In writing, poetry and prose are viewed as opposite ends of the literary spectrum. Poetry is typically lyrical, rhythmic, and terse, while prose, such as fiction, follows grammar rules and conversational speech to tell its stories. Of course, none of these rules are exactly concrete. Poetry and prose often dip into each other, blurring the distinct lines between the two types of writing. Videogames, too, can bridge different forms and obscure genre rules and expectations—think visual novels, bitsy games, and videogame shorts like Bithell Games new title, Quarantine Circular.
Set in the same world as their previous game, Subsurface Circular, Quarantine Circular is a sci-fi short story about a group of scientists working on a cure for a debilitating disease that’s destroying the world. When an alien visits Earth claiming to know how to help, the scientists must interrogate the alien to decide what’s the truth. The game relies on its straightforward presentation to create a complex and incredibly intelligent story packed tightly in a contained space.
The characters speak of a dangerous disease, deadly animals, and a dying planet, but all the player sees is a small moment within the panic—a small ship carrying a handful of scientists, and an alien potentially hopeful to help in the cause. Quarantine Circular works like theater; the stage, in this case a ship, is one small set piece to a larger world, hiding off-stage.
The hardest and most stimulating parts of the short is that the characters involved are all played by the player. Each person is an actor with their own motivations. As a player, I had to decide whether to pick dialogue choices that matched my ideas, or to become an actor and pick the choice most appropriate for the character speaking. Many times I had to sit, game paused, and think about what I would do versus what a fictional character would do, and the consequences for both actions. The heavy choices and killer dialogue make for a great short that bends the line between game and short story.
By design, games blend artforms like writing, music and illustration to create a full piece of work. Still, some games can fit squarely in the “videogame” category, while others are a bit more ambiguous and work to further investigate what “videogame” even means. This isn’t to say we need more conversations about what constitutes a game, but that we need to understand how limiting those labels can be—how they can hinder our ability to view “game” as an umbrella term for all interactions of play. Quarantine Circular reminded me of the beauty of blended genres, and how fun it is to sit and participate in a game that revolves around a conversation with a being from outer space.
I enjoy games most when they hit me outside of my game-mode brain and spark other creative sides of my mind. These games remind me of the ways art can influence art across disciplines. How many times can we say that games should learn from other artforms besides film? There are plenty of games that already take from other genres, and Quarantine Circular is yet another great example of a game that is not afraid to blur the lines in certain categories and show what can be accomplished when the rules blend.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com for a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.