Dreamlore Games. A. S. Pushkin, “Evgenii Oniegin,” Igra dlia personal´nago komp´iutera. Moscow: Akella, 2009. <http://www.dreamloregames.com/onegin/>.
Dreamlore’s “Evgenii Oniegin” (title in the old orthography) is not so much a computer game as a kind of comic book with sound and limited interactivity. The genre to which it properly belongs is the Japanese or Japanese-inspired visual novel, an “interactive fiction game,” typically narrated in the first person or through dialogue and presented from the visual perspective of the protagonist, who does not appear in the frame. In “Evgenii Oniegin” as well, animation of the characters is limited and voice actors read the dialogue, which is also displayed on the screen (see the website for screenshots). At a small number of climactic moments, the player is asked to decide how to continue, so that the narrative can take different directions and come to different conclusions. The game’s lead creator at Dreamworks, Aleksandr Shcherbakov, suggested to me in an email that “Onegin” is deliberate kitsch: “Pushkin + anime + Japanese genre + zombies + guest appearances of Chatskii/Bazarov + glam rock. Something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but in a form of an anime game.”
So “Oniegin” is both a translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse into a new genre and a kind of mashup, like Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009). One certainly expects an irreverent transformation of the novel and hopes for a lot of good laughs. But while the artwork and background music are very nicely done, there is too little of the original novel in this transformation, and while there is abstract humor in some of the choices made (Aleksandr Chatskii appears as a Secret Police inspector), the actual laughs are too infrequent. Where Seth Grahame-Smith was able to use Jane Austin’s masterful prose, Pushkin’s verse was removed for translation into the visual novel. Gone also is his narrator, though the creators could have had great fun with his spying and eavesdropping had they made him the invisible protagonist. Instead, the protagonist Onegin appears on screen in most scenes and is the primary narrator of events. Some of the limited dialogue from the original does make it into the game, but not always successfully, as when Onegin suggests to Vladimir Lenskii that he would have preferred Tatiana to Ol´ga, with her round face and banal beauty, the problem being that Ol´ga and Tatiana are drawn as identical twins, with oval faces and pointy chins, distinguished only by hair and dress colors (green and purple vs. purple and green). This could have been a laugh line, but insofar as it is a part of the systematic distortion of or total disregard for Pushkin’s characters and plot, it elicits a sigh rather than a laugh.
Unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in which the zombie subplot highlights new and interesting facets of Austin’s characters and plot, in Evgenii Oniegin Pushkin’s plot is but a stepping off point, and his characters are present in name only. The novel opens with Onegin traveling to his uncle’s estate and learning of his uncle’s death. After surveying his new domain the following day, Onegin decides to examine an abandoned neighboring estate, in spite of the fearful tales told by locals, and there, in the graveyard at midnight, encounters his first zombie, which he skeptically dismisses as a hallucination. There follows a visit by Lenskii, a guitar playing rocker with long, straight blond hair, during which Lenskii teases and makes fun of Onegin (!). Lenskii invites Onegin to join him that evening for dinner at the Larins. The Larin household, we learn from Onegin’s servant, is still presided over by the paterfamilias, Nikolai, who nearly died a few years ago in an epidemic but was saved by the young doctor Evgenii Bazarov, whose medical experiments Larin now assists and sponsors. Larin has also remarried (with no account given of the death of his first wife) to the young and shapely Polina, stepmother to Ol´ga and Tatiana. Onegin meets the family and Bazarov, and learns that Tatiana would rather live in the city because she loves the conversations of society (!). A few days later, however, Larin dies under mysterious circumstances, his body torn by human teeth. Now appear the police inspectors Zaretskii and Chatskii, the latter also a specialist in the paranormal, to investigate. From this point, Pushkin’s already contorted plot is entirely left behind. There are no balls, no love letters, almost no traces of the love intrigue between Onegin and Tatiana: disappearing corpses, interrogations, battles with zombies, and the evil machinations of zombie-maker Bazarov drive the action instead.
The zombie plot is not without its mirth, but it is neither informed nor enriched by Pushkin’s work, or by Ivan Turgenev’s or Aleksandr Griboedov’s for that matter. An early laugh comes when Onegin dismisses his servant with the line “You’re free.… But don’t take that literally. It’s still more than half a century until the abolishment of serfdom.” Would there were more such fun! Some of the voice acting is very good, but, unfortunately, perhaps the least talented is the one playing Onegin, who speaks the most lines. His voice is whiney and adolescent (though Onegin says he is 28) and his emotional inflections absent or off.
It takes three to four hours to work through the entire story, clicking the mouse after listening to each line. There are only two real decision points in the narrative, and thus four potential narrative endings. I played to two very different outcomes: one in which Onegin and Chatskii die and the investigators are foiled, and another in which Onegin duels with and kills both Lenskii and Bazarov and later joins Chatskii’s investigative team.
The game has been released only in a Russian version, which creates problems on English language PCs. The installation dialogue boxes render the Cyrillic text as gibberish, so a few installation choices must be made at random, and the text of the novel appears as long strings of question marks, so one cannot read along as one listens. The version I used also had limited functionality that may or may not have been related to the fact that it was a bit-torrent download of a hacked version (to which Dreamlore had directed me for my review). I was unable to continue saved games, and there was no way to go back a scene or line to listen again, or to fast forward through to reach a particular point. Reaching two different endings thus took considerably more effort than it might have.
Because the visual novel does little to open new vistas on Pushkin’s original, I cannot recommend the game as a useful addition to the typical graduate or undergraduate literature course. It could perhaps serve in a research paper as another example of the translation of Pushkin into other genres, or as the subject of a class presentation in a course on contemporary Russian pop culture. Students who love Russian culture and are avid gamers might find it mildly entertaining, and listening to the relatively straightforward dialogues and narrative could be a good listening exercise. I think that most lovers of Pushkin, though, will not find enough of him in this adaptation to reward their curiosity.
David L. Cooper
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign