Note: ARGNet received a comped ticket for this show.
Fifteen people huddled together in the Bunker, arranged in a rough circle of couches and chairs. The room itself was a pastiche of Cold War era kitsch, just big enough to fit our group, but small enough to feel a little cramped. The Nostalgia Electrics refrigerator was fully stocked with beverages of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety, and the kitchenette was stocked with all the essential cooking implements, hanging from the wall. Near the couch, a chess set was prominently displayed near period magazines to help us while away the time in a makeshift living room space. On the other side of the room, a small crafting table was positioned to give the group space for tinkering with the odd bits and bobs we found. The only signs of real modernity in the room: a handful of tablets strewn around the room, and a laptop propped up in the corner, broadcasting security cam-style footage of the room to our Artificial Intelligence-based overseer, De-Bunk. The apocalypse arrived, and this would be our home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, that foreseeable future was severely limited by dwindling food supplies and a malfunctioning life support system.
This is the scenario that Broken Ghost Immersive’s The Bunker thrusts its players into at Wildrence, a basement events space in lower Manhattan. A loose collective of individuals, met with the challenge of surviving in a post-apocalyptic hellscape with only their wits, a few rolls of duct tape, and a supply of Twinkies. The roughly 2 hour long show is a bit of a hybrid experience: while it combines elements of a number of immersive styles of play, at its core the experience feels like an intimate parlor LARP, where players’ decisions help them learn about the world they find themselves in as they struggle to survive. Routes to survival might involve using tablet devices to negotiate with residents of other nearby bunkers, donning hazmat suits to explore the wastelands to search for supplies and interact more directly with neighbors, and use those supplies to craft items useful for the bunker’s residents. While there is a set narrative underpinning the entire post-apocalyptic scenario, player choice dictates what elements of that story any given show (or player within that show) might encounter.
The Bunker: A Game of Resource Management
Bunker resources are represented through a series of cards that can either be found through exploratory missions into the wasteland, or created by playing a mini-game to combine items at the crafting station. And over The Bunker‘s seven “day” narrative, carefully managing those resources is essential to survival. Every day, players must “consume” one food card, or run the risk of dying right there, on the spot. Satisfying that need is a constant weight hanging over the bunker, with the very real threat of death looming at every turn. Additional cards can be spent at the crafting table to obtain items necessary for short-term and long-term survival, both for the expeditionary forces and the bunker at large. And along with limited resources comes challenges with distribution. Some resources might be pooled for group consumption, while others get held back to ensure individual survival.
The biggest resource for players to manage, however, is time. As with many megagames, how players choose to spend their time is a much more valuable resource than the cards themselves. This isn’t a game where players can get by focusing exclusively on one element of gameplay, as each element informs the others. Players chatting with other bunkers might unlock new abilities for players tackling the crafting table, while players going out on expeditions might come across information that changes what players negotiating with other bunkers discuss. To encourage players towards a more well-rounded play experience, the game has “nudges” built in that require switching around tasks on a fairly frequent basis. Expedition members might become afflicted with wounds, ailments, and mutations as a result of their journeys, forcing them to be temporarily bunker-bound, while some bunkers may become so hostile that further communications become pointless. Other “nudges” were more direct, as an Achievement Book would dole out cards as rewards to players who helped the team reach set milestones of exploration, crafting, and experimentation.
The Bunker: A Game of Games
The three primary mechanisms of play in The Bunker scratches a slightly different immersive itch. Players who spent more of their time chatting with other Bunkers found themselves playing an alternate reality game of information extraction and negotiation. Since every bunker was tied to a separate tablet’s chat app, players tackling this element of gameplay found themselves physically swapping out devices to carry on conversations with wildly different and engaging characters, punctuated by debriefing sessions for their successor when they rotated out to tackle other bunker emergencies.
Exploratory expeditions were treated as tabletop gaming sessions. Once a day, a group of players would go into the hallway to explore the wasteland, leveraging their wits and resource cards to come back safe. As we learned of additional locations near the bunker, our games master would flip over their tiles on a large wooden board while donning a full hazmat suit to get us in the spirit of things, drawing out how we reacted to a number of post-apocalyptic scenarios. Injuries were met with stickers affixed to the affected body parts, with more serious issues leading to other consequences that might spoil the fun to reveal.
The crafting mini-game was managed through a tabletop game managed through dice and cards. To craft a specific item, players would need to successfully “activate” the component resources by the strategic use of two decks of cards, carefully making sure the player’s frustration levels didn’t go over the limit. Learning the rules for the self-mediated game was somewhat involved, making onboarding players to this element of gameplay the hardest.
Putting these three games together is a bit like playing a megagame where every other faction is populated by non-player characters. Player actions are in constant flux as the group tries to find the right combination of actions to ensure survival, often relying on creative solutions to work within the spirit of the rules.
The Bunker: A Game of Choices
More than anything, The Bunker is a game of tough decisions, made based on imperfect information. As 8-15 players interact with the narrative as individuals or small groups, there are more stories going on than there are players. So when decisions arise, it was rarely an issue of “do this and Bunker 43 will like you more, but Bunker 77 will get angry at you.” Instead, decisions were focused around what costs players were willing to pay. Not just in terms of time and resources, but in terms of players’ own humanity. Everything in The Bunker has a cost, even if players don’t realize it at first.
Some of the choice also involves how deep players want to get with their involvement. While The Bunker feels like an elaborately staged parlor LARP, players are not assigned characters and can approach the game anywhere on the spectrum, from alternate reality games’ approach of playing like a version of yourself that believes everything around you is happening to LARP’s more character-driven style of play. While the type of engagement players came looking for differed wildly, most players seemed to find their groove within the game. At any time, players had the option to partake in the bunker’s fully-stocked mini-fridge. But once the game started in earnest, players didn’t take advantage of that fact because they were so involved with narrative discovery and survival in one form or another. This game isn’t one for spectators, though. While watching everyone scurry around trying to plug holes in a sinking ship would be incredibly entertaining, having too many disengaged players can run the risk of endangering the fun for the whole group because of how necessary it is to have active players tackling all elements of the experience.
It may be possible to get a happier end in The Bunker, but our group didn’t find it – one of our choices early on in the game set the stage for our ultimate downfall months down the line. But the way it played out in the post-game narration made our untimely [spoiler redacted] feel almost like a victory. If you’re curious if your Bunker squad might fare better, act quick: The Bunker will only be running for another month, through September 16th. And bring along a friend or two, since half the fun is seeing how the end of the world changes people you thought you knew.
To order tickets for The Bunker, go to Broken Ghost Immersives.