Supermassive’s latest branching narrative adventure puts you in the middle of decisions like they never have before. Built for VR and Google Daydream, you’re not controlling a character on screen, you actually are the director of the NIA, sitting in their office, their situation room as a country races to the brink of another civil war.
There’s a lot to the fiction of the country in Shattered State that speaks to the modern world in an abstracted way. It’s never given a name, but you learn from the opening newsreel clips of how social struggles broke the country in two, of government corruption, of civil war, of an eventual independence for the south. It’s perhaps a little too cookie cutter at times, but then nobody really batted an eyelid when 24 threw mention of a fictional African nation into the plot or The Avengers went off to rescue Sokovia. It’s a little odd initially to have white American voices juxtaposed with French African accents, but soon settles in.
The day starts nice and breezily with Deputy Director Judy Hines wandering in a little after 9AM to brief you on the interrogation of a young hacktivist. There’s an email drop that could embarrass the Prime Minister set to release within the hour, so how hard do you want to push Daniel? Enhanced interrogation? Good cop, bad cop? Hines’ approach changes depending on your simple decisions, but either way, a real and much more pressing threat emerges from her questioning: an EMP is poised to wreak havoc.
From here, it’s a string of escalating events and decisions and the city and country races back toward civil war. The southerners living in La Fontaine, a ghetto district not far from downtown, are implicated and riled up as the military starts to unexpectedly roll out, but is it them? Or is something else behind this?
Though you’re always only presented with two choices and the main thrust of the plot never changes, you have to peel back the mystery and decide what’s going on and how best to react. Very often there’s two other people in the room offering and pushing for different courses of action, with Hines and Section Chief Ted Rhodes often acting like a devil and angel on your shoulders, though which is which depends on your viewpoint.
Your path through the story can flow back and forth, and Supermassive have done a good job in giving you moderated responses that leave you room to manoeuvre. You can investigate or push for one path, but the description typically states that you’re aware you don’t necessarily have the full picture. A key turning point comes around the middle of the story where, depending on your choices up to that point, Rhodes or Hines comes into your office to ask you to see reason and change course. After that point, it’s all about your sticking to your convictions through the quick-fire decisions.
One real problem with the story is that it’s so condensed that you can’t really get a feel for the current state of the country. This is a 40-50 minute thriller that would ordinarily be spread across a whole season of television, and because of that you’re often being told about stuff instead of shown. You’re told that the current government is corrupt, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t really present any appetising alternatives. If you do decide that the status quo needs to be shaken up, you need to go all in on being a heartless bastard in order to succeed.
Whether you backed one side or the other, whether you succeeded or failed, whether you compromised your morals or had some serious errors in judgement, you’re given a quick rundown at the end of the story via another bookending news reports and a short climactic scene. You’re encouraged to replay the game and explore how the story can shift in different ways, but instead of being shown the matrix of choices and how they sprawl, you’re simply presented with a single string of your decisions.
The problem with deciding to replay the game is that it does break some of the illusions of how well it hangs together on the first play. Right at the start with the interrogation scene, there’s little difference in outcome between the lightest and hardest questioning, and you notice the shift in tone of the voice acting from a tortured captive resolving back to the dialogue that is consistent with a lighter approach. There’s also an inability to skip dialogue or continue from a particular scene and moment, which even in a game that’s less than an hour long soon becomes tedious. When you’re in VR, it’s that much more difficult to check your phone while skimming through bits you’ve already seen.
Supermassive do need to be applauded for what they’ve managed to pull off on Google Daydream. Modern smartphones are powerful – the Lenovo Mirage Solo features a Snapdragon 835, featured in high end Android phones of the last two years – but there’s a lot of compromises and optimisation that needs to be made to create an experience such as this. There’s great detail to the characters and their performance capture, but the scenery is simplistic and restricted to three rooms. They lean on phone and video calls a lot as well, which fits thematically with a political thriller like this, but here you see the joins between snippets of performance even more clearly when they split them up with patchy phone signal.
Shattered State is a short and sweet political thriller that lets you decide the fate of a nation. Supermassive’s mastery of branching narratives and growing experience with VR come together nicely in an experience that’s well worth playing, taking a short break, and then exploring one or two of the other possible outcomes.
Available for Google Daydream