Some of the finest video game characters can be found a little further away from the foreground. Resident Evil’s deliciously eerie Spencer Mansion; the sunken city of Rapture; the impossibly beautiful ring world of Halo: Combat Evolved. Upcoming adventure game The Bunker is another game where the backdrop is perhaps the most important character, an underground nuclear shelter that’s frozen in time, furnished with hard beige fittings and soundtracked by the whirring of old hard drives that power chunky monochrome monitors.
It’s a place born from the paranoia of the 50s and 60s and the very real nuclear threat, the polite austerity of its interior the perfect amplifier of that creeping feeling of dread as you explore its many levels. This bunker is a very real space, though. You can even visit it if you want – plenty of people did during the filming of The Bunker, after all. “We filmed in Kelvedon Hatch, in Brentwood,” says explains developer Splendy’s Allan Plenderleith. “It’s a secret nuclear bunker that’s not so secret, with a big brown sign pointing you towards it. It’s always full of boy scouts and old ladies, and they never close it down. Even when we were filming an old lady would occasionally stroll into shot. It’s not exactly The National Trust – but it’s very atmospheric and hasn’t changed since the government left.”
I’m talking to Plenderleith over Skype as he sits in a spacious shed in his Berkhamsted home, where he’s joined by Splendy co-founder and producer on The Bunker Simon Sparks. Both have experience in the world of TV and film – Plenderleith in screenwriting and children’s television, Sparks, delightfully, in hairdressing – which pushed them towards their first big gaming success, the iOS adventure The Hunting. A horror game once carried out in live action (Plenderleith pulls a maggot still moist with KY jelly from just out of shot, a prop in the schlocky horror of the game) it was successful enough to push both of them towards something more ambitious second time round.
Which brings us to The Bunker, in which you follow the nervy, sheltered John as he unearths the mystery behind the place in which he was born during an apocalyptic event in 1986, and in which he’s spent every day of his 30 years since. “It’s this parallel universe where if this had happened this man would be down there, and he wouldn’t know what’s happening up above – if birds are singing or it’s this decimated land. As the player you discover the story as he discovers it.”
In The Bunker you navigate scenes as in a point and click adventure, at first embedding yourself in John’s miserable daily routine before it’s skewed as more malicious forces come into play. Adam Brown, whose nerdish features you might be familiar with from his turn as Ori in The Hobbit trilogy, does a wonderful job of portraying John’s fast-dissolving starchiness, but really it’s The Bunker itself that emerges as the star. It’s an overbearing, eerie presence that’s like the downbeat one-star cousin to the supernatural opulence found in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.
“For us us the bunker is a character in the film – and it’s got that sense where you’re against something which doesn’t want you to be there,” says Plenderleith. “We had to write The Bunker as a map – a giant weird 3D map which evolves over time. Whatever happens in that place moves – having a real location that we filmed in, that was our set, and we had to adapt it.” Over the course of the 15 days in which the crew shot the 56 hours of footage that make up the three or so hour adventure of The Bunker, Kelvedon Hatch began to leave its own imprint too. “It’s a horrible place to film – it’s very oppressive. We got there early and left late, and you might get out for five minutes at lunch to see the sun. by the end of it everyone was ill – it just gets to you, the whole place.”
I’ve only played the first 30 minutes or so of The Bunker, but what’s already impressive is its sense of space, and of clammy claustrophobia. You’re limited in what you can do in these opening scenes – tuning a radio for signs of an outside broadcast, helping John take his daily medication – and while more involved action is promised later on it’s still enough to engage you with the well-produced, slick looking footage. It’s a far cry from the likes of Night Trap and other ropey outings that gave live action games a bad name for so long.
“It’s funny, even now in 2016, all these years after Night Trap, there’s still a lot to figure out with the technology,” says Plenderleith. “We did it in Unity – we shot in lovely HD, but you can’t put all that in the game otherwise it’d be the world’s biggest game. You want it to look like it did when you shot it, and not this pixelated mess like Night Trap. Movies and games, they’re crossing genres if you like. For me, the reason why we use live action – well it’s because we aren’t coders, we can’t do CGI stuff – but the main reason is the performance of a real actor. If you get a really good performance in a story you care about it can really effect you like the movies do, and there’s no reason a game can’t do that.”
The acclaim afforded Her Story – all those BAFTAs and plenty more besides – has helped Plendy put their case forward. And if nothing else it’s at least provided another, kinder reference point for the live action genre. “We’d already started before Her Story came out – but when it did it was great for us,” says Plenderleith. “Before that – The Hunting was a small game, but when Her Story came out, because it did so well, it was an easy way to say okay, this is live action – and people can get their heads around that. It doesn’t have to be about Night Trap anymore.”
If The Bunker can make good on its potential – and Plendy are making all the right noises – you can probably scratch this one up alongside Her Story as another example of what a little expertise and imagination can bring to a type of game that was once mocked. It’s smart, creepy and is a neat reminder that sometimes you just can’t beat the magic that comes at 24 frames per second. The Bunker’s out at some undisclosed point next month on PS4, Xbox One and PC.