We knew that sooner or later this moment would come; the moment when cinema and video games found a point of contact to combine for an interesting hybrid. It's not surprising that this meeting point has been found within a genre that naturally fits around both genres; the so-called interactive adventure.
Just last year we praised an experimental game called Her Story, a crime-themed adventure game developed by Sam Barlow (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories), which uses the found footage technique and real actors to create an intriguing and plausible plot where the player's task was to reconstruct the dynamics of a murder and uncover the truth behind the narrative. The game was a revelation and certainly laid the groundwork for a new frontier in which the use of live action and cinematic style would be increasingly important in the gaming industry.
The Bunker, developed by Splendy Games (and in collaboration with Wales Interactive and Last Chance Films), is a product of that heritage, trying to pursue a more ambitious direction by creating a video game (and here the word "video" is vital) in which, from the first to the last frame, the whole experience is entirely filmed like a motion picture. Thanks to the excellent performances of Adam Brown (The Hobbit), Sarah Greene (Penny Dreadful) and Grahame Fox (Game of Thrones), and an impressive setting in a real underground nuclear facility in Essex, The Bunker proves to be a unique experience that has intrigued us since we saw the first trailer. At the same time, however, it left us with some questions.
The Bunker tells the story of John, a lone survivor in a nuclear bunker where the daily routine is his only lifeline for his mental health. When an alarm inside the structure suddenly starts ringing, however, his mind starts to self destruct. Forced to venture out of his room, John has to explore deeper into the various levels of the bunker, reliving some long suppressed memories and bringing to light some dark secrets that he kept locked within for many years.
The plot of The Bunker has some good starting points that invite and urge the player to take the erratic journey through this disturbing and uninhabited structure. With a setup not dissimilar to Dante Alighieri's Inferno, John is forced to descend in the "underworld" of the bunker, level by level, trying in every way possible to switch the alarm off. The player is tasked with solving sporadic and simplistic puzzles, finding the objects needed to progress, searching out collectibles as well as making narrative choices that will be decisive come the conclusion.
In two hours (a bit more if you want to search for all the collectibles), the experience is continuously peppered with fascinating flashbacks of John's life as a young boy in the bunker, where, little by little, the player is put in front of atrocious truths and disturbing secrets until the end, an end characterised by an impressive twist. Narrative-wise, the work done here is masterful, thanks to the spectacular portrayal of the main characters, allowing the player to immerse themselves in the stories being told. The live action technique in particular allows a strong sense of identification and empathy with all the characters. Clue after clue, memory after memory, the player finds themselves literally shackled and at the mercy of events which will lead them to a different perspective on the various relationships between the characters, and there are some incredible surprises along the way.
However, it's here that we find the weakest aspect of The Bunker: the fact that it's not strictly speaking a game. Although the studio attempts to add gameplay by having players interacting with and collecting objects in order to discover more gory details about the plot, we find it difficult to define it as a video game in the broadest sense; it lacks that certain level of participation from the player. Simply clicking on objects or interacting with the events doesn't gel with our preconception of what a video game is.
Here the player is no more than a spectator to events, where participation is reduced to a minimum. It's not our role to open a debate on this subject that increasingly animates discussion forums, but we believe it's more appropriate to define The Bunker as interactive entertainment, which mixes cinematic elements and, to a lesser extent, video game elements. It sits on the other side of the increasingly blurred line as another game we recently review, Virginia, but where that was game first and cinematic exploration second, this is coming from the opposite direction.
That said, The Bunker proves a fascinating and at times overwhelming experience. From a narrative and thematic point of view it's uniquely superb, supported by the brilliant performances of a formidable cast and an ambitious and intriguing directing style. From the gameplay point of view, however, it brings with it many questions and an element of doubt. The Bunker is still most certainly worth a look, especially if you are a big fan of the genre and you love stylistically and artistically well-done narrative titles.