Did you know that John Hurt made an interactive erotic thriller called Tender Loving Care 22 years ago? It was a movie about a worried husband who hires a beautiful psychiatrist to nurse his delusional wife and help her deal with the death of their child in a car accident. No? Well, I wouldn’t blame you – it wasn’t really an interactive movie at all, as opposed to a collection of FMV segments interspersed with a series of tests for the viewer to partake in. Quite literally, your DVD player become a psychiatrist to you, progressively accumulating a personal psychological profile of the viewer. Who needs Rorschach tests when you have John Hurt secretly performing the Voight-Kamphh test on you?
We’ve come a long way since then, and with the 2018 Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch,’ the interactive film is clawing its way back into the public consciousness. Wales Interactive are doing a great job at the moment of rebirthing the genre and running with it, and their growing collection of stories revolving around this mechanic is not something to be sniffed at. The Bunker, The Shapeshifting Detective and Late Shift have all incorporated the plan of blurring the lines between film and games, but can their latest offering, The Complex, push the genre into the mainstream?
For those unfamiliar with the genre, FMV games are pretty much the video game equivalent of the Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy books, where you’d read to the end of the page and then based on multiple choices control the destination of the character. The aim was to make the reader feel like they were directly in control of the main protagonists fate, and sometimes this would end in triumph or tragedy. But mostly tragedy, as more often than not there would only be one clear path to having the true ending, so you would spend countless hours flicking back and forth between pages if you found yourself making a wrong decision. In live-action video form, this gives you the feeling of being the director, and in Late Shift for example, your decisions influenced the protagonist’s personality, so you could make him a shy wussy boy, or a blood-thirsty uber-criminal who gets right into the thick of the action.
The Complex starts off in South East Asia, where we meet Dr. Amy Tenant and Dr. Wakefield. Treating the victims of a chemical attack in the totalitarian state of Kindar, we’re presented with our first moral dilemma. There are two patients in the tent, one a pregnant woman and one a young boy. They both go into anaphylactic shock but we only have one vial of magic nano cell treatment that will save their life. Dr. Wakefield skedaddles and leaves Amy to deal with the life changing decision by herself. We skip five years later and now in London, Dr. Tenant is giving a presentation to gather funding for her nano cell technology, that will regrow bones and treat wounds. Anyone who’s played Metal Gear will be instantly familiar with the nano cell tech babble on display here. During her speech however, news breaks of a member of staff falling ill on the underground, and it appears that some of the scientific advancements that have been researched in the labs has gotten out. Reluctantly reuniting with the doctor that deserted her five years previous, Amy becomes trapped in the impenetrable HQ of laboratories and must find a way to save the dying girl, the cowardly Dr. Wakefield and herself.
In a strange way, the release of The Complex couldn’t have come out at more surreal time – with everyone in lockdown at the moment watching films on Netflix like Outbreak and Pandemic, the scene of the young girl vomiting blood on a train carriage resonated with an ominous and eerie real-world potency, so for those that want to continue devouring all the post-apocalyptic and virus outbreak type shenanigans, The Complex would be a nice addition to the catalogue.
The Complex is written by Lynn Renee Maxcy, part of the Emmy award-winning writing team from The Handmaid’s Tale. For the most part, certain scenarios that Dr. Amy Tenant faces seem well constructed – and some of the choices that you make throughout the game may seem arbitrary or trivial (when a colleague gets knifed in the leg, for example, you can either tell him a joke or slap him in order to distract him from taking out the knife) other decisions seem a little random. In one instance, Amy has a choice to get past a vent cover. The two options available are using a microscope, which would be crude, or using a scalpel, which would be the delicate option. Thinking that the scalpel would be too obvious, I was intrigued to find out how the microscope option would pan out – and thinking that it wouldn’t work, Amy proceeds to bash the vent cover with the microscope until it breaks away. Oh.
Perhaps the other option would have created a branching pathway that led me elsewhere or caused my relationship to strengthen with one of the other characters, but I honestly couldn’t see how this would. Yes, apparently your decisions made throughout the duration of the game will have a knock-on effect to the other characters. The Complex boasts of using a Relationship Tracker, so depending on interactions you make throughout the game other characters will allegedly trust you or become suspicious of you. The relationship scores are calculated from the start right through to the very end and will affect certain scenarios as well as having major consequences in the concluding scenes – however I get the impression that this is mainly superficial icing on the cake rather than a fundamental game mechanic. A similar effect was created in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The developers wanted players to feel like they had the illusion of choice. With Amnesia, The Insanity mechanic is probably the most criticized element of the game. It had been frequently touted as superfluous, simplistic, as an idea that had potential but was never satisfactorily explored. In some ways, these critics were correct. You see, in the game the insanity meter didn’t really matter in the end, the elevation of your insanity level couldn’t kill you; nor was there any way to bring it back down. When your insanity reaches its zenith in-game, a short-scripted sequence is triggered where the player character falls over, breathes loudly, and experiences distorted vision. If a monster is nearby, it may be attracted by the noise you make, but if not, the player rises to his feet in short order, with some sanity recovered and no other consequences imposed. It is easy to see why some thought the whole thing pointless. But it added to the tension of the game, and I have the feeling that this could be the same for The Complex. I mean, I could be completely wrong, I got one of the bad endings of the game, so perhaps taking the crude, callous choices throughout wasn’t the smartest of plans.
Whereas Late Shift’s production value was somewhere between a TV movie and a B movie, The Complex aims high with an independent vibe. Granted, most of the action takes place in the lab and it’s by no means an all-star cast – but a lot of acting can be quite stiff and unbelievable in these types of interactive movies, but the acting on show here is slick and does well to aid the escapism. Some of the greenscreen effects and CGI on display are a little obvious and pulls you out of the drama unfolding, but the choices you make and the pacing seem to add together to form a complete and satisfying narrative each time, with the scenes interchanging seamlessly.
Thanks to the interactive technology, Dr. Tenant’s fate is in your hands, so you’ll always want to keep those hands near your mouse or controller. Each decision must be made in mere seconds, and those choices could mean the difference between life or death for those on-screen. Personally, I would have liked to have just a couple more seconds for the decision making process, as I think I was so engrossed in the events unfolding that a few choices were made for me because I didn’t get to my mouse in time, but overall I had an enjoyable time with Wales Interactive’s The Complex. I know that there’s an toggle to pause the choice option for improved audience participation during live streams, but in my opinion this would have cut the tension of the drama and I’m a fan of having that ‘cut the red wire or blue wire’ mentality.
My first run through clocked in over an hour and twenty minutes, but the beauty in its length is to encourage replayability. There are supposedly eight different endings, some good and some bad. I’m the type of person that needs a while to have the experience marinate before I head back in and re-watch the same cutscenes again, so for now I’ll have to accept my lacklustre ending. But I guess that’s really the main point here: Do you want to play a game or be told a story? For the completionists amongst us, I guess it’ll be the former. I may wait another week or two before revisiting Dr. Amy Tenant’s lab of nano cells to try and get the best ending possible.
You may not be a fan of the interactive movie on display here, but respect must be paid to Wales Interactive for continually improving the FMV genre and breaking new ground with the technology available to us at the time of reviewing. I hope their next effort is as bold as The Complex and leads the way for the next resurgence of this type of gaming format.
Review by Anthony Self
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