It’s not complicated
With whole countries on lockdown, race-based paranoia everywhere, and people feeling scared and vulnerable, Wales Interactive couldn’t have picked a better (or worse) time to release The Complex than during a global pandemic. Like most of WI’s titles, The Complex is a narrative-driven FMV experience with multiple endings that depend on the player’s decisions. The opening scene moves at a brisk clip, a frantic figure in a hazmat suit running along a grey beach set to a pounding soundtrack. This is you, Dr Amy Tenent (Michelle Mylett), a research scientist working in a war zone, and your first task is to choose to save a pregnant woman or a young boy. From the start, The Complex wants you to know that things are going to get stressful, and on the first playthrough, it mostly lives up to that promise.
Five years later, Amy is experimenting with “nanocells” – stem cells infused with nanotechnology – that could change the future of medicine and space exploration. You’re also introduced to the loud but affable idiot Dr Rees Wakefield (Al Weaver), infected intern Clare (Kim Adis), executive assistant Emily (Rachel Petladwala), and the excellent Kate Dickie as startup founder Nathalie Kensington. While examining Clare, who has somehow ended up pumped full of volatile nanocells, Amy and Rees find themselves trapped in a state-of-the-art biotech facility. With Clare’s life on the line, a terrorist conspiracy, and armed intruders at their doorstep, the player must help Amy find a way out.
On the nose
Mercifully, The Complex does a decent job of making you confront the weight of your decisions, at least on the first run. Nonetheless, I’m certain that my first playthrough would have been less taxing without coronavirus mania gripping the world, especially because the victimized group in the game is from a fictional Asian country (and former British colony) called Kindar. It turns out that Kindarians have been used as medical guinea pigs by the Kensington Corporation. The icing on the cliche cake is that Kindar is recovering from a brutal civil war under a totalitarian “Supreme Leader” who will stop at nothing to quash dissenters. But it isn’t all bad – as one rich, white NPC quips early in the game, “it’s also a tax haven.”
Like most FMV games, there isn’t much to do but immerse yourself in the story, side-eye your options as Amy, and hope for the best. Amy mostly navigates her way around ethical dilemmas, inadvertently affecting relationships with the characters around her in something akin to a “butterfly effect” system. At pivotal points in the game, Amy’s limited choices appear on the screen, ranging from saving different characters’ lives to sneaking a peek at a half-dressed colleague. These are timed – if you fail to choose, a decision will be made for you.
In the nose
With 179 scenes and 9 different endings, there’s a lot that can go wrong, especially as gameplay affects Amy’s personality at the end of the game. To the surprise of absolutely no-one, my first Amy is deemed “Neurotic,” but the logic behind this assessment is unclear – on the next playthrough, I make vastly different choices (including allowing Clare to suffer without painkillers) and get high marks for sensitivity.
These sorts of interactive films are designed for multiple playthroughs, but tension and dramatic irony mostly lose steam after the second run; while I manage to uncover a few enlightening tidbits, these new revelations – all tied to the main story trunk – have no apparent impact on Amy, which seems like a huge wasted opportunity. For instance, a new scene shows Amy learning that someone copied her security card, but she doesn’t do anything about it. In another, she finds a storage room full of suspiciously smashed vials, and again, doesn’t question this discovery, even when another character brings it up.
On my first run, Nathalie gets what she wants and enables humans to land on Mars, albeit at the expense of brown-skinned lives. On my second, Amy manages to uncover Nathalie’s corruption, at the expense of world-changing advances in tech. By the time I start my fourth playthrough, my eyes are glazed over, and I don’t even care. I just want my static, unchanging Amy to absorb new information around her and learn from it.
Maybe it just is the nose at this point
With writer Lynn Renee Maxcy’s prestige television pedigree (The Handmaid’s Tale), The Complex excels at sitcom-style patter, effective and economical writing, and some truly heartfelt moments. Weaver and Adis are extra fun to watch, considering that the latter is mostly stuck in a bio-containment unit. But despite Adis’ energy in the role (she does a solid job at visceral suffering), Clare mostly serves as a mirror for the others’ prejudices and assumptions of her guilt as a Kindarian terrorist. The abject waste of Clare makes me wonder what The Complex would be like with multiple playthroughs from different characters’ perspectives to refine the narrative and make bolder explorations of their power dynamics.
Given the setup – clueless white scientist comes to terms with the consequences of her groundbreaking research – The Complex is a particularly vanilla flavour of dystopia that fails to inspire. These are uncomfortable tropes we’ve seen before, especially when it comes to expendable minorities and the guilt-ridden white people fretting over them. Even without the COVID-19 pandemic living rent-free in our brains, The Complex – despite its noble efforts – ends up feeling rather flat.
[Reviewed on PS4]