Giving Sadness and Grief Their Due in a Superb Mystery Story
'Gray Skies, Dark Waters' makes wise use of the adventure genre in its exploration of loss and grief.
All images courtesy Green Willow Games
Sub-15 is our regular look into smaller games (that go for $15 or less) with great ideas. Think of it as Free Play , on a little bit of a budget.
Gray Skies, Dark Waters is the story of a woman who disappears and the family who mourns her. It’s a sad, serious engagement with loss. At the beginning of 2018, I am wallowing a little in full-on sadness, and the oppressive weather embodied in the “bomb cyclone” currently embracing the East Coast probably has something to do with that. Gray Skies, Dark Waters embraces those feelings in a way that other contemporary adventure games do not, though, and it’s worth exploring the value of sitting with sadness and playing through it.
When we talk about adventure games in 2018, what are we talking about? The cinematic, action-oriented Telltale games? Life is Strange’s thriller-and-talker science fiction extravaganza? Moody and introspective experiences like Actual Sunlight? The throwback games like Thimbleweed Park? Maybe the games of Wadjet Eye, which embrace the assumptions of those classic games and remix and build upon them to generate something new?
It is a contested genre, and making something within it demands that a designer take a stance when it comes to what they will include and what they will exclude. Gray Skies, Dark Waters commits to one thing above all others: character development. This is a choice that serves the game well because the fundamental drama of the piece takes place between those characters.
Some games create a world in crisis and define their characters against it. In the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, for example, everyone is reacting to the reality of the zombie apocalypse, and both plot and character development emanates from how they define themselves in relationship to their changing reality.
In Gray Skies, Dark Waters, the world is a grey, flat place. The day is January 1st. Our protagonist, Lina, is experiencing the anniversary of her mother’s disappearance. What happened to Vivian Garrett?
Mysteries are wonderful fuel for adventure games because they lean into some of the fundamental mechanics that animate those games: There are things in the world that you can click on to learn about, there are things you can pick up, and there are objects you can use those things you picked up on. Locked doors, secret panels, and messages hidden in cubbies are critical to mysteries, and all of these are easily created and locked behind the logical puzzle structure of the adventure game. Gray Skies, Dark Waters is no different, and it makes the specific choice to lock its explanations of the world behind its puzzles.
These explanations are mostly delivered through Lina’s internal monologues and her father Robert’s journal. He’s an ornithologist by trade, a college professor, and he has all of the stereotypical features that you might assume comes with that position. He’s standoffish, speaks directly, and doesn’t give much in the way of emotions. In his journals, though, we see another side of the man. He’s committed to a strange discovery. He’s torn about how to move through the world. And, ultimately, he works through these emotions to justify a truly heinous and monstrous act. It’s a moment where the game’s writers chose to lean on empathy for a man who can clearly justify doing something terrible (this is something I think has dubious value).
Gray Skies, Dark Waters manages to stick the landing, though, partly because of its character-centered design. We spend the entire game learning how Lina and her siblings feel about the disappearance of their mother, and when the revelations come at the end, it is possible to see how all of these unique people will or will not cope with the information discovered over the course of the game.
The triumph of Gray Skies, Dark Waters isn’t in the same place that a Telltale game or a Life is Strange finds it. It isn’t in bombastic, huge moments. It is in your mind as you consider how this small family of characters is going to deal with the reality of how their life has changed. There’s no grand journey, and Lina doesn’t achieve some heroic moment that echoes down through eternity. She connects some dots, has some conversations, and tries to figure out what she’s going to do after high school. Her brother and sisters are going to have to do the same. Their father will have to live with himself, and his actions, until his death.
Crucially, Gray Skies, Dark Waters is willing to sit in sadness and recognition. No one can change the past, even after being confronted with a stark reality of what had happened there. You can either choose to confront what happened or you can try to bury it. That feeling and those decisions are what Gray Skies, Dark Waters chooses to focus on, and it’s a more fulfilling experience than most “serious” games I’ve played.