On paper, The Bunker should be the kind of game I'm losing my shit over: a horror-tinged mystery set in an underground nuclear bunker, in the years after a series of bombs have ravaged the world. Even better—or worse, depending on your taste—is the choice of presentation: full-motion video (FMV), an overly fancy term for a video game shot with real cameras and actors. With rare exceptions, like last year's Her Story, these games are schlocky affairs worth an evening of laughs, rather than anything serious. Sadly, The Bunker is neither.
The Bunker sports a notable actress in Sarah Green of Penny Dreadful, a horror drama that recently concluded its final season. It harkens to a bizarre era when notable Hollywood figures kept showing up in FMV games. You probably don't remember when Christopher Walken, Paul Giamatti, Karen Allen, and John Rhys-Davies starred in Ripper, a wonderfully cheesy take on the Jack the Ripper story, now set in 2040—but it happened. The same was true for Hell: A Cyperpunk Thriller, where Dennis Hopper was convinced to play a supporting role in a game where a futuristic authoritarian government has the ability to, um, send criminals to hell. Cool.
Here's what Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller and Ripper also have in common: They're ridiculous. While it's true that video game storytelling has come a long way since these 90s relics, both games recognized that FMV sequences were not the equivalent of a Hollywood production, so instilling them with drama or gravitas was difficult, if not a fool's errand. These were interactive B-movies, the kind of enjoyable garbage you find buried on a video shelf. Some games, like The 7th Guest or Myst, took another approach, leveraging FMV as a stylistic asset, when the star of the show was the obtuse puzzles. The Bunker, however, proposes that you should care about its story, and learn why this man and his mother are alone in a facility meant for many more.
Part of what drew me to The Bunker was experiencing a different take on the dystopian shelters from the Fallout series. In Fallout, a malevolent corporation purposely used them as a means to perform radical experiments, while The Bunker proposes an equally terrifying but more empathetic premise in which the war above ground is far worse than anyone could have anticipated. Since nobody expected nuclear war to actually break out, the available shelters were rushed, poorly made, and now provide the substandard means of survival. What is already a dire scenario is made all the worse by daily worries over things like radiation leaks. Things hit a tipping point when it becomes clear the rations available were meant for survivors to manage only a few years underground, but the fallout means they'll be there for decades.
If I were to spell out exactly what happens in The Bunker, what's at the core of the story, you might go "oooh" and think it's pretty clever. The real problem is the way it's told: It's an OK tale undercut by shoddy acting, FMV sequences that try to hit above their weight, and a bad habit of obviously foreshadowing its big twist. Halfway through the already short adventure, which took me about two hours, I'd already puzzled out what was going on, but it took another hour before the game was willing to fully pull back the curtain, pretending it was still a surprise.
Even with a middling plot, I found myself drawn to every room in The Bunker. The core premise—how people respond to an extraordinary situation in close proximity—was enough to have me searching for every scrap of documentation that fleshed out what happened. This might be The Bunker's most criminal failing: These pieces are well done, but are much too rare. They sketch the shelter's tragic past in a way that lets your imagination craft something more compelling than the FMV. Had it leaned into this, The Bunker might have found an identity.
Her Story, which had players searching a computer database of interviews about a missing person, should have been instructive for The Bunker. There's nothing flashy about Her Story, but it's ruthlessly effective in deploying its aesthetic, and it helps the story land. It's difficult to imagine Her Story without its FMV, whereas it's easy to imagine The Bunker being much better without it.
As someone who recently argued that playing bad games can be instructive, even I have a hard time recommending The Bunker. It's worse than bad. It's boring. If you're going to spend time with trash, consider tracking down a copy of Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller instead.
The Bunker is available now for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.