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Wot I Think: Unrest

Lifestyles of the niche and the aimless

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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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Adam Smith

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