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Game Review: Pandemic

20 August 2018
Appeared in BioNews 963

(If you cannot see the video above, click here to view it.)

'Are you willing to bend the rules?'

This is the first of many questions that you will be faced with in director John Bradburn's latest project with London's Science Museum: 'Pandemic', commissioned as part of the Frankenstein Festival. It follows a format which may be familiar to some: that of 'choose-your-own-adventure'. Not a genre known for its rich canon of important works, but nevertheless one treasured by 8-13 year olds the world over.

For those who aren't familiar with the format, it takes the form of a non-linear interactive narrative; you decide where the story goes. But Pandemic is not a book. It is a series of YouTube videos, each ending with two (normally yes or no) options to choose from, each of which takes you down a different path.

Pandemic begins with a premise: there is, unsurprisingly, a pandemic. Said pandemic has taken the form of a viral heart condition which is spreading rapidly and killing many. There is no cure. Yet.

The only viable treatment is a heart transplant, for which - as in the real world - there are very few donors. As the disease progresses, more hearts will be needed if the world is to be saved. Where could they come from?

This where you step in – or rather, decide whether to step in not. You follow, and make decisions on behalf of, the young Dr Moritz, who has joined a seemingly crack scientific research group led by a ferocious archetypal 'monster supervisor' Dr Victor. Appropriate, given that the director called the piece 'his answer to Frankenstein'. And in my opinion, the underlying science is often not of a dissimilar quality.

The group is toying with an idea which might save the world: create a pig-human hybrid, with enough genetic similarity to a human to avoid an immunological response when the heart is transplanted, and use said hybrid as a source of hearts for transplantation (with obvious consequences for the donor creature). I don't need to spell out the moral and ethical dilemmas associated with that. Should you? Shouldn't you? You decide.

Despite its enormous ambition, said research group seems to be based in a sixth-form college, with such cutting edge equipment as the humble dissecting microscope. Now, I appreciate that the average viewer may not be irritated by this in quite the way I am as a scientist, but to me, it's symptomatic of a larger set of problems which stopped me from enjoying Pandemic in the way thought I would at the outset.

There are a number of glaring issues with production, execution and underlying science. The first criticism I have to raise is with the acting, which in parts is, well, more wooden than the Amazon rainforest. Despite often accidentally coming full circle and becoming an accurate representation of the daily interactions of academics, it makes for difficult viewing at times. My initial reaction was 'Wow, they've gotten actual scientists to act in this!', but alas, no, they are professional actors. Not to say there aren't good performances, or that the performances are consistently awful – but it's just enough to make the whole experience less immersive.

Minor technical annoyances also detract further from the immersion. Audio is only present in one channel for many of the videos. This might be nothing to some, but I found it frustrating. Maybe I missed a plot point, and the character you are following is deaf in her right ear.

And so, to the science. A key moment – spoiler alert – is deciding on the ratio of human/pig DNA in the hybrid creatures you are creating. Do you up the ratio of pig to human DNA to 60/40 percent?

What? A creature with a random 60/40 mix of pig/human DNA. Hmm. If that works, it stands to reason that a 50/50 mix might as well, and then… you could just cut out the scientific middle man and, well... Let's go no further down that path, but suffice to say it would be a very different film.

And what would science be without the spectre of an evil mega-corporation secretly providing all the funding behind the scenes with the sole intent of making a tidy profit off an already unethical process? Can't miss that, because we know that all science is secretly backed by raging ultra-capitalists desperate to exploit everyone, every step of the way.

I am not suggesting that film-making should be scientifically accurate. The reality of science, and of bioethics, is a long dull trudge, not a whirlwind adventure - and wouldn't make for a good choose-your-own-adventure. I just that feel a work commissioned by the Science Museum, with the explicit aim of engaging people in the ethics of scientific research, should at least nod towards reality. I don't doubt that it will engage people, but I'm afraid it will reinforce familiar tropes about the scientific process which are ultimately damaging.

So, Pandemic - I love the concept. Given that it's free, and easily accessible on YouTube, I feel a lot of the above minor niggles re: acting can be forgiven. It is definitely fun, sometimes challenging and to its credit, thought-provoking.

But that said, I don't think Pandemic will be a positive force in helping the public to understand how ethical scientific decisions are made, and it reinforces stereotypes which are damaging.

Would I recommend it?  As free entertainment on YouTube, yes. As a collaboration with the Science Museum for engaging the public? I'd have to choose no.

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