2016's Best Use of FMV? Maybe.
Disclosure: An Xbox One download code was provided by the publisher for this review
Psychological horror plus FMV is not a combination that immediately seems like a good idea - the horror relies on instilling a feeling of tension and anxiety in the player, and the hammy, campy tendencies of many FMV games would undercut that in an instant. Fortunately, The Bunker plays it straight and handles its narrative well, and it joins a growing set of titles, such as Contradiction, that can be considered great modern FMV games. Sharp writing, superb acting, and excellent cinematography come together to form a compelling experience.
The Bunker stars Adam Brown as John, the sole remaining inhabitant of a British nuclear bunker. Born in the bunker in 1986, John has spent 30 years since the bombs were dropped living in the bunker, and knows no life but this. The game quickly establishes that John sticks rigidly to the rules and his routine - taking his vitamins, scanning the radio, and the like - despite being the sole survivor of the bunker. When an alarm is triggered some days after the player has started to experience this routine, John struggles to cope. Through flashbacks triggered as he attempts to salvage the bunker's life support systems, he realises the true nature of the bunker and its history. The story is entirely told through FMV scenes, and the game is mechanically a reasonable simple point-and-click adventure game.
From such a setup, it is easy to start thinking of clichéd story tropes that could follow, such as John not actually being alone in the bunker, or that he has been left behind after the resolution of the war. The game's writing toys with these ideas in a interesting way, with the flashbacks often hinting that one or more of these obvious stories is the entirety of what is going on. The way it continually hinted towards ideas, then contradicted or suggested something else was afoot, kept me guessing right up until the end of the game, and built a sense of tension as I could never really feel sure of myself. This neatly mirrored the experience that John was having as he had more flashbacks, slowly piecing together and remembering the history of the bunker. This narrative comes together in a convincing, yet unexpected, way - there's enough subtle foreshadowing that the resolution doesn't feel like it came out of nowhere, but avoids tipping its hand early and revealing key details before John would know them. Overall, The Bunker is a sharply written piece of fiction.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Bunker is quality of John's characterisation. Through lengthy portions of the game, John is alone, and, aside from internal thoughts that guide the player to some extent, says very little. Despite this, the game quickly establishes who John is, and how he is feeling. The Bunker shows his daily routine for three days or so, showing that he is highly regimented and does not deviate from a pre-planned schedule. When the alarm is triggered, the shift in Brown's body language is immediately apparent, and conveys a palpable and believable sense of anxiety. It is an terrific piece of acting, and this continues through the remainder of the game. A later scene shows John making a maintenance announcement over the tannoy despite the bunker being empty. This reinforces John's meticulous, routine-driven nature, and despite being such an odd thing to do, Brown makes it seem completely nature. Brown is joined by an equally convincing supporting cast; coupled with the excellent cinematography, I would readily believe that the scenes were taken from a BBC drama, as the overall quality is certainly comparable. Despite their limited screen time, John's mother (Sarah Greene) and the bunker's commissioner (Grahame Fox) in particular are nuanced characters that evolve over the course of the game in interesting ways.
One complaint that could be made against the game is that it is extremely linear, with there being little to no player choice in how the story unfolds and the interactivity being limited to merely triggering the next scene. I'd tend to disagree with this view, as The Bunker is good at adding optional flavour to the world, such as inhabitant logs stored on a Commodore computer. There's no reason that these things must be included to serve the narrative, but build the world and reward the, admittedly limited, exploration. Most of these items are voice acted, and go a long way to establishing how the bunker was when it was fully inhabited. A dairy entry from a young John really stood out; "We had ham today. It's sort of pink and sticky" is great illustration of the limited life experiences to which John has had access, and how even the mundane can seem strange and unpleasant. Furthermore, the interactive nature does just enough to feel engaging, and raises the tension beyond what a non-interactive movie could provide - if I hesitate, John hesitates, for instance. I'd likely to have seen this branch the narrative a little more, as merely starting a scene over immediately if I fail to act is somewhat immersion breaking, but I didn't think this to be a huge problem with the game.
Unfortunately I did encounter some technical hiccups along the way, which prevented the experience from being as smooth as I would like. When I received the review code for the game, it was noted that there was an issue with the Xbox One version causing it to occasionally crash, but that a launch day patch would resolve the issue. For this reason, I waited until after the full release to play the game, but the game still crashed twice during the three or so hours it took me to play through it, each time requiring me to repeat a couple of minutes of play. This wasn't a major issue, as the game is good about auto-saving, and some of the repeated tasks could probably have been safely skipped, but breaking out of the game suddenly did mar the experience to some degree. There was a couple of occasions where the audio skipped or stuttered briefly, though this was rare and generally the game performed well. It should be noted that the Xbox One I was using is in the Xbox Preview program, which may have contributed to the instability, but I have not experienced these issues with other games.
Also, towards the end of the game, there are a couple of quick time events that did not feel particularly great. The first was partly my fault - I glanced away from the screen to check the time, and in that brief moment missed an unexpected QTE. This would have been fine - I should have been paying more attention - but the game reset me to two or three minutes prior which felt unnecessarily long as those minutes were mostly filled with solving a basic environmental puzzle. The second was a button mashing event, and I failed on the first time despite starting almost immediately and trying reasonably hard. It's narratively justified that this event would not be an easy task for John, but it felt rather out of place as all previous button mashing was almost trivial and largely without consequence. A slightly longer window on this event may have been better. As with the technical issues, this are fairly minor issues, and it is certainly possible to get through the game without encountering them.
Overall though, The Bunker is an excellent game, and one that I'd glad to have played. The cast performances are terrific, the writing is sharp, and the mechanics are sufficient for the story it sets out to tell. It is a great example that FMV games don't have to be over the top and campy (as fun as that can be) to be compelling, and is a great example of this style of game.