Quarantine Circular (Bithell Games)

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Quarantine Circular is not a sequel to Subsurface Circular, but is very much an extension of the same core concept: a dialogue-driven game with dialogue menu and topic inventory, plus a lot of polish. In a few select places the topic inventories even allow you to combine concepts, constructing questions with multiple facets.

It’s less puzzle focused than Subsurface Circular, though, and more ambitious in the way it simulates social circumstances. You’re often talking to multiple parties at once, and things that please one character may irritate another in the same conversation. The story is less linear, as well: there’s more room to make choices early in the interaction that may have some long term effects. Meanwhile, the handling of the protagonist has shifted. Subsurface Circular has the player play a single character. In Quarantine, you take on several different viewpoint characters — though you may have limited access to those characters’ true understanding and motivation.

So mechanically, this has a lot of features that appeal to me — more than the original did. But that meant shifting more focus onto the fiction, and that didn’t bear up quite as well as I would have liked.


The story involves an alien who has recently arrived on a plague-ridden earth, and whether the various protagonists — doctors, military people, security officers, et al — are willing to trust it.

The world building is a preach-fest. The plague results from overuse of antibiotics, thanks to the poor medical decision-making of our current era. Moreover, it’s waterborne, so flooding exacerbates it, which means that global warming leads to rising sea levels which lead to flooding which leads to the plague being worse. Furthermore, there’s recently been a war between England and the rest of Europe (thanks Brexit!). I don’t really take exception to any of these possible storylines, but the characters spend an awful lot of time talking about how stupid their ancestors were, and after a certain point I started growling “yes, I get it, but I didn’t vote for that, thanks” at the screen.

But the bigger sin for a dialogue-driven game: the dialogue didn’t always seem to know what it was trying to accomplish. In Subsurface Circular, things were sometimes not very realistic, but that’s because they were clearly in service of puzzles, there was pretty much one puzzle going on at a time, and there was always a direction to the interaction.

In Quarantine Circular, the puzzles are absent and the story is trying for greater realism, but the scenes aren’t framed around particular stakes or objectives. The player is still given goals, but those can be tellingly weak: “find out as much as you can before being kicked out of the room,” for instance, or “hear X’s opinion.” Frequently conversation goes in circles, characters reiterating ground they’ve already covered or arguing without introducing any new information. At one point, one character calls out another for monologuing pointlessly when there’s a critical time limit on their actions. When you find your own characters complaining about the conversation flow — that it’s melodramatic, implausible, or boring — it’s time to rewrite the dialogue.

At other points, characters make dramatic shifts of trust without any clear motivation. Imagine this. An alien has landed on your planet, the first alien you’ve ever seen. It looks very scary. It has given no rational explanation for why it’s here or what it wants. It’s refused to speak to you in detail. Worse, you believe it’s responsible for the plague on your planet and that it’s in the middle of carrying out a plan to weaken humanity and invade the Earth. You’ve ignored its first couple assertions of good intent, and you’re inclined to regard everything it says as a lie.

But now it tells you a third time that it’s come in peace. It offers no more information or evidence than the last several times it said this. However, this time, you are convinced! In fact, you apologize for not trusting it before!

Why?

My best guess is that it’s “because the author needed that to happen and hadn’t come up with a better way to make that transition.” Perhaps the outline said there was a scene where the alien convinces this character, but it didn’t say how.

Figuring out those transitions is a big part of what writing is. Not just coming up with some words, but figuring out the underlying emotional logic, the stakes, the structure. Often it’s about defining the opening situation well enough, with enough conflict, that the interaction has somewhere to go. What does each character want, and what resources do they have in play?

Having a single sentence explanation of your plot hook is not just a marketing point, it’s evidence that there’s enough energy in your premise. Quarantine Circular doesn’t, quite. “An alien lands on a plague-ridden earth and offers to help, but it is physically very large and therefore a bit scary”? There’s just not quite enough there. It turns out very late in the story that one of the characters has slightly more cause for distrust, maybe, but that critical fact is held back well past the point where it logically should have been revealed.

Directionless dialogue isn’t all that common in AAA-sized games — there’s usually a lot of pressure to keep conversation sequences compact, and often dialogue there is challenged by having too much to accomplish, rather than too little. But lack of direction is rapidly becoming one of my biggest peeves with indie and hobbyist conversation games that are trying to explore exactly the kind of territory I’m interested in.

It’s great to have space and creative freedom to try out character interaction as the main mechanic of a game! But that doesn’t remove the need for clear stakes and motives. You can give me any number of options about what to say to a character, but they’re going to be the most satisfying if those options are loaded.

In Quarantine Circular, the initial concept does have a lot of implied danger — first alien contact is a classic premise for exactly that reason. We’d like to believe the alien has come in peace and is going to open the mysteries of the universe to us, but it might also be here with the intent and the ability to destroy all humanity. But the writing leans away from that rather than into it. Characters under-react to significant revelations. They take too long to put their concerns out in the open. They threaten each other half a dozen times before they get to an actual showdown.

A handful of times, the systemic aspects of Quarantine Circular do help, providing goals and tension that the writing did not supply on its own. In my first interaction with the alien, I’ve got a status bar indicating how much it trusts me, and I wound up removing its restraining bolt simply because I wanted to see that status bar go up. You could say that that was anti-fictional, or you could say that the mechanic actually represented something about the protagonist in the first scene — his eagerness to please, his desire to establish rapport, the fact that connection matters more to him than fear. Shortly thereafter, in a dialogue with multiple characters, I find that dialogue that raises trust with one character lowers the patience of another: again, a mechanical way to signal a valid fictional tension.

But not all of the scenes are structured this way, and some of them feel quite floppy and loose. A couple of the later scenes introduce puzzles that are genuinely a bad idea: at one point you can get into a sort of wordplay parlor game with the alien. This makes no sense from a plot perspective — you’ve got critical tasks and limited time and the fate of your ship and humanity as a whole rests in the balance, so this is just not the moment for such behavior. And it doesn’t work to structure and drive the scene, either. The point of the overall scene is something completely different.

It’s probably a bit unfair to unload my full frustration about this just on Quarantine Circular. It’s not the worst offender I’ve played in the last few months; many of the other games, I decided not to review and in several cases not to complete at all.

3 thoughts on “Quarantine Circular (Bithell Games)

  1. I am heartened to read this. I thought I was alone in my increasing dissatisfaction with aimless indie game dialogue. I finished Circular but could not get very far into Quarantine despite my best efforts. I would suspect that this experimental approach to game *production* – small games with collaborators which are made quickly and therefore have higher margins – is part of what resulted in the quality of work on display here. but lord knows it’s not the only factor in the wider problem.

  2. I really enjoyed the game, but at the same time found myself banging my head over the characterization on several points. Like beggars can’t be choosers, just kiss the alien’s ass if you don’t want to die of a plague AND an alien invasion, please. The character turnaround on Lisa was so fast it gave me whiplash–first she won’t even talk to an alien out of fear and suspicion, then by the end she’s questioning if saving the human race is worth endangering all the alien races??

    • Additionally, wasn’t big on having to replay a chapter because, after numerous points of conversation looping around to verify points so I could hammer them in, I failed to realize a single choice would take out the crucial character whose rapport I’d been building.

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