The world of gaming is ever-evolving, with developers constantly dreaming up new and bold avenues to take with their games – games that aim to expand our horizons and entertain us with thought provoking stories. A genre of games that is especially proficient with the latter is one focused entirely on storytelling, dispensing with (most of the) gameplay altogether – the only thing you, the player, get to decide is which direction the story progresses. This is both a relatively new and relatively old genre, as even before computers existed, kids could be seen flipping through pages of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, trying to puzzle out what the best ending is. In terms of computer games, some of the first ever were textual adventure games – consisting of nothing more than snippets of text describing your situations, prompting you to enter your choice in the command line (remember Zork?). Lately, story-based games have been making somewhat of a comeback, combining some features made possible by modern technology, such as lifelike graphics, with the already familiar gameplay of making relevant choices.
A developer whom already made a name for himself in this genre is Mike Bithell, with his sudden hit “Subsurface Circular” impressing audiences and critics alike last year. The near-future, hi-tech psychological thriller had you take the role of a Tek (sentient, humanoid robot) detective, investigating the disappearance of other service Teks, as he rides a train along a circular track deep underground. The game is short and sweet, offering players a 2-hour ride, and even though the only piece of the world the player ever sees is the inside of the train, a much broader picture is painted through the immersive dialogues with the other Teks riding the circular. At the end, the player is presented with a moral dilemma and a choice leading to one of two possible futures.
This year, Bithell released the game’s namesake, as suddenly as he did this previous title – another dialogue-driven adventure by the name of “Quarantine Circular”. It would seem Mike Bithell likes his surprises – there was no announcements or trailers leading up to the release, the game just sort of… emerged. The game is once again set in the near future, but bears no other resemblance to its predecessor apart from the name and the style of gameplay. This time around, you’re presented with the chance to play a role in the preservation of the entire human species – a plague has started to spread and the clock for humanity is ticking. At the same time, a mysterious visitor from outer space has descended on Earth. His arrival suspiciously coincides with the epidemic – does he have anything to do with it, or is he, as he claims, here to help? The game takes place on a medical vessel off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia, where you assume the roles of several of the ship’s crew members as you attempt to unravel the mystery – you even get to play as the alien! These transitions between characters are interesting, although we’re left wondering whether the game would’ve hit closer to home if you kept playing as just one of the characters, perhaps presented with a bit more agency. As it stands, each character has his own personality affecting gameplay, perhaps steering the story towards a more linear disposition than it could have been had you been able to make calls that are not in line with the particular character’s traits. Still, the game offers a variety of scenarios, and the purported number of distinct endings is 6 – even though we’ve only seen 3 so far.
The game follows a similar layout of “Subsurface Circular” – the story is divided in acts, each of which has its own title, background, and soundtrack (that we found to be immersive and, at times, ominously foreboding – especially towards the end). As you speak with the various characters, you’re offered several lines of dialogue to choose from, with special “focus points” that you can click to add an additional option you’d like to discuss. Each act has several objectives to aim for, which you can reach by skillfully navigating the conversation in your favor. The graphics of the game are well done, albeit slightly reductive (the characters lack facial expressions as they’re all suited up in biohazard gear) – in the end, the visuals of the game are secondary and the writing itself is what drives the suspense. Speaking of writing, once again it is phenomenal, and raises plenty of questions – the game could be considered a philosophical conundrum as much as it can be called a “video game”. It’s not easy in the slightest to make the right, ethical call each step of the way. This, for us, is the strongest point of the game – the moral dilemmas which it leaves with you will last much longer than the 2.5 hours it will take to finish the game. Even though it could be said it’s slightly predictable, the story is engaging; the characters are persuasive, although they sometimes appear slightly one-dimensional. “Quarantine Circular” is not a blockbuster AAA title, but will grip you and have you finish the first playthrough in one sitting (we suggest that you play it multiple times, so that you witness all eventualities).
A principal concern with these types of games is, as always, the low variance of options players have – you’re presented with a story structure that tends to be more linear than wide-branching. This is especially a hindrance in dialogue-driven, story-based games since the entire gameplay is based on exactly this aspect – still, from a technical viewpoint it’s impossible to create a story that can branch far and wide while still remaining compact and believable. Think of it as an interactive movie – which is basically what games like these are – you’re presented with the opportunity to alter the plot, even though at times your choices are illusory and advance the story in the same direction. All in all, “Quarantine Circular” is a neat, thought-provoking experiment that is definitely worth the $6 you spend on it – it’s unassuming and delivers exactly what it says it will – a short, intense ride for the deliverance of mankind!