Dry Drowning is a choose-your-own adventure detective visual novel, with a flavour something like a more morbid Death Stranding.
Set during 2066 in the independent city of Nova Polemos, you play as the aged and disgraced private detective Mordred Foley. Aided by his Greek partner Hera Kairis, you try to make ends meet while you hunt down the city’s most infamous serial killer, Pandora. Featuring a Phoenix Wright-like interrogation mode dubbed the Living Nightmare system where you use evidence to catch people in their lies as well as making various narrative decisions, Dry Drowning is moody, intriguing and at times, terrifying. Its portrayal of a fascist society is insidious and completely normalised.
Within the first few minutes the universe is established. The social, economic and political situation of the city and the similarities it holds to today’s world are expanded upon throughout the game. The North Korean ignorance on the technology of other countries, China’s censorship and social credit system, the demonisation of the unemployed. It’s the details in Dry Drowning that are special. You need access to a crime scene, your client is the leader of a far right party, you flash the party’s business card to the police officer guarding the area and he lets you in with a simple nod of his head. Of course he does. The game says a lot when it speaks less, ironic for a visual novel.
It piques your curiosity with the protagonist's sordid past, the genuinely pleasant dynamic between Mordred and Hera, and then by scene two you’ve been reeled in with a murder investigation invoking Greek myth. Dry Drowning is like chasing down Hannibal Lecter in Robert Harris’s Fatherland. You’re Will Graham dissecting the murders of a hyper-intelligent serial killer in super fascist land.
A big part of Dry Drowning is in the branching narrative's reactions to your choices. Now, 'the world changed due to my earlier choices, how interesting' is a little passé, mainly because most games that use this idea have the player too far removed from the consequences for them to feel culpable anyway. But Dry Drowning is explicitly aware of this, and responsibility is one of the more interesting themes it explores.
If Mordred's and your actions lead to the rounding up of 'undesirables', of immigrants, Mordred looks past it. The only time these events are ever brought to your attention is when Hera explicitly points it out. It doesn't affect Mordred, in fact his compliance with the fascist state is what allowed it to happen, so of course he'd never take much: it's the vulnerable who point it out, forcing those of us who are not at risk to confront reality. Again, Dry Drowning’s subtext says more than its actual text.
An antagonist sets up a scenario where the cause-and-effect are clear, simple and undeniable. The consequences of my previous actions hadn’t bothered me: all the suffering I'd caused meant nothing because I could justify it away. “I’m not responsible for the wrongs of others / How could I possibly know that was going to happen?” This one, however, this much-lesser sin weighed heavy solely because of the immediacy of the repercussions and my knowledge beforehand.
At what point do we truly feel responsible for the consequences of our actions? Does the vicinity have an effect? Is it a scale or stakes issue? Is it time based? Does it have to be immediate or is there a set time limit? How far removed do you have to be? How does other people's agency come into play?
After completing Dry Drowning, as interesting as the exploration of modern fascism is, my thoughts remained on this idea of responsibility. You see creators, especially those with large followings and fragile egos, acting irresponsibly, not considering the consequences of their actions. The situation with Carlos Maza and Steven Crowder is a prime example.
Who is to blame for the long-term harassment Maza has received? If you repeatedly attack someone in public, over a prolonged period of time, despite knowing what your audience is going to do no matter how many times you tell them not to, are you not to blame?
In some parts of the world, LGBTQ people are killed shortly after being added to kill lists. What guilt does the person who added Yelena’s name to these lists hold? Journalists and developers get harassed and hounded after any mention in a personalities video, purposefully framed to contribute to an 'Us vs Them' narrative. It’s not the YouTubers' fault is it? Despite it only happening because of the audience they’ve fostered around inflammatory, combative and outrage-stoking content?
Cause-and-effect is undeniable but, as long as there’s a single point of separation, can we absolve ourselves of guilt? Pointing to the agency of the individual while you have a relationship of power over them? As I played Dry Drowning, the scenarios were much more dramatic, but it was interesting to study where I personally drew the line and my reasoning behind each scenario.
The quality of Dry Drowning’s writing can vary, there’s definitely a few dud lines, and there’s an unfortunate pacing issue. Dry Drowning needed more downtime with the characters. I'd like to have seen them interacting in some less dire environments, taking space away from the plot to flesh out the world and the characters' lives. I wanted to see the normalcy of the characters: show me how they live, so I care if they die.
The setting of the game in 2019 is as political as it gets. Dry Drowning tries to show the destructive rise in fascism, while showing the extreme lengths others will go to in order to fight against it. It is a dangerous and downright ugly feature of contemporary politics.
Dry Drowning plays with difficult and relevant subjects, all while leading you through a compelling murder mystery. A recent and horrific real-world trend is the white supremacist acts of terrorism across the globe: and as the threat increases, inevitably so shall the reaction from those trying to stop it. As the plot progresses here, the situation in Nova Polemos get as bad as you can imagine. Cause-and-effect.
This game shows the fear fascism puts into people, and how frightened people do stupid things. Scared and desperate people will do anything. Dry Drowning asks where the line is for you, and whether there's even a line at all. How far will humans go? It doesn’t paint a hopeful picture.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.