Going Underground with The Bunker, the Full Motion Video Horror Game

Games Features The Bunker
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Going Underground with <i>The Bunker</i>, the Full Motion Video Horror Game

If you’re asked to think about full motion video, you’ll most likely call to mind the poor acting and campy writing of titles like Night Trap and Phantasmagoria. Although there’s been a real effort over the last decade to breathe new life into the divisive genre, it’s still arguably considered to be a niche market, fuelled by nostalgia. This is where The Bunker comes in. Developed by Wales Interactive and Splendy Games, The Bunker is an ambitious project that aims to exchange the awkward live-action cut scenes of the past for a fully interactive point-and-click experience with high production values.

Set in an alternative timeline where nuclear warfare has driven the human population underground, you assume the role of John, the last remaining survivor of a secret government bunker. Exploring the antique structure, it’s your goal to solve puzzles and relive past experiences to find out the horrifying truth about the titular bunker.

Reaching out to Simon Sparks and Allan Plenderleith, the producer and director of the game, I was fascinated to find out more about the promising psychological horror title, like how they discovered the main location used in the final game and their reasons for undertaking such a project.

“Really The Bunker came from our location search,” Plenderleith explains. “We were looking for somewhere really cool and really atmospheric, and then we found this nuclear bunker. And the story came from there and sort of my love of horror movies, The Shining, and just the idea that this could’ve really happened. If things had went wrong, this would’ve been used as a nuclear bunker.”

“The place was just abandoned,” Sparks interjects. “It was just left and all of these computers, and stationery, and systems were just left one day. It’s not really been touched and the guy who acquired it—he’s just left it how it was because he finds it fascinating. That was the real influence.”

Having previously worked together on the live-action iOS game The Hunting, the two men were not only convinced to make The Bunker to capitalize on the mesmerizing environment they had found, but also to build upon what they had achieved with their previous output.

Their goal was to make The Bunker a fully interactive adventure, akin to the work of Telltale Games and Quantic Dream, while utilizing live action in place of computer generated visuals. However, this approach led to them encountering multiple problems during development, such as how to make the game feel interactive, how to satisfy the curiosity of the player in a real world environment and how to hide the cuts between scenes to keep the experience seamless.

“We’re limited by our budget and our location,” confesses Plenderleith. “You have to construct the story so it works and is as interactive as possible, but it’s not going to bankrupt you. We really had to have a fine balance between this movie storytelling, a real emotional engagement with the character and also the amount of interactivity we could put in there. But we’ve definitely pushed it to the max of what we could possibly have done in terms of point and click. There’s also a lot of stuff that we added on set, because we’d realize there’s a giant filing cabinet by a door, and just as a gamer I would say, ‘I want to click on the filing cabinet. I want to know what’s in the filing cabinet.’”

Shooting on a real location and with authentic objects, as opposed to soundstages and props, was a difficult task for the team and one that required careful setups and an incredible eye for detail to avoid any continuity errors or glitches in gameplay. Simple shots like opening a cabinet or moving an object across a room became projects to be considered and studied, with immersion riding on the director’s ability to map out the environment correctly each time. Considering some of the actions had multiple outcomes, this would prove to be a headache for Plenderleith and his team. Nevertheless, they embraced the challenge, overcoming these barriers both on set, through camera trickery and ingenuity, and in the editing suite with the use of after effects.

Close attention was also paid towards the performances in the game. Hoping to add some much needed credibility to the genre, the team went to great lengths to bring on board professional actors like Adam Brown (The Hobbit) and Sarah Greene (Penny Dreadful) to help realize the story. It was hoped that this would result in a more emotionally engaging experience, unlike the corny productions of the past.

“I played a lot of FMV titles and I look back on them fondly, but when you see them now they’re a bit rough around the edges,” Plenderleith says. “Certainly, from my point of view as a director, the standard of acting was less than perfect. I love B-movie horrors and they were very much of that ilk. But what we wanted to do was a much more serious thing where you really believe the performances of the actors so you can really get lost in story the way you can in a movie.”

Given the initial responses to the game, they’ve arguably succeeded in this feat. Fan reaction has been highly complementary, with many singling the acting out as a highlight.

“It’s really lovely to see when people just get it; when people just get that John’s a really vulnerable human,” Sparks says. “We’ve tried to give the audience credit and assume that everybody has a level of intelligence. So far, it’s not like people have gone, ‘I don’t get it.’ They’ve all just played it and realize he’s been down there for a long time and he’s a fragile person. They buy the world and they understand it, and just immerse themselves in it. It’s wonderful to see.”

The Bunker isn’t your typical FMV game. Its tone is more serious and there’s an increased focus on high production values all around. Rather than simply trading in on nostalgia for this neglected type of presentation, the project represents an earnest attempt to modernize and iterate on what has come before, freely experimenting with a genre that’s still reasonably unexplored by videogame developers.

When not glued to the latest release, Jack Yarwood spends his time writing and talking about videogames online. You can follow what he’s up to on his Twitter and on his blog.