Nobody Knows for Certain Turns Soviet Children’s Books into a Game

A Gorgeous (and Playable) Look at Soviet Children's Books Published in India

Games Features Nobody Knows for Certain
Nobody Knows for Certain Turns Soviet Children’s Books into a Game

Nobody Knows for Certain is a fragment of a game, if you can call it a game to begin with. Afrah Shafiq’s playable art project ends abruptly, with no attempt at a resolution, and yet leaves behind so much to pore over and think about. It’s a gorgeously designed sociological study of Soviet children’s’ books published in India in local languages from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. Distributed almost for free, these books spread Russian culture and thought throughout the Indian subcontinent during the Cold War, leaving a notable impact on the children of India. Nobody Knows for Certain turns this phenomenon into a point-and-click experience, with several books republished in full in various languages. 

Shafiq wraps these books up in a beautiful piece of interactive art that repurposes much of their original artwork. This narrative game is a lending library in the form of a pixel hunt. After a lightly interactive opening, you’ll arrive at a virtual tapestry filled with Russian iconography; here you zoom in and look for lightly animated figures and icons. The cursor changes color when you scroll over some of these images, and you can click those to learn about the folktale it’s based on, or about Russian writers who were crucial to preserving its oral folklore. After poking around long enough you’ll come to a screen with a bus parked in an Indian city; it’s a mobile library, with its racks filled with digital versions of classic Soviet works released in India. Clicking on these books will pull up their covers, and many are readable in full. You can also send the bus on a journey throughout the country; as it travels around you’ll hear different musical styles from throughout India and get a feel for its geography. 

Nobody Knows for Certain

You’ll find books with names like The Tale of Tsarevich Ivan and Grey Wolf and The Little Round Bun, and printings of Maxim Gorky’s The Little Sparrow and Pushkin’s fairy tale poem The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The moral guide What Is Good and What Is Bad is like a Soviet take on Goofus and Gallant, whereas We’re Flying Across the USSR is an easy-reading guide to geography. None of it is blatantly political in nature, but you will see clear cultural distinctions from American ideals. 

There are some slightly more game-forward parts to uncover. There’s one story about a tailless cat who’s mocked and rejected by almost everybody they meet, and you move the cat directly through that one in search of a solution to its problem. (That solution is a snake. They understand each other’s hisses. It’s adorable and just a little weird.) Elsewhere the game asks you to click on “five tokens of Indo-Soviet friendship” to move on to the next story. These are both one-offs, and although the token-hunting feels like pointless point-and-click busy work, adapting these books into interactive games, as the tailless cat piece does, could be a smart way to turn this glorified demo into a full-bodied work. 

Nobody Knows for Certain

There was a propaganda aspect to Soviet publishers sending these books to India, but Shafiq shows how there was more to it than that. The books she collects in Nobody Knows for Certain focus on Russian folklore, science, or simple morality tales. In Divya Sreedharan’s 2021 Atlas Obscura story about Soviet publishing in India, University of Washington historian Jessica Bachman notes that these kinds of books “far outpaced the propaganda publications” in terms of what was distributed in India. It helped Russian ideals and beliefs gain purchase throughout India, which clearly would’ve included Soviet ideology to some extent, but as Bachman points out to Sreedharan, it also had trade and diplomatic advantages for the Soviets beyond spreading their politics. A quote from Nobody Knows for Certain calls it “polite propaganda;” most of the books aren’t trying to sell India on a sociopolitical system, but simply help them know and understand one of the other major players on their continent a little bit better.

Shafiq does an impressive job introducing the history of this cross-cultural exchange in Nobody Knows for Certain. And if she intends to expand it into a larger, more comprehensive work, there’s ample room to do so. It doesn’t delve too much into how these books impacted Indian culture. If it could directly track their influence on Indian attitudes, from the cultural to the educational to the moral, or show how specific Indian art pulled from these Russian books and their ideals, it would give a greater understanding of the importance and value of this relationship. That might be asking a lot, though, especially when a few more minigames about sad cats looking for their tails would be more entertaining. As is Nobody Knows for Certain feels incomplete. It’s a beautifully sketched history that cuts itself off before synthesizing its data. If you’re looking for something utterly unique to play through, though, we can’t recommend it enough.


Nobody Knows for Certain is available on Itch.io.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

 

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