Wot I Think: The Bunker
Somewhere there exists a line that marks the point where FMV releases switch between clicking on a film to make it keep playing, and being a meaningful game. The Bunker [official site] is way, way over to the left of that line - it can barely be bothered to ask you to click. Here's wot I think:
The Bunker is an absolutely dreadful game. It requires nothing of the player beyond being able to click on a dot reasonably fast on a few occasions, offers one mayfly puzzle, no challenges, and literally one moment of choice in its two hours. Still though, it’s a TV show I’d watch.
Set in an alternative world version of Britain where nuclear war broke out in the mid-80s, there’s an immediate and obvious influence from the utterly soul-destroying and devastatingly incredible Threads. Beginning with the birth of your character, John, deep underground in a busy nuclear bunker, the action quickly leaps ahead 30 years with the death of John’s mother, Margaret (Sarah Greene, Penny Dreadful). And things seem an awful lot quieter. John (Adam Brown, The Hobbit), an infantilised and clearly disturbed man, has been living in a set routine for many years, and following his mother’s death continues to follow it for (presumably) months. Take his vitamins, check his radiation levels, check the radio for signals, run a bunker system diagnostic on the Amstrad in his room, eat, and read to his mum. Yes, the last one.
It unfortunately does not have the courage of its convictions from the very first moment you have control. In depicting the monotonous loop of John’s life, you play through the checklist of his daily routine in full only once. The next day it already begins skipping sections, and the flying-by third day has the inevitable things-go-wrong arrive already. To have been forced to repeat his routine at the very least twice might have given some emphasis to how long he’s been going through this, shown us his burden. This is a broken man, born and raised in a sunless concrete shell, and yet it rushes things so fast as to forget to give this any pathos.
For a game bordering on offering absolutely nothing to do, it’s frantic with its need to prompt you to click on the only thing there is to click on in the early scenes. Before you’ve even been able to take in the view in front of you, your character’s voice can have stated his immediate goal twice as if worried you’re unsure of whether to press on the white dot or sit still and stare until you turn into a cobwebbed skellington. It wants to impress a sense of urgency, I guess, but apparently hasn’t noticed that the only interactive element it offers is waving your mouse cursor around to find the hotspots in any scene.
And it never develops. You really are, as the player, doing nothing other than pressing an obfuscated “next” button on the movie-length, well, movie. On the four or five occasions it asks you to incongruously pummel your mouse button to fill a bar, or the smattering of times you have to click on a white dot before a timer runs out, if you fail it mumbles some hackneyed rubbish about “that’s not what happened”, and then takes you improbably far back in the story and makes you watch the unskippable, non-interactive scenes all over again until you catch up with that spot. (I only found this out because I didn’t click on one to see if it would make a difference, and later had taken my hand away from the mouse entirely since it had been so long since I’d been involved.) In the final minute of the game you get to make a binary choice. That’s it.
It’s been released as a game, and so I’m reviewing it as such, and it deserves the kicking it’s getting. Which is all the more frustrating when it’s fantastically well shot, contains a splendid cast and a quality of acting FMV gaming has never seen before. And, until its desperately expository ending (it’s frantic that no one should fail to understand what happened, spelling it out like a primary school lesson), it’s compelling and creepy and haunting.
It’s also appealingly gross in places, some lovely garish gore, and a completely brutal bone-splintering scene had me wincing in my chair. There’s a half-hour run that’s pretty unrelentingly bleak, when it’s at its most 1970s macabre BBC drama, and it was great stuff. I kept thinking, “I’d watch the hell out of this series!” before remembering I had to click next when the scene became oddly slow for a bit.
Much of the action is told in flashback, allowing the bunker to be filled with characters and arguments and worries about provisions, a delightfully Charles-Dance-ish Grahame Fox as the bunker’s Commissioner proving especially enjoyable. The only weak point is John’s voice, which isn’t recorded in situ but rather put over later as a laconic internal monologue, and the result just doesn’t work. His facial acting is commanding and compelling, a sort of de-wacky-ified Matt Smith, managing to appear both childishly naive and utterly, morbidly destroyed at once, contradicted by the dull, lifeless narrating that never quite fits the mood.
The only weak point in the acting, I stress. Good grief, as a game it’s only weak points, and it’s bewildering that quite so little went in to giving the player a role. That there is a single puzzle in there, albeit a very overused one involving a keypad, demonstrates that it was possible to do it with the tech. But after one they just didn’t bother with any more. They went to so much effort, filmed such a great pile of footage, chose such spectacular locations to shoot, and then went, “Uh, have them click on a white dot now and then I guess.”
I’m not enormously impressed to see that the game is using quotes from previews as “reviews” on its Steam store page, because, well, that’s lying. £14 is a lot for two hours, and as I think I’ve perhaps covered above, it’s an abysmal game. The Welshest game I've ever played, but still abysmal. Great TV show for the most part, but one that keeps annoying your viewing pleasure by asking you to click on a dot. Graphics are amazing, though!
The Bunker is out now on Steam and Green Man Gaming for around £14.