Quarantine Circular is at its most fundamental level a game about conflict. Not by waging armed warfare, though that is present in the background story to the game, but rather waging war against a super bacteria that has decimated the worlds human population, and is leading towards an extinction event. Mike Bithell and Bithell games have in addition explored the conflict that occurs between individuals of different personality types and/or the issues that arise between ideologies and beliefs. Quarantine Circular’s message about this is ultimately a negative one. Differences of opinion are so fundamental to the characters roles that they inevitably lead to greater conflicts. There is no resolution that can be acquired once ones position to others is formulated. For a game that bases itself on dialogue, this is an interesting position to take.
Linguistically dialogue performs two major roles, the first is transactional, the ability to communicate information, the second is interactional, to establish personal connections and convey empathy or sympathy to others which also ties into languages social purposes.
For a game that focuses on these things, and does them surprisingly well, the fact that it ultimately looks at the failure of discourse and its methods is somewhat disheartening, and though the game can be fairly cynical in some of its writing at times, it is at the very least realistic in its conveyance of the types of conflict that can arise.
The characters in Quarantine Circular truly take central stage. Each chapter of the story centres on a specific character, which the player is required to roleplay. The large extraterrestrial being, Gabriel, acting as the cornerstone of the entire plot. Each encounter with him is undertaken by a new character, and viewed solely from the perspective of one actor at a time. The game itself uses the 1st person perspective for each character in order to limit your awareness of others ideas, requiring you to formulate opinions on the basis of what they say. Sadly the game doesn’t really explore the concept of lying much, so you have to assume that they are truthful for the most part. The game does in its later stages look at omission of information, or the difficulty of interpreting others words purely on the basis of your own understanding without the value of greater awareness of situations. This issue is mainly addressed by microbiologist Lisa, and her skepticism but is actually most notable with Gabriel’s various revelations and how it makes your opinion switch due to new information and insights. However, because the game chooses to address these new insights in the shoes of specific characters rather than one individual character, there is no room for that character to realise the fallacy in their own understanding. Only the player, externally to the game can come to such revelations. This sadly does diminish individual character arcs, most particularly those characters that act as general antagonists. The antagonist here being someone who would halt or interrupt dialogue and prevent the dissemination of knowledge.
Another quality of the dialogue is that it is purposeful whether rhyming to rap, to establish rapport, or seeking to establish a basis of syntax (grammar) for language. Mechanically the game indicates this purpose to the player by assigning them a task that needs to be accomplished, and then placing a progress bar to track how far the player has achieved this. In one instance, during the first contact scene, you are required to gain the trust of Gabriel (the alien). Your dialogue choices either win or lose your trust, the trust that is essential at accurately calibrating the communication device. Interestingly the game does hint at actions needing to be conversant with words. And a few significant choices actually do coincide with actions you can have that character make.
Another mission requires you to investigate and acquire a set of information. This needs to be done by communicating with multiple people in the dialogue and again is tracked by a progress bar at the top of the screen. Like in the prior game Subsurface Circular, aims and goals are listed to the side of the screen, so a returning player can continue with the appropriate task when resuming play. The difficulty in accomplishing this second task is caused largely by the conflicting and competing viewpoints of the various actors in the dialogue. Acquiring and then cross-referencing of information, forms a key activity in this dialogue. In this Quarantine Circular seems to have borrowed from the point n click genre, that often uses similar procedures before items will be activated but in the case of Quarantine Circular before branches of dialogue are activated. It’s a key point that the questions we are able to ask are dependent on the information we already possess. In order to fully understand the dimensions of a problem, you need to seek out multiple perspectives, and its at this point that mechanically the games focus on co-operative dialogue is revealed. Whilst at times you are able to block your peers from speaking, (fairly notably near the end of the game) you lose access to valuable information, no matter how offensive that individual may be. Blocking conversation ultimately penalises you the player, as it limits what information is available to you, and at times if you are unsuccesful, the self-censorship of certain actors makes the acquisition of information all the more difficult.
HEREAFTER THERE BE SPOILERS
And whilst this all so far covers the pragmatic issues of language, it doesn’t truly cover what semantic issues might lie in wait within the labyrinths of words. And Quarantine Circular does have a number of issues and themes it decides to address. The central theme is of course conflict and the pursuit of resolutions, in this the game does sympathetically handle its opposing sides, however it does focus on the less violent solutions slightly more. Within the context of the game this is most noticeable with Gabriel’s cure, his development and transmission of a cure to epidemiologist Prof Alla Zima that ties directly into the central title of the game. Quarantine here, is due to the status of the bacteria on earth and its rapid water-borne spread. Yet there is more to the concept of Quarantine than merely this. As Prof Zima discovers, earth the planet itself is “quarantined” placed under an interstellar embargo and Gabriel’s presence is in fact in direct defiance of this. Gabriel’s liberal attitudes seem to be compliant with the best of Thoreau’s “civil disobedience” however his interests and ideas come into conflict with those of Teng Lei.
Teng is far more concerned with order and the obeyance of rules and law. Any who find themselves acting contrary to protocol will find themselves placed under Teng’s displeasure. What the game fails to explore with Teng Lei is how her strict observance of protocol is what enforces the concept of a quarantine and the measures under which it is enacted. The civil liberties that both Zima and Gabriel wish for are measures that would have caused the extinction of human’s far sooner. Teng is rarely painted in this sympathetic light, however in the final dialogue, one may try to change Teng, having her argue her faults with Gabriel. Despite her personal convictions about the alien, she still proceeds to obey her orders to acquire the cure, only to have Gabriel deny her at the penultimate moment. The true criticism here is that laws and justice enacted without compassion and understanding can only lead to discord. Teng’s great failure is her lack of attempting to understand Gabriel despite the opportunities that the dialogue present.
Other characters such as Lisa Seddick, play the role of sceptics. Within the drama itself Lisa’s role is more to make the player question the motivations and conversation of others. She offers up alternative considerations that act to break the binaries of Aristotelian logic, that previously hampered Subsurface Circular. As a character her role is minor, however her questioning draws into light the assumption that all characters are truthful. This is problematic since as the player is given control of the various characters at each time, it means that you are aware if a character is lying or not already. In fact the game doesn’t actually have any characters conceal or obscure their motivations and intentions. Rather any conflicts occur due to lack of a holistic awareness of the situation. Of course this slow revealing of information is necessary for the conveyance of plot, but it does mean that larger psychological depth of characters must be subsumed since if they had lied it would interfere with the exposition of the overall narrative.
This lack of psychological depth is what hampers Quarantine Circular from ascending to true art, despite its clever use of acts and scenes that leads to its being structured similarly to a play. The characters do not quite have the depth they ought to and individuality is forfeited to the needs of the role within the narrative. This reflects in the dialogue as well, as important markers of individual speech are not present. Marc’s expression is easily interchangeable with Lisa’s only the content matter they speak of differs. Markers of expression and individual peculiarities of language are not written into the text, and this “poker face” language is partially why greater subtleties could not be included within the games discourse.
For all that Quarantine Circular fails on its psychological front, it isn’t without tension. The penultimate act draws the disparate narratives of quarantine to a head, with a literal confrontation. Not only between Teng and Gabriel who are foils of each other, are the only two present for the final act but also of the creation of a cure, perceived as humanities salvation and Gabriel acting according to his Biblical name as a messenger of deliverance… or not. As well as the larger quarantine which comes to a head, with the presence of a larger threat, those who would destroy both Gabriel and humanity, even if the Tek would still be considered a suitable gestation for intelligent life on the planet.
(Tek is a nod to the previous game, Subsurface Circular, where the Tek are AI, constructed by humans that are attempting to foment rebellion).
Quarantine Circular is simultaneously an easy game to play whilst also hard. The questions it asks about humanity, our paranoia in the face of the unknown, our search for stability within the boundaries of knowledge and the issue of confronting our own inherent violence and framing of discourse and dialogue as conflicts (see Metaphors we Live by, by George Lakoff).
What is perhaps also strikingly circuitous about Quarantine Circular, is the circularity of game design. Text adventures formed the central ethos of the video game identity back in the 60s and 70s, so the return of text heavy games like Quarantine Circular mark a shift back to early games and their focus. Of course the complexity and presentation is vastly different. The character designs, and 3d modelled backgrounds are far more than could have ever been conceived 40 years ago. Yet the same principles are still in effect now as in those early games. Games may evolve in how they are delivered, but some principles are always contained within the core of storytelling and art, and will always be circled back to.