Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
After debuting with Thomas Was Alone, a platformer that did more to define and endear the characters of a bunch of rectangles than most games do with overflowing scripts and unfathomable polygon counts, designer Mike Bithell and his development partners have settled into an interesting groove. First came Volume, a much larger, more recognizably traditional game than Thomas, but since then, they’ve been releasing, essentially, video game short stories: tight narratives told almost exclusively through conversation and constrained to single locations. The first was Subsurface Circular, about a robot detective investigating a mystery from inside a subway train. As an experiment in world-building within extreme creative limitations and the modernization of text adventures, it was a fascinating little story, with Bithell’s sharp writing anchoring it all the way through.
Released a few weeks ago, Quarantine Circular is Bithell’s second short. It’s a fraught first-contact story about an alien stuck in quarantine on a military vessel and the crew members who set out to deduce why it’s here and whether its arrival has any connection to a plague sweeping the planet. The story doesn’t unfold as elegantly as Subsurface, but Quarantine pushes Bithell’s formula for these shorts into some affecting new directions, both thematically and structurally. For starters, each of the game’s several scenes has you changing to a different character, usually one you’ve already met and have established a feeling for, whether good or bad. That means you’re swapping between people of various personalities, values, and military ranks, feeling this strange tension between acting the role you perceive them to be playing while trying to steer the story’s high-stakes outcome toward the one you want to see. And doing that means maneuvering around a number of social systems and ethical questions: military hierarchy, scientific procedure, sovereignty versus interventionism, and the place of tribalism in the face of a greater good.
The way Quarantine tackles that final quandary hit me the hardest. I’m not the kind of person to ever choose a more selfish or violent path when a game presents one. Although it carries some risks, Quarantine’s morally “correct” decisions seem to be pretty obvious, but by the end of its short runtime, the game does a remarkable job of recontextualizing everything you’ve previously had to consider—about the best way forward, about humanity and its place in the universe. I’m excited to play through a second time this weekend, tweaking decisions and seeing other ways it could’ve played out. On this first go around, it was a pretty disastrous conclusion on all fronts, but we humans probably deserved it.