Wales Interactive has had a stake in the interactive FMV market for quite a while. Some of the most impressive films in the genre, most notably Simulacra and The Late Shift, have come from the minds at the BAFTA Award-winning studio. It is a genre often lambasted by many for its lack of gameplay, and praised by others for accepting storytelling as a key aspect of modern gaming. The Complex offers a compelling story with enticing performances and stellar production value. It is let down only in minor areas, but even these are often a result of medium limitations than of the developers themselves.
The most important aspect of The Complex is its story. You play as Dr Amy Tenant, a researcher of nanocell technology at an intricate web of laboratories just outside London. After a bio-weapon scare in the city followed by an attack on the lab, Amy finds herself trapped with an old acquaintance, and with time running out.
The Complex‘s story is the work of Lynn Renee Maxcy, part of the writing team that created Hulu’s Emmy Award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale. The star caliber of the game’s writing definitely shows. Apart from a few cringe-worthy lines of dialogue, the narrative is incredibly engaging. At times I found myself genuinely tense, a credit to the suspension of disbelief made possible by an efficient storytelling team. This tension is also in part due to the choices which the player makes throughout the game. These choices, both large and small, lend an extra layer to the narrative’s immersion. I found myself questioning whether I had made the correct choice more often than not in my first playthrough.
The characters of a story are always its most important asset. The Complex‘s story does not disappoint in this regard. Protagonist Amy, portrayed by Michelle Mylett, is believable and compelling in her performance. The best showings, however, came from Al Weaver as Dr Rees Wakefield, and Kim Adis as Clare Mahek. Weaver does a fantastic job of toeing the line between sarcastic, disillusioned pragmatist and caring former lover to Amy. Likewise, Adis does an amazing job in selling her character’s fear and hate throughout the story, making The Complex that much more engrossing. Watching this trio was by far one of the highlights of my time with the game.
The Complex‘s gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played an interactive movie before. The primary form of interaction between player and game here is choice. At specific junctions, the player is given a choice between two or three options. These choices can often have massive stakes, but can at other times seem trivial. Who do you save, and who do you let die? Do you talk to one person first, or the other? Do you sneak a peek at them changing, or not? The key to The Complex‘s tension is the apparent triviality of many choices. Choices you make might not come back to bite you later – but how will you know that before you make them?
For this reason, the game fails the most when it takes this choice away from you. At times in my playthrough, Amy would do something I would never have done had I been given control of her actions. For a game with a singular method of player agency, this breaks immersion immediately. While such limitations are par for the course in any story-based game – a result of budget limitations more than anything else – they are far more noticeable in more cinematic, less traditional experiences like The Complex.
Wine Into Water
The stakes of The Complex are laid out for the player early in the story. The first two decisions you make decide the fate of two patients being treated by Amy. Mislead one of them, or be overly harsh to another, and they will not trust you; something which proves fatal to both. This makes it crystal clear that even something as minor as telling a white lie may be enough to end someone’s life. It also makes it abundantly clear to the player that the maintenance of relationships is the central focus of The Complex‘s story.
Afterwards, the game introduces two of The Complex‘s greatest shortcomings: Relationship Statuses and Amy’s stats. The former is a series of percentages next to pictures of the game’s numerous characters. This is meant to let the player know how well they are currently getting along with each member of the cast. The latter consists of six traits: honesty, bravery, curiosity, intelligence, and sensitivity.
Boiling the complexities of human behavior and relationships down to numerical figures is a common practice in video games. It has always felt disingenuous to me, and it does here as well. People can, and often do, make snap, irrational decisions. This is especially the case in tense situations, such as those presented in The Complex. Additionally, the Relationship Status values are often confusing. The percentage for a man who Amy supposedly hates at the start of the story is nearly identical to that of her trusted assistant of several years.
…and Back Into Wine
After I began disregarding the stats sheet made available to the player, I began to enjoy The Complex and its story far more. This choice was supported by the eventual discovery that only the Relationship Status figures alter which ending a player will get. Amy’s stats are not important during the actual gameplay. Instead, each ending comes about as a result of your behavior. The game then tells you what kind of person Amy, and by extension the player, was.
While the gameplay experience is simple, the sheer existence of player agency makes the story far more thrilling than if the game had been a simple movie. The limitations of medium and budget are not enough to stop The Complex from being an enjoyable ride from start to finish. The first few playthroughs are where this game truly shines. After that, it becomes more of a hunt for each ending, and less about the story itself.
After each ending the player is given a “Personality Assessment”. This serves no mechanical purpose, but is interesting, and can help a player discern what to do differently next time. The first playthrough can be completely in around an hour and a half. After that, playtime drops exponentially. This is not a game meant to last hours upon hours. It’s a finely crafted story, to be savored and remembered.
Graphics and Audio
As I’ve mentioned already, the star quality in The Complex‘s design is plain to see. Director Paul Raschid drew a lot out of his actors. Likewise, the game has incredibly production value. It’s clear the team at Wales Interactive took what they learned making The Late Shift and refined it. This carries over to other elements of the production, such as set design and wardrobe. The laboratory which serves as the game’s primary setting feels believable. Its design, as well as the design of what its occupants wear, are striking and memorable. Even less realistic areas such as the Void, a massive corridor consisting of nothing but a vacuum, feel genuine in the way they are filmed. There was only one visual effect in the game which was noticeably fake to me, and even that was only on-screen for half a second.
The score lends an extra kick to the already thick atmosphere of The Complex. As in any tense experience, subtlety is key. The developers clearly knew this, letting the dialogue carry itself at the right times, and adding a bit of musical flair at others.