by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Donít Go in There!
The interactive video genre is one I never knew I needed until I played my first one, also published by The Complexís publisher/developer Wales Interactive, a few years ago. These interactive movies, made more popular by Netflixís The Bandersnatch, ask viewers to make choices to influence whatís happening on-screen. Not really a game in any traditional sense, all there is to do is enjoy the show and steer things in whichever direction youíd like. In other words, if youíre one of those people that canít help but yell ďdonít go in there!Ē every time a film character makes a dumb decision, these types of experiences are your chance to prove that you really could do it better.
Most of The Complex takes place in the titular building, a medical science research facility in which Dr. Amy Tenant has recently developed nanotech technology. Unfortunately for her, the master vial has been stolen, and itís up to her and her old partner to enter the underground lab and figure out whatís going. Things go even more poorly from there when Dr. Tenant and the others in the lab are locked down as terrorist sleeper cells in the organization attempt to break in and steal the nanotech for themselves. Will the team survive? Will the nanotech, which functions like a contagious disease when in the body, make it out of the lab and infect the world? Will the wrong-doers face justice for what theyíve done? Will you appreciate the coincidence of a story about illness, doctors, and forced quarantine coming out right now? Well, thatís all up to you!
Depth and Flow
From a technical perspective, The Complex is incredibly well done. The sets, sounds, and cinematography are pretty equal with what one would expect from a modern network soft-sci-fi show. The writers and cast deserve particular praise as each of the handful of characters are brought to life with satisfying charisma and depth. In choose-your-own-adventure stories like this, itís all too common to have characters making decisions and saying things that seem a bit out of left field, but here everything fits together well and flows. Amongst the four or five major characters in the story, I was also happy that there wasnít a cookie-cutter in the bunch. While all of them seem like cliches at the beginning (the beautiful-yet-brilliant doctor, the affable wise-cracking partner, the edgy infiltrator, etc.) each one ends up being a complex blend of motivations and backgrounds that allow for more emotional gravitas as they make decisions and decisions are made for them.
Itís not just the characters that flow, either. Of all the interactive movies Iíve played, this is the one with the cleanest editing, too. Thereís little that takes me out of a narrative experience like this as much as awkward camera cuts, unnatural pauses while the player makes choices, or jumps and skips in dialogue, but I didnít run into a single editing issue in any of my playthroughs. In fact, my only gripe at all as far as the presentation goes is that one area - the huge empty vacuumed chamber outside of the lab that the antagonists are trying to break through - is put together with fairly shoddy and obvious CGI. All of the other sets are practical and supported by effectively rendered digital screens and the like, but, whenever this room is shown, itís painfully obvious that the actors are green-screened in. The whole thing seems extra silly given that there was no narrative reason for the security vacuum to be so large and challenging to film practically. A series of smaller rooms would have accomplished the exact same thing. In the grand scheme of the experience, though, this isnít an area thatís shown much, and it only minimally affected my opinion of the gameís stellar production qualities.
While the experience would work well even as a passive viewing experience, the decisions finely walk the line between being narratively affecting but not so wide-reaching that they destroy the narrative. Decisions come every minute or two, and The Complex doesnít waste time getting to the heavy hitters as youíre immediately asked to choose which of two dying patients to save. While this particular decision doesnít have any narrative impact, itís a sign of things to come. Some decisions donít carry narrative weight, but instead shape the kind of person you want doctor Tenant to be. Is she caring? Intelligent? Cold? Honest? A habitual liar? While the specific decisions that lead to this personality being developed might not directly impact where the story goes, their overall cumulative effect does. Certain conversation options, narrative branches, and endings are dependent on Tenantís personality and the relationships sheís developed with the storyís characters. While I preferred to play without looking at it, thereís even a handy stat sheet in the pause menu that lets you check how the game has interpreted the character traits behind your decisions and how much everyone likes you.
Bigger, more obvious cause-and-effect decisions are there too, and there are some very big ones towards the end of the game that drastically change how things wrap up. In my first playthrough, I happened to get what I assume to be one of the more positive endings, and, unsurprisingly, in my second playthrough I made complete opposite decisions and ended up with something much less optimistic. To help you satiate your curiosity about what might have happened if youíd made different decisions, The Complex lets you skip any scenes youíve already seen with a press of the tab key. While I donít recommend doing so for a full playthrough as rushing past chunks of the story, even if youíve already seen them, robs the experience of any momentum or tension, itís a handy feature for checking out the results of specific interactions and choices.
With cinemas closed and most everyone hunkered down at home, The Complexís hybrid interactive movie experience might be just what the doctor ordered to remedy your cabin fever. Whether you play it by yourself or navigate via decision by committee with some friends, thereís something to be enjoyed here by everyone. In my mind, Wales Interactive has earned itself a reputation for being the bar to be measured by in the interactive movie genre, and I canít wait to see where they go with it next.
Engaging story, interesting characters, fluid branching presentation, great production values.
A few scenes with noticeably poor CGI.