Play A Video Game Inspired By Soviet Children's Literature In Cold War-Era India

Nobody Knows for Certain
Nobody Knows for Certain Afrah Shafiq

Rome fell in 476 AD while the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. However, even today in 2024, most of us know about leaders like Julius Caesar or Vladimir Lenin. That’s the thing about great civilizations — they survive through the pages of history, literature, philosophy, politics, arts, architecture and our collective consciousness. My first association with the Soviet Union was not its famous or infamous leaders (depending on your political leaning) but through the several colorfully illustrated children’s books, I spent many a happy hour reading as a child. Those books originally belonged to my mother. Most of them were in English and some were translated in Bengali.

I remember The Gigantic Turnip by Alexei Tolstoy — a timeless folk tale, beautifully illustrated in the Soviet style. It is a story of a giant turnip that grows so large that it takes the efforts of an entire community to pull it from the ground. Well, I was too young then to understand the underlying message of socialism and collective action in the story. It resonated with me because of its engaging narrative complemented by the visually expressive characters, illustrated with vibrant colors and bold lines. Also, wildly fictitious elements like an ever-growing giant turnip or a beanstalk (from Jack and the Beanstalk, although it's an English fairy tale) always get a child’s imagination running wild and free.

'The Gigantic Turnip' by Alexei Tolstoy
'The Gigantic Turnip' by Alexei TolstoyAmazon
Nobody Knows for Certain
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Today, I am going to tell you about the brilliant Indian visual artist, Afrah Shafiq and how she reimagined Soviet children’s literature that was widely popular in India during the years of the Cold War and was available in several languages like Bengali, Tamil, Hindi and Telegu. She spent three years (2020-2023) researching the phenomenon of the popularity of Soviet children’s literature in India. Her extensive research culminated in a narrative video game titled Nobody Knows for Certain that was released in early 2023 and was showcased throughout the year internationally throughout the year in venues ranging from Dhaka Art Summit in February to Berlin’s HKW in September.

Install View, Dhaka Art Summit, 2023
Install View, Dhaka Art Summit, 2023Afrah Shafiq

In a mesmerizing fusion of fiction, history, and interactive storytelling, this unique video game weaves a rich tapestry of narratives that traverse the landscapes of both the USSR and India, delving into pivotal moments of the 20th century as depicted in these cherished Soviet-era children’s literature. As players embark on this interactive quest, they are immersed in a canopy of interconnected stories and speculations, each branching off from archival material and serving as an archival architecture that hosts the original children's books, their illustrations, and the enchanting worlds they evoke.

THE SPACE RACE, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'
THE SPACE RACE, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'Afrah Shafiq
BREAD AND BOOK, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'
BREAD AND BOOK, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'Afrah Shafiq

The game's innovative multimedia approach, incorporating video, illustrated book form, comics, written text, archival images, original artwork, and sound, blurs the boundaries between interactive fiction, multimedia encyclopedic CD-ROMs, and narrative gameplay. As players journey through this captivating realm, they unearth hidden books, building their own collection of the original stories and embarking on a quest for a portal between one tale and the next.

MAP INTERACTION DETAIL, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'
MAP INTERACTION DETAIL, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'Afrah Shafiq

Along the way, moments of pause offer the opportunity to delve into archival findings and historical backdrops, revealing the intricate ties that bind these seemingly disparate nations. Much like a beloved book, this immersive experience is designed to be savored over multiple visits, with progress saved for the next captivating exploration. Through its playful yet profound exploration of storytelling, this game invites players to discover the transformative power of narratives and the enduring resonance of tales that transcend time and borders.

INTO THE MIRROR, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'
INTO THE MIRROR, Screen View from 'Nobody Knows for Certain'Afrah Shafiq
Nobody Knows for Certain
Farha Alam Blurs The Lines Of Visual Art To Create Stunning Multifaceted Artworks

Watch the trailer of Nobody Knows for Certain below:

Inspired by Afrah Shafiq’s extensive research and her video game. Experimenter, Hindustan Road, Kolkata is playing host to her first solo show I Fell Asleep a Believer and Woke Up an Atheist. It opens on Friday, January 19, 2024, as part of the Kolkata weekend program, commemorating fifteen years of Experimenter this year.

Click here to play the game.

Follow Afrah Shafiq here.

Find out more about Experimenter Kolkata here.