was originally titled “Redacted”; it would’ve been fun for the game’s name to also be the solution to the first puzzle, but it would make for a much more generic name.)

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AU: I’m sorry to hear about your medical condition. I have a strong aversion to hospitals, so I don’t envy your frequent visits. But at least you got inspiration for a game out of it?

That’s really great how you lucked out with a name that fits the game so well and also ties in with the name Blackbar. I didn’t get that Alaine is fRiENd on my own, but I’ve been enjoying revisiting Blackbar and looking for these connections. It’s like a bonus puzzle!

I wanted to ask about the linear path you chose, since Blackbar had at least the one alternate ending. While Grayout certainly achieves what it sets out to do and I was sucked in from start to finish, part of me wanted there to be alternate “bad” endings. I can’t help but lament the missed opportunity to make the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) story where instead of just turning a page or picking from a list of options, the consequences are based off of the words you spell out. Perhaps even going so far as to have not answering anything for a certain amount of time lead to a particularly disturbing end. Did you ever consider making the game a CYOA with multiple endings?

NM: Hah, in a sense. And I must add that my condition is really not giving me any real troubles right now—I’d be embarrassed to complain about it for a second to anyone with a serious medical problem. But, it does require frequent tests and monitoring. Also, the disease is not in fact named after Dr. Wilson from the award-winning TV show House.

It’s been a while since people have played Blackbar, right? I don’t really expect players to pick up on the connections between the two games, either the continuations of the story, or the winky little references. I feel the same way about the literary allusions and puns in Blackbar—if you get some of them, hopefully that puts a little “yay” in your day. If not, that’s ok—it’s not required to finish or enjoy the game.

This is something I keep thinking about. It’s entirely possible—it’s virtually certain, actually—that I just haven’t figured out how to think about branching stories and games. That one fork in Blackbar was a bit of a fakeout; you could step back and return to the “real” path and the “real” ending. It’s troublesome enough for me to dig up a single satisfying narrative, and the prospect of making multiple plots work equally well scares me. That is, of course, my own failing, and something I should work on. Now that I’ve voiced that frustration, I’m suddenly excited to figure out how to solve it! For now, I’m happy with the straightforward nature of Blackbar and Grayout. If linear storytelling was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. P.S. Yes I just compared myself to Shakespeare, for which I apologize to the Bard and to everyone else.

AU: Haha I’ll forgive you for that. And I look forward to seeing your magnum opus that will be the CYOA to end them all. 😉

NM: Knowing my preferences and limitations, you can probably guess it’s going to be something like, a game where you can only say “yes” or “no” on each page. There are 2^32 possible endings. Have fun!

AU: I also want to speak a little about the ending itself. I know I’m not the only one who felt Blackbar ended a bit abruptly. I think you did a better job with Grayout, but for me it was still the weakest part of the story. I know endings are hard to write, and I’ve seen plenty of amazing movies whose endings didn’t thrill me. But I am curious about why you chose to end them that way. Could you maybe talk a bit about the endings of both games and your reasoning behind them?

NM: I’m a big fan of ambiguous, unresolved endings. In both games, it’s clear what has happened with the protagonist. The two things that are unclear are, how exactly did it happen? and what happens next? The reason I wrote them this way is that it seems a bit more existentially realistic. As in, it mirrors the real world more, and it also makes the story become less about the specific plight of its specific characters, and more about the human condition in general.

One of my favorite movie endings is that of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. After hiding from thousands of vicious birds that inexplicably attack a small town for the length of the movie, our heroes are forced to sneak out of the house. They are surrounded by silent birds which now litter the landscape like snowflakes. The birds don’t attack. Yet, the radio says they have spread to larger cities—the threat is now everywhere. The end. This ending doesn’t provide answers to either of the plot’s two big questions: why did the birds attack? And why are they now seemingly letting the Brenners and Melanie go? The total effect is that the movie now becomes less of a classic “story”. You know, the kind that goes, “once upon a time, there was a small town where everyone lived peacefully, until one day, birds attacked them because of X. Our heroine then fought the birds and defeated them with Y, and they all lived happily ever after.” Instead, it becomes the story of Mankind V. Nature: we live our little lives, and are occasionally forced to face the enormity of the world around us, and our smallness within it. It is uncaring and capricious. We can fight it, and we can take care of each other—and that’s about the level of control we have in this life.

So, I knew from the start that I didn’t want to give Kenty or Vi or Alaine some big “battle” where they outwit or outmuscle their opponents and then step out into the dawn of a new day where freedom and happiness reign. What victories they forge are small and fragile; at best, they are just making it possible for others to continue fighting The Department in the hopes of ending it forever some day. This seems to me a bit more respectful of how hard real revolution is. As for why The Department lets itself be defeated even in a minuscule way, the answer is the big flaw of all tyrants: hubris. They start thinking they’re invincible, and so they leave doors open which should be closed. (Except, of course, they never should have been closed in the first place.)

In any case, that’s what I tried to accomplish. If I’ve failed at it, it’s because I am who I am 🙂 I hope the stories still work overall!

AU: Thanks for explaining! And I do think they worked overall. Otherwise we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. 😉 I’m just nitpicking at the small things that bothered me. It helps to hear where you were coming from with those decisions, though!

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As you well know by now, I was able to figure out most of the answers on my own with the information provided, but there were a couple that truly stumped me and felt a little unfair. I remember the same thing with Blackbar. How do you determine the difficulty level of the puzzles and were there any that didn’t make it into the game because they seemed too unfair?

NM: Ooof, this is the hardest thing with game design. I have two basic strategies when designing a puzzle:

1. Eliminate the need for specific, external, hard-to-find knowledge. For example, specific: I can’t expect the player to know a quote from Picasso just because I happen to remember it. External: it’s not super fair to expect the player to go flipping through history books for some factoid. Hard-to-find: if the solution relies in some sense on an external fact (like the name of a bird) this should be as easy as googling that name.

2. Provide multiple hints. If you appreciate spoonerisms, a certain puzzle in Grayout may be easier for you. If you don’t know what the heck a spoonerism is, there are still other contextual clues in the puzzle to guide you in the right direction.

It’s still tricky, however I think about it. The puzzles I thought would be the hardest in Blackbar (the all-black page) didn’t seem to give anyone trouble. A puzzle I considered braindead (the name of the city) stumped the greatest number of players.

Both games are a bit harder than usual, I think. That’s partly because I fully expect the player to get stuck for a day or two—it’s one way I can make up for the fact that the game doesn’t contain four hundred hours of content or whatever. By the way, if you get stuck, show the game to someone and see how they do—often, all it takes is that orthogonal approach of someone who hasn’t been thinking about a problem for days!

AU: Strangely enough, the spoonerisms only had me stuck for a little while. They were tricky, but they weren’t the ones that truly stumped me. And I agree, I think, for the most part, you did a good job providing the necessary information. And who knows — the pages I had the most trouble with might come easy for others.

I’ve really been enjoying this interview, and I could probably go on and on, but I should start to wrap it up. I know you mentioned you’re working on some other games at the moment, more than is probably humanly possible. Can you talk about those a bit? What can we expect next from you?

NM: I usually keep things faaaairly secretive until they’re almost ready to show, so 80% of my answer here will be “no comment” 🙂 However, it adds up to 80% of my current projects, so that’s an answer in itself!

In addition to Blackbar and Grayout, I’ve also made two games with my friend Matt Comi: The Incident and Space Age. We recently put Space Age on the new Apple TV, and we’ll be doing the same with The Incident. However, it’ll be way cooler than a simple port: we’re adding a brand-new, four-player battle mode. It should be interesting!

COYA interests me as a genre right now, partly because I’m not quite sure how to approach it. The challenge of figuring that out intrigues me, so I’ve started poking around in Twine and so on.

But the very next thing I’d like to release, early next year, would be a straightforward piece of writing. It’s a bit silly so I’m not yet sure if I can take it seriously as a project, but that’s what I’m working on at the moment.

AU: Well, I look forward to seeing what you come up with next. It’s nice to see more experimental works in the App Store among all the clones (which you’ve apparently had some experience with yourself!).

Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close this up?

NM: I don’t say this often enough: I’m incredibly thankful for the attention (and love?) Blackbar has received. It was an idea I wasn’t sure would appeal to many people, and it’s great to see that it made sense to some. My thanks extends to James Moore for believing in the project enough to invest his time and energy in making it a real game. I couldn’t have done it without him, and I couldn’t have made Grayout without all the awesome people who had nice things to say about our first game. Keep supporting text-y games!

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