One of my favorite trends in video games today, is the ‘one-sitting’, narrative-driven adventure games, which have a more experimental approach to gameplay and story, and are meant to be played through in one-go. These are usually low-costing, highly focused games, trying to deliver a poignant story, like Quarantine Circular, a game I’ve been meaning to play since it released and only got round to completing it recently.
The reason I’ve been waiting for this game is twofold: first, it’s the ‘sequel’ to Subsurface Circular by Bithell Games, which was a critical and financial success, as well as a standout from last year for me. Second, since it was never announced, I just assumed it would happen due to the success of Subsurface, I was thrilled to see that it existed and released very quietly, which got me excited and full of anticipation. To that point, I got exactly what I expected: A game that works on the same engine as Subsurface and has very similar features, with only a few mechanical additions and a new narrative to further the ‘experiment’. In fact, for those who have played Subsurface Circular, the common features are immediately apparent; similar art style, similar text-driven narrative, similar game mechanics and similar music. However, even if both games are in the same universe, there are a few key differences: Firstly, you don’t need to play Subsurface Circular to enjoy Quarantine Circular, although there are a few nods to Subsurface and the events of that game. Secondly, the mechanics, assets and design may be very similar-practically identical- but the context, story and the way they are used are very different. The story is about humans, who are on the brink of extinction due to a disease, and their discovery-in the midst of this disease- of the existence of extra-terrestrial life and it’s ‘visit’ to earth, thus the story is more focused on philosophical and contemplative sci-fi, as well as a central mystery to glue everything together. This change manifests itself in gameplay terms as well; there are still focus points, and a few text-driven puzzles, but Bithell Games furthers what the mechanics can do by introducing decision-driven meters and multiple protagonists in a linear sequence of vignettes. This means that puzzles are more impactful and mixed into the story, allowing your decisions to guide the story; from choosing who is present or not in a vital discussion, to having to gain the trust of a character through your dialogue decisions, the gameplay is more ‘impactful’ in Quarantine Circular, and as a proof of concept, it works excellently. There were several interesting consequences in my playthrough and difficult decisions to make, especially when the game decided to shift playable characters and let you make decisions from their perspective. Unfortunately, while the story of Subsurface Circular was a joy to go through, the story Quarantine Circular is…fine. I wasn’t really invested in the story or the mystery (even though they are interesting), the characters were average-some better than others, but none were anything special or intriguing-, and the world was uninspired; that’s not to say that the game is bad. The contemplative writing was excellent and thought-provoking, but even though the story, characters and world are worth the two-hour playthrough, I expected/wanted more from the sequel to Subsurface Circular and it falls a bit short. It’s not as memorable, funny and interesting as the first, thus in a way, Quarantine Circular is what I expected from an “experimental-short’; an interesting mechanical twist, with some average presentation features and an interesting story that I should not expect a lot out of.
That’s Quarantine Circular in a nutshell! The low price and high quality of writing and mechanics make it a ‘no-brainer’ purchase; low-risk, high reward. Removing monetary values though, I’m not as satisfied or excited by Quarantine, as I was with Subsurface, but that is personal tastes! Hopefully, Quarantine does well enough and Bithell Games takes what they have learned from these two shorts, into another one that furthers the concept even more, or even better, produces a full-blown sequel with the budget and time of a ‘normal’ game; I would be first in line, if they decide to do so.