Wot I Think: Unrest

By Adam Smith on August 6th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Unrest is an RPG that takes place during a period of conflict in a fantastical interpretation of Ancient India. Rebellion is brewing, and even royalty and nobles are not safe from the political, social and racial struggles that threaten to erupt. With a perspective that shifts between player characters from different backgrounds, the game shows life from several angles. The setting is convincing and the writing is subtle and effective, but Unrest creates difficulties for itself. How does it handle those difficulties and is the journey worth the effort? Here’s wot I think.

Unrest has already sparked some controversy.

The RPG, set in a (slightly) fantastical ancient India has only been available for a few days, following a successful Kickstarter, and debates as to its worth have already begun. Thankfully, those debates are to do with the game’s structure rather than its content. Dealing with refugees, arranged marriages, the nature of leadership and caste systems, among other issues, Unrest relies on nuanced writing. The player’s role is to explore the setting and various scenarios within it from various perspectives, making difficult decisions for several characters and deciding their ultimate fate.

Despite all of the potential controversies in the setting, the writing and characterisation avoid simple solutions and portrayals, offering varied and nuanced perspectives on the issues raised. There’s plenty to discuss in the relationships fostered or severed, and the political and cultural movements of the various plots, but the short running time and unusual structure means that the bulk of debate begins where the game ends.

Unrest follows through on a question that RPGs rarely ask – what happens when a game shifts its focus from the Chosen One and sees the movements of history as great waves that overcome the ‘great’ and the small alike? Often, that approach leads to a story in which an apparently insignificant person manages to make an enormous difference to the lives of many, or at least takes control of their own destiny. Simply by virtue of the fact that they are a player character or protagonist, they cannot entirely evade the ‘Chosen’ tag.

That’s not the case here. In order to discuss the most interesting and divisive aspect of Unrest, I’m going to have to skip to the end, which means spoilers. Except these aren’t spoilers in a conventional sense. I’m not going to tell you about the choices you can make, the people you will meet or the outcome of the actions taken. The only thing I’m going to ‘spoil’ in any sense is the amount of control you really have over the finale of each characters’ story.

The fact is, you’ll never know because Unrest doesn’t deal in beginnings, middles and endings, eschewing the former and the latter, and simply presenting slices of life. There is no ‘ultimate fate’. Modern games like their choices. I’ll use Bioware as a short-hand for the type of thing I mean here because the studio is a well-know, practitioner of the form. Ethical decisions that bleed toward binary and colour-coded destinies. Pull the trigger or push the button? Which button? The big red button to drop all of the bombs or the big green button to live happily ever after?

Unrest doesn’t go in for that sort of thing but it doesn’t avoid the stiff branches of choice by splintering them. There are still options to select between and paths to follow, but rather than allowing players to find what’s at the end of each path, Unrest stops partway along. The implication, as I read it, is that many choices only matter insofar as they alter our self-perception, or the conversations we have with those close to us. They do not necessarily change the overall course of our lives.

It’s the flowchart reimagined as tributaries, diving for short periods of time but reconnecting as they tumble toward the ocean. Or the branches, with lives starting from the tip and congealing at the trunk to feed back into the dirt. Unrest’s stories are about societal roles rather than the roles we might play in parties of adventurers, and the shackles are harder to break than Melizior’s Manacles of Soul Sundering +7.

This is frustrating. Unrest has rebels, royalty and revolt. It has Naga, a race apart from the story’s main setting whose habits and attitudes are seemingly defined as much by player input as by any previously written lore. All of the ingredients for thrilling developments and conclusions are in place, but Unrest deals in the drama of the moment of decision.

What I found to be the game’s most moving plotline puts the player in the role of a girl who discovers one morning that she is to be married to a local boy. The match marks a step up the social and financial ladder for her family, but the boy is sullen, rude and openly hostile. Unrest follows the story, allowing the player to react in words and minor deeds, but there are no daring escapes, and social structures and marital norms are rarely overthrown by a single act of rebellion.

Unrest allows players to explore their reactions to situations, whether those reactions be diplomatic or highly emotional. It doesn’t always reveal the aftermath of those reactions because – and this is only my interpretation – the world doesn’t accommodate every thought and feeling. History, even personal history, doesn’t adjust its flow simply because we don’t like where it’s taking us.

That’s how I read Unrest, as a series of well-written vignettes that are also a commentary of sorts on the empowerment of player characters and the grand impact of those choices that they’re so often asked to make. The problem with that reading is that it leaves me with a game that broaches a complex idea in a crude fashion. As already mentioned, the writing isn’t crude – it’s as characterful and subtle as almost anything else I’ve played this year – but Unrest doesn’t look or sound the part.

Animations are simple, music repeats on short loops and transitions between scenes (though improved since release) are basic. If Unrest is a deliberate exploration of vignettes and the sense of decisions rather than the narrative weight of them, the aesthetic choices and limitations do little to support the structure of the stories. A framing device might help, or some sense of moving on and bearing witness rather than simply cutting and changing from one scene to the next.

The Venerable Bede wasn’t thinking about the use of multiple player characters when he wrote about swallows and mead halls, but I’ll quote him here because you almost certainly haven’t read enough Bede today.

This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.

Cheers, Mr Venerable.

The swallow represents each player character and the hall, earth, is the game. Souls in view for a moment and then obscured, though not necessarily obliterated. Unrest is a game that makes me think of Bede, of transience and loss. That’s partly because I’m a daft medieval literature wonk but it’s also because Unrest captures something of the lives of people rather than the bombast of heroes and protagonists. I find it hard to recommend because it is such a brief taste and because it’s very purpose seems to deny resolution or satisfaction.

I wish it were more literary or theatrical in its presentation and style, but perhaps that would distract from the aspects that I admire. A fair few people have reacted to the brevity and lack of resolution by suggesting that the game is unfinished but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. It may be a little rough but Unrest is deliberate in its approach to the idea of playing roles and even though I don’t entirely approve, I will defend to the death (or mild shouting) Pyrodactyl’s attempt to introduce new elements to the conversation.

Unrest is out now.

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41 Comments »

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  1. Durrok says:

    So is it fun to play? Did you enjoy your time with it? Would you play it again if you had the time to do so? Or is this more like an artsy indie film; Not fun to watch or very entertaining but makes you think.

    • domogrue says:

      He’d give it a 7/10

      • aliksy says:

        I dislike how you use a well known phrase in lieu of new humor or content.

    • rpsKman says:

      Wait for the DLC to make it complete.

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      Melody says:

      I haven’t played it, but judging from the review, if that’s the first question that comes to your mind it’s probably not for you.

      • MichaelGC says:

        I don’t think the first things that come into our minds in any given situation are always comprehensively indicative of our characters. Or really ever.

        • silentdan says:

          I don’t think the first things that come into our minds in any given situation are always comprehensively indicative of our characters. Or really ever.

          I can’t find the post where anyone said anything about comprehensively indicating character, but there is someone who seemed to be suggesting that one’s initial questions about a piece of art might predict the likelihood of the questioner’s enjoyment of that piece. I’m inclined to agree. If your first question about Great Expectations is “how many aerial combat scenes are featured?” then I’m gonna predict you won’t like the book. Gonna try not to infer anything about character from that, but with the example I used, that’s actually a bit of a struggle. Maybe Pacific Rim is a better example. If you ask, “is the writing really good?” I’m gonna predict you won’t like it.

          • MichaelGC says:

            Righto. It might not seem quite so clear-cut if you’d just finished telling me about Pacific Rim, my 2nd & 3rd questions were about how it felt to watch, and my final question was: “Are the fight scenes any good?”

  2. InternetBatman says:

    I backed Unrest on kickstarter, and finished it last night. I have to say the review is fairly accurate.

    It is short. The game could absolutely do with following several of the characters more than once, rather than just the princess. The peasant girl especially has a wonderful story that is finished by a line of dialogue from a later character. However, it is not unfinished. It very clearly has a set end in mind; I wish it took longer to reach that end, but it reaches the end satisfactorily. Adam is absolutely right, a framing device, even something as simple as a timeline, would help the transitions.

    It does do a really poor job of telegraphing which decisions matter and which ones don’t at the end. I can understand the thematic point of the ambiguity, but I think it does a bit of a disservice to the mechanics and narrative.

    The one area I disagree with him is the presentation. It definitely is low budget, but I found nothing particularly crude about it. The music is thematic and a nice change from uninspired Western epics. The graphics certainly don’t look like Pillars of eternity, but they are generally quite functional and do a good job guiding the player’s imagination to fill in the world.

    All in all, worth backing, but don’t think 60 hour or even 15 hour epic. This is a short game about characters caught in circumstances and reacting as best they can. I’ll leave with this, the game has a combat system that I never saw and never had to dodge because of my choices.

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    elderman says:

    I feel like there’s a bit of sentence missing in the first long paragraph after the break. It ends ” It’s the entire question of ” … of what?

    • MichaelGC says:

      There’s been a of that today. Either it’s ‘Miss Out a Word Day’ or they’re running low on scotch eggs.

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      welverin says:

      Looks to have been fixed, but from the description of the game it seems rather appropriate.

  4. Polifemo says:

    Everything you have described sounds to me like a more than worthwhile game/experience. Reading through the article I couldn’t help but feel that this game might be one of those that comes the closest to “art” (or an attempt) as it doesn’t seem to be made for indulgence. We could use more un-indulgent games.
    More “slice of life” games, games that don’t try allying and appealing to modern western societal rules and values (though it might be modern for indians, I wouldn’t know), and games that take “disempowerment” beyond the ability to whack someone else and apply it to more abstract things like society would be welcome too.
    I’ll definately buy this. Heres hoping for more games like this.

    • karthink says:

      I’ve been looking at the mediocre scores this game has received and the reasons for them. So far I’ve found “takes itself too seriously”, “is barely an RPG”, “has little combat”, and of course, variations of “your choices have very little impact”.

      The first comment in this thread begins by asking if the game is “fun” before asking the more relevant question of whether it is engaging.

      It’s being measured with a yardstick it’s not suited for, and I doubt we’re going to get many un-indulgent games while this practice continues.

      • Polifemo says:

        Eventually we will get more un-indulgent games as the medium evolves and matures, its just a matter of time.
        Theres enough groups of people out there pushing for smarter, un-indulgent games (people wanting to back Pathologic for example).
        We are still in the Charles Chaplin era of videogames. Its gonna be a while till we get Kubric and Orson Welles (not that there arent people trying) but that will come eventually, Im sure of it.
        I just hope we go the movie path instead of the comic book/graphic novel path.

      • InternetBatman says:

        All the issues that you’ve pointed out are appropriate, but poorly worded criticisms of the gameplay. Games tell stories with their systems as well as their dialogue, and the systems of this game are simple to a fault and obscured in ways that sometimes limit the narrative.

        That’s not to say it’s a bad experience, because I found it quite enjoyable, but it’s not exactly Alan Moore playing with layout and metastory level of competence. It is a rough game wrapped around and interesting narrative, not an experimental piece of superlative competence that pushes the boundaries of the medium.

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    Melody says:

    Great review, Adam, very clear and helpful. I’ll definitely get this.

    • Geebs says:

      It must have some qualities if it produced such an interesting WIT. I will take a look.

      Hmm, Bede wasn’t all that venerable: only made it to 62

      • GernauMorat says:

        Considering when he lived, its positively ancient

        • Geebs says:

          Not if you consider that the stats are biased by childhood mortality.

  6. Herkimer says:

    This game is So Sick! I love it more than a Six Layer Cake.

  7. FCA says:

    What is perhaps good to keep in mind is that the budget for this was less then 1% of the budget of the “big” Kickstarter games like Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity. Of course, for consumers, this is not a mitigating factor in deciding to buy, but it explains why the presentation might not appeal to some people.

    With respect to the budget, an interesting read is their brutally honest Kickstarter post-mortem.

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      kfix says:

      Thank you so much for linking to that – it’s a great insight into the indie dev life.

  8. gi_ty says:

    I’m very glad I backed this game, even though I am not a fan of the graphical presentation I do enjoy the writing and mechanics. I am happy that something like this can exist and tell its story.

  9. chesh says:

    This review seems like it is just as applicable to Dragon Age 2. Which I loved. So I should probably get this.

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      Arvind says:

      Whoa there, Unrest is nothing like Dragon Age 2!

    • magogjack says:

      Just how does it sound similar to Dragon Age 2??!!?

      • BehindYou!!! says:

        Not entirely sure but maybe he is talking about this –
        “Unrest allows players to explore their reactions to situations, whether those reactions be diplomatic or highly emotional. It doesn’t always reveal the aftermath of those reactions because – and this is only my interpretation – the world doesn’t accommodate every thought and feeling. History, even personal history, doesn’t adjust its flow simply because we don’t like where it’s taking us.”

  10. vivlo says:

    the art reminsd me of my youth’s catechism books.

  11. Nixitur says:

    Fun Fact: The writer of this game is Rutskarn who you might know from his site (he’s currently doing a retrospective of all the Elder Scrolls games) or Spoiler Warning, a “middle-brow commentary about video games”, as they call themselves, which I am a great fan of.

    Anyway, I was still sort of on the fence on whether to buy this or not, but this review definitely convinced me.

  12. charmed23 says:

    Interesting read, I’ll keep this bookmarked in case it gets any expansion