Editor's note: In the interest of transparency, we should point out that erstwhile Eurogamer contributor Kieron Gillen and current Eurogamer contributor Simon Parkin were both closely involved in the making of The Curfew, as writer and producer respectively. We've tried to remain as impartial as possible in this report. But we're proud of our boys!
Whenever the "games as art" argument rears its flabby old face, debate usually shifts immediately to the provocation of emotional response. Boo hoo, poor old Aeris and all that. Less commonly discussed is the ability of games to provoke an intellectual response: to make us analyse and reconsider the way we see the world.
That's where "serious games" come in, a rather austere name for a small but growing area of design where interactive amusements are put to use exploring real world issues. Often web-based, and almost always free to play, this is gaming as activism, or at least gaming as an exercise in awareness.
Notable entries in the genre include the BBC-funded Climate Challenge, which presents the multiple compromises and problems involved in tackling climate change on a global level as an addictive resource-management game, and the stark Darfur Is Dying, which, rather naively, uses arcade game mechanics to highlight the horrors of African genocide.
The Curfew is the latest offering in this growing field of games theory, this time developed by BAFTA-winning design agency Littleloud and produced in conjunction with Channel 4, with moral support from the likes of Amnesty International and Liberty.
Set in 2525, it depicts a Children of Men-style future in which Britain is spiralling into totalitarian crisis. Picking up its plot thread in the current recession, the game predicts years of economic ruin followed by a failed terrorist attempt to detonate a nuclear device on UK soil. This is all it takes for the ruling Shepherd Party government to clamp down hard on civil liberties, dividing the British people into Category A and Category B. Those who earn enough Citizen Points make up the first category, and get preferential treatment. Most are stuck in the second category, with few freedoms and a state-enforced curfew that empties the streets at 9pm.
You're dunked into this dystopian brew as a young rebel, recently handed a data packet that could bring down the government and, presumably, begin to roll back the calamitous changes to our society. The action revolves around a safe house: a low-rent hostel where those still outside after curfew can find refuge rather than be scooped up by the police. You've got one night to work out which of four fellow curfew-dodgers to trust with the information you've been given, and also work out how to make them trust you in return.
You do this through gameplay that is part point-and-click FMV adventure, part hidden object puzzler. Each of the four characters triggers his or her own sequence of playable flashbacks, during which you discover what led them to the safe house that night, and after each section you can choose which questions to ask. Poor choices lead to a loss of trust, while good observation and shrewd diplomacy can turn a suspicious stranger into a valuable ally.
Hot spots lead to interactions or conversations, while you can make limited use of the latest technology to aid you in your quest. Most notably, you have a phone which can detect "air tags", a sort of wi-fi graffiti that downloads info when located. Holding the phone over the scene, you get an augmented reality view which extrapolates modern day smartphone apps into something more like the magic sunglasses from John Carpenter's seminal satire, They Live. Locating secret images and information apparently opens up bonus lines of questioning, but on the occasion that I managed to find all three bonus items, the questioning didn't seem radically different.
Nor is the conversational meat of the game particularly sophisticated. Frequently you'll choose one reply, only to be sent back to the decision screen to choose another (sometimes contradictory) response in order to get the story back in motion. There are also several occasions where every response leads to the same outcome, an illusion of dialogue that is forgiveable given the restrictions of the web-browser framework, but still disappointing when such interactions form the heart of the game.
Progress is hardly taxing, made difficult more because the workings of the game aren't always clearly signposted (at least in this beta version). But a smattering of arcade sections ensure that it's more than just an interactive sermon. In the first character chapter - the only one available right now - you get to play a government-approved shooting gallery game, wash the windows of an elderly dissident, and take out a CCTV camera Beano-style using a catapult.
These interludes are technically clunky, but it's easy to appreciate the effort they represent. More successful is a chase sequence which finds you blindly picking directions to escape from the police, before what feels like a completely unfair twist leads into a neat punchline.
The video-heavy gameplay also has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it summons up unwelcome memories of the mid-nineties fascination with full-motion video, and the resulting mix of real actors and locations with CG embellishment can feel stilted and stagey. On the other, it successfully conjures up a claustrophobic atmosphere and the decaying world it creates feels well-conceived and believable. The conceit of trapping the characters in the safe house overnight is dramatically satisfying as well, giving proceedings the feel of an experimental piece of theatre.
The acting varies wildly, though, with some ropey performances standing out all the more alongside the ones that manage to convincingly sell the fiction. Rabble-rousing political comedian Mark Thomas cameos as a bland yet sinister government-approved newsreader, but the bizarre stand-out is former EastEnders star Nigel Harman, who dresses like Raffles the gentleman thief and camps it up something rotten as a dealer of unlicensed videogames. Sadly, the game he's selling is The Call of Grand Theft Duty XIII: Hyperdeath Electrofight, a sledgehammer parody that will elicit a painful groan from most gamers.
While the gameplay sometimes feels a tad perfunctory, it's more absorbing than most web-based games and the high production values certainly help in that regard. Where The Curfew struggles most, at least in this early spin through the first quarter of its promised content, is in the message it tries to convey.
Thankfully, it doesn't browbeat the player with too many political diatribes, preferring instead to let the mood of dry social satire do the heavy lifting. A couple of clunkers - "Smile, you're on camera, they say. Meanwhile, liberty weeps" - slip through, but The Curfew is always more interested in advancing the game than the manifesto.
It's just not entirely clear what message is being conveyed. It's apparently inspired by the fact that curfews are already implemented in the UK, with the police able to send under-16s home after 9pm, but that's a far cry from the crushing fascist boot portrayed in the game, where second-class citizens have to queue separately for their fast food while automated police sentries buzz the streets and armed cops seal off residential roads on a whim.
If this enjoyable but exaggerated dystopian fiction is supposed to make us think about the world today, it does so at the risk of falling into the same slippery-slope approach to debate used by those who squeal that if we let men marry men, then what's to stop us all marrying tables and dogs? The themes are well-intentioned and certainly important, but it also feels too far removed from the actual issues of today to really work as an educational tool.
A less fantastical grounding for the tale might have made it a more compelling work of activism, but likely at the cost of an interesting story and game-world. So-called serious games often feel awkwardly stretched between the entertainment demands of gameplay and the intellectual demands of the Sunday supplement journalists who end up covering them, and if The Curfew wobbles along that line, it's only because it dares to walk it with more confidence than its peers. Arguably of more interest to students of game design than those looking for a lunchbreak time waster, it at least feels like an actual game, and not just a pamphlet controlled with the cursor keys.
Currently in a beta trial phase, with some missing text and a couple of Flash hiccups, The Curfew is nevertheless shaping up as an interesting, and often entertaining, example of how gaming is pushing into new territory. You can try it for yourself at The Curfew website.