Remember the 90s? They were great, right? Saturday morning cartoons about things turning into other things, Big Willie Style, massive hair scrunchies. And, of course, full motion video, the technique of using live action video and inserting it into a game, ostensibly for high quality visuals but in general creating the effect that a real person's soul had become trapped in a machine and was trying to get out. Gradually FMV fell out of style, along with, I dunno, Hammer Pants or some other relatable cultural reference. Recently, though, it's been cropping up again - see last year's critical darling Her Story - and so we have arrived, neatly, at The Bunker, a game which I desperately wanted to write about. It isn't perfect, but it's really bloody interesting.
The Bunker doesn't just feature FMV, it is entirely live action. There aren't any computer generated effects at all. It would technically come under the banner of being an 'interactive movie', wherein your job as the player is to guide John, sole survivor in a nuclear bunker, through some technical mishaps and eventually his own mental breakdown. John is played by Adam Brown, who you may remember as That Dwarf Holding a Book the Entire Time from the Hobbit Trilogy. John was born 30 years before, as the bombs were dropping, and has spent his entire life in the bunker, which is a terrible prospect. One imagines growing up in the home counties already has some downsides, without having to factor in being some miles underneath one. In the first scene John is born; in the second it's 30 years later and his mother is coughing herself to death as John reads to her (you get to choose what), and after she dies he keeps her body in her room, shrouded in bedclothes. It's reasonable to describe John's life as a hot mess, except it seems to lack any substantial heating. He doesn't even warm up his daily tin of beans.
Brown does a lot of heavy lifting here (though supported incredibly well in other scenes by Grahame Fox as the no-nonsense commissioner of the bunker and Sarah Greene as Mrs Bates I mean John's mother). I don't know anyone who has spent most of their life in three rooms, never gone outside or seen flowers, and had only their mother to interact with since their early pubescence, but I'm pretty sure this is what they'd be like. John is quietly and carefully spoken in voice over until things in the bunker truly start going to shit, at which point he regresses to mewling, sobbing, panicking, and heavy breathing, and finding new wells of personal resolve beneath the same. It's a splendid performance that Brown should get extra credit for, not to mention the number of unflattering close ups he apparently agreed to.
The Bunker progresses with a mix of third and first person viewpoints, as John has to move through lower levels that he hasn't been to in years, with new areas triggering flashbacks to his childhood and some repressed memories of violence that he's kept locked away. As you go on you start to piece together, bit by bit, what happened to everyone else. It's been described as a 'psychological horror' game, and while I wouldn't agree that it's actually scary (and let's remember for context there that I screamed and hid my face in a let's play because I am even afraid of dolls), the bunker in The Bunker has a wonderfully tense and oppressive atmosphere, a) from filming it in an actual fallout bunker, and b) from making everything in it the same shade of Dulux Depressing Beige - even John - so it's all the same, the same the same the same for years of this unhappy man's unhappy life, every day eating a tin of beans and reading to his dead mum in a giant underground coffin. You can find secrets. Records of arguments from long ago. Carved wooden toys that John made as a child and left in different rooms. The Bunker is mostly dark and quiet, except for when it's not: blaring sirens, John's loud breathing, and bass heavy music keying up to announce that now is the time to feel uneasy. The story doesn't end how you'd expect.
What lets The Bunker down is the restrictions of live-action-meets-interactive game making. From the player point of view it's essentially a point and click adventure, where you have solve simple puzzles and do the right things in the right order, nothing so complex that it couldn't be recorded on film: picking up objects rather than solving a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes the first person perspective clashes with the confined environment, as John's arm opens a door in front of you at such an angle that it's clear Brown was standing uncomfortably off to one side and craning his shoulder around. There are times when the transition from John not doing to doing something makes his movements stiff and jerky, like a robot that suddenly boots up and realises it needs to open that door bloody double quick, which instills it with a bit of the uncanny valley even though logically that shouldn't even have been a thing because Brown is a real person. Unless he was developed by Weta specifically for Peter Jackson. That seems unlikely though.
Her Story found a way to work around these limitations that The Bunker has not (i.e. framing the live action video as being pre recorded interviews, rather than as you talking to a real woman and thus having to loop an idling animation for her while waiting for the idiot player, as if it she were a gif of a pug climbing a flight of stairs). The Bunker does so many things right that even for its faults I would love to see more dark, tragic, interesting, human stories explored like this, and pushing the idea of an interactive movie in different directions. If you've got an afternoon then there are worse ways to spend it than locking yourself in The Bunker with John. You might need a cup of tea and a walk afterwards, though.
Version tested: PS4