Game developers’ approach to story has changed enormously over video gaming history. Whereas once all we knew was that “our princess is in another castle”, now games are being used specifically as a story-telling medium. And as gaming narratives have become more sophisticated, so too have their dialogue systems. Story-driven series such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age have harnessed dialogue as a device to not only characterise your protagonist, but also make choices that have lasting and unpredictable effects. But is a dialogue system strong enough to stand on its own, without any of the action to which gamers have grown so accustomed? Would Shadowrun Returns still be worth playing if you didn’t actually get to run the shadows?
This is the experience Unrest offers, and the result feels less like a game and more like an extremely vivid choose-your-own-adventure book. The setting for this tale is the once-great city of Bhirma, ravaged by drought, unrest and xenophobia. You play as a series of protagonists, each with different backgrounds, loyalties and opinions about how best to weather the crisis. The majority of the game consists of conversations via dialogue boxes, offering choices that tend to be either kind, rude or neutral. Depending on the choices you make, you can gain additional information, quests or support from the person to whom you’re talking, or else find yourself snubbed or even imprisoned if the conversation turns sour. However, as misfortune for one protagonist can potentially lead to good fortune for another, there is no right or wrong choice to make.
Unfortunately, Unrest doesn’t do a very good job of explaining its mechanics. For example, every conversation choice you make has the potential to positively or negatively affect the degree to which someone likes, respects or fears you. However, you aren’t ever told what effect this has. Similarly, each playable character comes with a few personality traits, and if you consistently choose certain types of dialogue (e.g. calm, direct, bold) new traits will be added to reflect that. But again, there’s no indication if this is opens up any new options, or if it’s just for characterisation purposes.
Furthermore, though the controls include buttons for attacking and blocking, I never had the opportunity to use them even once throughout the entire game. While I understand this isn’t some hack and slash gore fest, there were times when combat should have been available, but wasn’t. Any time my character was able to draw their sword, the game immediately jumped to after the supposed battle, expressing the results in another dialogue box.
Despite occasionally feeling like the game was glossing over the exciting parts, I quickly became absorbed into this world. The captivating art style perfectly expresses the Indian setting, making even slums and their pox-riddled inhabitants look beautiful. Whenever the soothing music began to play, I immediately found my mood lifting, all frustrations forgotten. Most important of all, the different ways each character sees the world and its various inhabitants will keep you guessing about who is in the right–if anyone. I found it hard not to empathise with even the most monstrous characters, for even they only did what they believed was either right or necessary.
Unrest often forces the player to make tough choices between serving their own interests and serving others. At one point you play as a priest who frequently has to decide whether to selflessly perform his holy duties or play it safe to ensure his own children’s safety. At another point you play a peasant girl who has to decide whether to accept her arranged marriage to a spiteful boy and his unwelcoming family, or else find some way to sabotage or escape the wedding. Your available options are broad and varied with multiple solutions to problems, but not all will work out as intended. For example, my ultra-selfish choice to have the reluctant bride run away on a stolen horse with her parents’ life savings seemed to be the best move to save her, but without knowing how to ride a horse, her escape ended up less than perfect. There really aren’t any easy decisions, as even seemingly insignificant choices can set off chain reactions that affect the fates of thousands.
Clocking in at about five hours, Unrest isn’t exactly War and Peace. What it is, is a poignant exploration of just how much people will sacrifice to save either themselves, their families or their homes, and the unintended consequences that can follow. If everyone played through Unrest at least once, perhaps more of us would think before we speak.