There are a lot of funny things about Sex with Stalin, but perhaps the most amusing isn't in the game. If you go to the game's Steam page there are a few reviewers that have enjoyed this experience, but then there are a bunch of weebs complaining that they bought this and did not, in fact, get to slip one of history's great dictators a length.
In Soviet Russia, comrade, game play YOU!
Sex with Stalin is a bizarre proposition, part-parody of the dating genre, part-surrealist exploration of modern Russia's roots, and all done in the worst possible taste. It contains a great deal of text, mostly dense exchanges between the player character and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Fair warning: if the title isn't enough of a clue, there's a lot in this game with the capacity to offend. It is set in the mid-40s, when Stalin had become Russia's de facto dictator and the centre of a personality cult. He is one of the 20th century's most influential figures, and also a tyrant who, thanks to constant purges and famines, died with the blood of millions on his hands.
Therefore some might consider it inappropriate to, as this game does, posit an absurdist timeline where Stalin becomes a rapper called MC Gulag and sings about how "I build my empire on tears and bones" before inviting the player to "go fuck yourself." This is the kind of comedy that will push some things so far it's queasy.
The game's protagonist is a contemporary Russian, who in the prologue bemoans the country's lack of economic opportunities, the pointlessness of pursuing an education, the stranglehold that oligarchy places on ordinary people... and then boasts about having sex with his neighbour's elderly wife, in some detail. This sets off a chain of events that soon ends up with him in a time machine, and stepping out into Stalin's office.
From here, Sex with Stalin unfolds as a series of conversations that examine important moments in early 20th century Russian and European history, giving Stalin's imagined perspective on such, before things take a turn for the weird.
A conversation about the role of the proletariat, for example, may shortly lead to the time traveller offering some insight about individual health that leads Stalin to take up yoga and live to the ripe old age of 102 (at which point his would-be successors, sick of waiting, poison him). On another occasion, Stalin gets interested in anime and ended up turning the Russian state's resources towards the creation of Sailor Moon, gazumping Japan entirely. Then he did a little dance for me in the Sailor Moon costume.
This is all mixed-in with some alternately funny and horrifying dead ends along the way. In one ending Stalin 'implanted' himself in my time traveller before his head burst out of my chest like a xenomorph.
So just what the hell is going on? Sex with Stalin is at times almost an art house piece, while at others it goes deliberately low-rent and aims to unsettle and disgust its players. At its core is this attempt to wrestle with some of the big historical factors that have contributed to the modern Russian state, and then around this are scattered the obsessions of an internet-addled mind: memes, social media, video games and nihilism. It ponders whether there was an alternative to the Cold War. It asks: if you just become a consumerist society in the end, run by gangsters, what was all the pain and sacrifice for?
The only answers Sex with Stalin has to these questions are, of course, absurd. But it is playing the game any student of history loves, which is to chew over why things happened the way they did, and wonder what might have been. Asking 'Stalin' about events like the execution of Nicholas II and receiving someone's thoughts on what he might say, as fabricated and grotesque as this puppet-show may sometimes be, is somehow alluring and fascinating.
One may well ask where exactly the game is. Sex with Stalin features 25 different endings, of which I've seen around 10, and after you've unlocked two has the mercy to allow players to fast-forward through dialogue. You choose responses or questions, the conversation goes one way or another, and while Stalin's pontificating you can switch between half-a-dozen fixed camera angles. It's no interactive masterpiece, then, but somehow kept me engaged for a couple of hours.
This is not a game that fits into any particular box. Elements of it, like some of the developer's previous work, veer towards crude shock value, but then these same elements are trying to smuggle-in half a dissertation's worth of thoughts on Russian history. You'll be taken aback by some insight on Beria's limits, and why he would never have succeeded Stalin, then there'll be some pixellated bending-over sequence where an unidentified mucous splats on-screen. This veers dizzyingly between high-falutin' political philosophy and toilet humour: even when the jokes don't quite land, it's never boring.
Sex with Stalin costs £2.50 and you should know by now whether it might appeal. What can be said about this, ironically enough, is that it's clearly a labour of love. You will be surprised at how much effort has gone into incidental jokes and the creation of atmosphere, and the writing strikes a clever balance between the time traveller's modern mores and the viewpoint of one of the 20th century's most infamous dictators. I don't know if I'd recommend Sex with Stalin. But I do keep on thinking about it.