Mike Bithell Talks Quarantine Circular, Narrative Choice, and Circumventing Sci-Fi Expectations

By Laura Kate Dale on at

Much like last year's Subsurface Circular, today game developer Mike Bithell today released his newest game on Steam without a whole lot of warning or fanfare. Titled Quarantine Circular, the game is a short branching narrative text adventure game where players have to make contact with the first alien on Earth and, with limited time at their disposal, make moral judgements about the safest way to handle a perceived threat. The game is set in a disturbingly possible near future Earth, and you can read our hands on impressions of the game here.

We got to play Quarantine Circular ahead of its official release, and had some time to sit down with developer Mike Bithell to chat about the experience. We did our best to keep the discussion spoiler-free, but I would still recommend reading our hands-on with the game here before digging into the meat of our chat with Bithell. We discussed the troubles of balancing player choices in the game, as well as the types of sci-fi franchises Bithell actively wanted to push back against while crafting his narrative.

Considering the relatively short nature of Bithell's last two games, and the less-than-a-year turnaround between their releases, I was curious how much time there was after development ended on Subsurface Circular before he jumped into work on Quarantine Circular. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't terribly long at all:

So I always expect the gap to be longer than it ends up being. I definitely found when we finished the first game and folks seemed to like it, and it seemed to be finding an audience, it got exciting to me to do something else with the same kind of mechanics, and build on what people were saying. There were definitely things I wanted to do. So I think, realistically, probably I started mapping it out in my head maybe a couple of weeks after Subsurface Circular launched. I was at DICE Europe I think, and I was literally sat listening to a talk, doodling, you know, ideas about how I wanted to change the UI around, some new features. So, yeah, it’s very quickly I decided to do something else with the idea.

I asked Bithell about the changes he wanted to make while he was working on Subsurface Circular's follow-up. "I think the biggest bit of feedback on Subsurface Circular was the element of choice and the focus of players on being incorporated more into the storytelling," he said. "That was something that I think is an expectation of the genre. We have this weird dialogue-based text adventure thing, and I think it obviously feels a bit like a visual novel. I love Subsurface Circular, but increased choice was definitely something that it felt like the audience was interested in".

One of the bigger changes that I appreciated as a player of Subsurface Circular before Quarantine Circular, was the downplaying of complex linguistic puzzles; something that apparently resulted from players' frustration with some of the puzzles in the original game. On the flip side, Bithell wanted to make the structure of conversations more complex, to avoid treading the same ground he had already covered previously:

We noticed a lot of players were getting kind of frustrated by some of the puzzles, so we wanted to do puzzles that felt more integrated with the story and play with that idea a bit. For me personally, a big thing was trying to bring the idea of multi-character conversation in and trying, rather than doing one-on-one conversations, mixing that up and actually allowing group dynamics to come into play.

One of my few complaints while playing Quarantine Circular, a point brought up in our impressions piece on the game, was the fact that players are, at times, forced to play as characters whose motivations they may not agree with. The clash between offering player choice, but not the ability to change the core of a character's intentions, occasionally felt awkward. According to Bithell, walking this line was one of the more difficult design challenges involved in creating the experience:

It’s very delicate, because you definitely don’t want to betray who a character is or have weird reversals. Generally, we went with the idea of casting the player as an actor and saying, look, you’re creating this story with us, and yes, there’s going to be, by definition, a kind of constraint. Where possible, we allowed you to soften the stances of characters that had strong opinions that maybe you disagreed with. We also tried to, I guess, challenge you in those expectations as well, and tried to make characters for whom there were shades of grey, so you could find something in them that you did agree with, maybe, or tweak. But yeah, it was definitely one of the challenges, because we wanted to have characters that had positions and stances. And like you say, if those don’t gel with the player, it can be jarring.

In one specific case, we knew we were putting the player in a potentially very jarring position. So we tried to intentionally bite into that 'jarringness', and intentionally use that moment to shock and surprise the player. Where possible, we went with allowing the player to make choices that could push things in slightly different directions and allow you to put your version on top of what the character’s already doing. But then in places that we knew it was going to be jarring, we tried to use that as a narrative conceit that we could make use of and tell our story better by making you feel uncomfortable in that moment, or surprising you by that moment.

While chatting about Quarantine Circular, one topic that came up was the game's adherence to and rejection of Sci-fi genre conventions and expectations:

I think Star Trek hangs quite heavily over this one. I’m a massive Trekkie - Deep Space Nine is the best series, and Next Generation is a close second! I definitely think there was some stuff in there that I wanted to play with, about Star Trek and some of Star Trek’s philosophy that I find really interesting. I think that’s the thing; that’s why I like Star Trek – Star Trek constantly challenges Star Trek. Good Star Trek does, anyway.

I’d say this is probably most reactive to something like Star Trek, those kind of philosophical pondering stories. This is a story about a group of quite enlightened humans, I guess, who are trying to solve a problem, and through solving that problem are coming into a lot of interesting philosophical quandaries, hopefully.

As this is now the second game in a row Bithell has worked on that focuses heavily on narrative and text exploration over traditional gameplay mechanics, in contrast to his earlier works, I thought it pertinent to ask if he missed working on those kind of gameplay-centric titles that more traditionally fit the model of what a video game is. Put simply, it does seem like he misses at least some aspects of those projects:

Yeah, I definitely want to go and do more of that kind of work. It’s been about a year I’ve been playing with these ideas. I mean, Subsurface Circular only came out in August and that was only made for four months. I think we’re just over a year in terms of making, so these two games are the product of that year. It’s been a fun experience. I’m always going to keep jumping around – if you look at my previous games it went platformer, stealth game, VR game, and now narrative text-adventure games. I’m going to jump around a lot and I think people should hopefully, by now, know that that’s likely – without saying any more! But yeah, I’ve had fun with this and it’s definitely something I’d like to return to at some point.

Lastly, to wrap up our chat, I asked Bithell a little about the aspects of the game that didn't go as expected, or that he didn't enjoy as much as he thought he would going in:

Well, I don’t enjoy writing, that’s definitely true! And it’s frustrating because I like having written, and there’s someone I’m quoting there who’s definitely said that publicly. The idea of having written something is so much more fun to me than actually doing the work. Whereas with game design and graphic design, I enjoy the act of doing it. With writing it’s just constantly hitting my head against the monitor.

But in terms of things that went differently than expected – there was definitely some choices in terms of quite how much branching we did in the game that are way beyond what was originally planned. Like, choices make more of a difference in this game than Subsurface Circular by quite some margin. And that obviously adds to a lot more work. Which is fine, you know, and I’m proud of the result, but that’s the thing – I plan out the story on post-it notes before I start. I've got it right next to me now, and it is… it’s a charmingly linear story I had in mind! It’s a pretty straightforward thing, but we went off-piste a little bit with that! I think that’s probably the biggest surprise; it’s just kind of how far we ran with that. I think there’s definitely more we could potentially do in other games to even expand on that further, but yeah, that was the surprise – just finding that was fun, and the playtesters wanted that much range and variety, which was cool.

If you'd like to read more about Quarantine Circular, you can read our write up on the game here. The game is out now on Steam.