We find ourselves in deeply unsettling, undeniably world-changing times. With so much uncertain, unknown and out of our hands, anxiety rates have spiked around the globe. In response, people are being encouraged to focus less on what they can’t control and more on what they can – namely how they respond to circumstances. That’s great advice from mental health professionals, but there’s another non-destructive coping mechanism: Video games.
You may not be impacting on reality, but the right game provides that craved feeling of control over your current situation. For some, it’s deeply cathartic. Which makes right now the ideal time to release an interactive film and medical thriller in the form of The Complex.
Well, sort of.
If you’re going to score British FMV release The Complex down, it’s largely because its marketing material is misleading. Watch the trailer, then play the game and you quickly realise you’re subject to a case of bait and switch.
Instead of Contagion-style pandemic fighting, you find yourself in something closer to a Robin Cook, Michael Crichton or, given a few forehead-smacking moments of dumbness, a Dan Brown novel. The Complex isn’t a globe-trotting adventure where you race against the clock to save the human race. As an indie production it doesn’t have the budget for that. Rather, The Complex is an intimate, hard sci-fi thriller, largely confined to a top-secret research lab under lockdown.
The viewer-player is put in the shoes of Dr. Amy Tenant (Michelle Mylett), who has progressed from working in the world’s worst warzones to a prestigious position alongside acclaimed medical pioneer Nathalie Kensington (Kate Dickie, who played Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones). Amy and Nathalie are developing a ground-breaking self-healing treatment using Nanocells. However, the technology’s potential is threatened when an intern attempts to smuggle the master batch out of Kensington’s research complex and into the streets of London – by injecting herself with the unstable, and highly transferable, mix.
Soon Amy is confined with the apparent bioterrorist and old colleague Rees Wakefield (Al Weaver) from her warzone years. Making things worse, our heroine soon realises she’s waist-deep in a conspiracy, with sinister forces out to get their hands on the Nanocells, or silence anyone who uncovers the disturbing truth about them.
As an interactive movie, the viewer-player makes choices on Amy’s behalf which will impact the narrative. If you don’t activate the Pause Choices option (inserted into the game specifically for streamers wanting to involve their audiences), you must make a real-time selection from between two options, Choose Your Own Adventure style. If you tried your hand at Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on Netflix, you’ll know the drill.
In The Complex, decisions range from the simple accepting or rejecting of phone calls, to methods of problem-solving, bedside manner style and, of course, that medical staple of choosing who lives or dies.
Choose poorly and you could find yourself replaying The Complex within ten minutes. Generally, though, you can expect a playthrough of typical 100-minute movie length as you reach one of the nine very different endings. Once you’ve completed the game, you’re also able to skip already-viewed cutscenes (there are 200 to unlock), removing the tedium from future replays.
There’s enough reason to give The Complex at least a couple of attempts. Published by award-winning interactive movie specialists, Wales Interactive, the film may not have a massive budget but it certainly doesn’t look cheap. It’s a visually polished affair, and the acting is convincing. Given her player stand-in function, Mylett’s character can be somewhat stiff but Weaver, and Kim Adis as Clare, the spirited intern, liven things up with their warm performances.
A particularly intriguing aspect of The Complex is its relationship and personality tracking. At any point, you can consult a screen to see how Amy is faring with other characters based on your decisions. Consistently push someone away and they might not provide you with help later. At the same time, you can steer Amy’s character in different directions such as altruistic, intellectual and neurotic, which will have major consequences for the final scenes.
It can’t be easy to assemble a branching narrative experience that holds together, and for the most part The Complex is coherent and cohesive. Transitions between scenes are generally fluid, and there are only a couple of jarring continuity issues where consequences don’t connect to player choice.
As an interactive experience then, The Complex is one of the most refined of its kind. As film entertainment, it’s not as strong. Regardless of how you progress through The Complex, you’ll find surprises, twists and plenty of emotion – characters get quite teary as the tension mounts. It’s just less immersive for people on the other side of the screen. You never quite feel trapped in a race against time, and immersion is ruined by villains who never live up to their threatening reputation, as well as the appearance of the world’s worst security guards. More might also have been made of Amy’s confusion over just who she can trust. In general, it feels like there’s a better story lurking beneath the surface of The Complex than the one we’re presented with.
The result is a more satisfying game, rather than movie, experience. Still, The Complex will likely provide that craved feeling of control over something other than yourself. Even if just for a few hours.
The Complex is out today, 31 March, for PC, Mac and all consoles. As a size indicator, you can expect an 11GB download for PS4.
Last Updated: March 31, 2020