I am a photographer based in Sydney.
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Published January 20th 2016
In my travels through the internet I came across this game called Plague Sydney. Naturally, I was intrigued, downloaded the app (for free) onto my phone and set out one morning to save Sydney.
First, a quick history lesson so everyone is clear about the historical context of this game. For a more detailed account, see here.
Throughout the early 20th century, the bubonic plague raised its ugly head multiple times in Sydney. It started in January 1900, when a worker of the Central Wharf Company fell ill and was diagnosed with the 'Black Death', spurring a wave of panic through the inner city neighbourhoods of The Rocks and Darling Harbour. Many people were infected, many were quarantined and many died.
Ship rats, or more specifically fleas residing on ship rats, had brought the plague from southeast Asia to Australia, and ratcatchers started hunting and killing tens of thousands of rats, then burning them to eradicate the disease. The Rocks was barricaded off and residents were enlisted to disinfect their neighbourhood with carbolic acid and, if required, to go as far as to burn down their own house. The outbreak was contained by August 1900.
Now to the game.
Main idea of the game: Save Sydney from the plague!
The game in one sentence: You walk around The Rocks, find infected patients, fight rats, and visit the hospital if you are bitten.
For those of you who want to know more:
I went to the starting point of the game, Kendall Lane near the Discovery Museum, and opened the app. There are two main screens – one that shows a photo of the area around 1900 and one that shows a map. There is also a count on the side indicating how many patients you have saved and how healthy you are (out of 100).
As soon as you start playing, you hear terrible groaning and whimpering – the infected are calling you! You, a Health Department medical officer, need to visit all the infected within the time limit (one hour) to win the game. The patients are marked on the map with their portraits. But here's the twist: there are infected rats in the area that are going to kill you if you are not careful. When you happen upon rats you can either choose to run (keep walking away from the area) or you can fight (click a button that says FIGHT). Either way, the rats can easily overrun you and once you die the only way to win the game is to start from scratch. During the game you can visit the hospital to restore your health and breathe for a short while.
As you tick off patients from the list, more and more infected turn up (more portraits keep appearing on your map). When you come across a patient, a recording plays that gives you a little story about her. More often than not, the patient is annoyed by your efforts and assures you that she isn't actually sick – but you know better. While you are walking between patients, the app plays recordings of ads for plague medicine and other happenings. It also displays photos of the area from 1990.
Find infected by walking towards their portraits on the map. The hospital offers respite and a top up in health.
The verdict: A fun idea, but leaves you guessing a little.
There aren't any clear instructions as to what you should do after starting at the museum. I thought I'd have to wait and listen for instructions, but then realised after a few minutes that I actually needed to walk to the portraits. The sound was just there for my amusement and mainly consisted of ads telling me about how this new anti-plague juice would increase my chances of survival.
Another issue is the rats. They kill you very easily. I was happily visiting patients, having seen five or so already, and thought I was on track. Boom! Rats! Dead! The only way to keep playing is to restart the game. That means going back and visiting all those patients again. Since I was using the game to explore The Rocks as well as save Sydney, this wasn't so great. I died, I started again, I knew which area to avoid because of rats, but then ran into another rat pack and died again. I didn't think third time's a charm. I stopped. Having said that, you can choose to play this game as a 'story only' without the rats; maybe that is the better option.
Overall, I would say that this a fun, different way of exploring The Rocks. It really highlighted the fact that this actually happened here – and not too long ago. And if you can get over the fact that the execution of the game is pretty simple and sometimes slightly confusing, then great. The app is free to download, so I could forgive.
I'd recommend to either just play the 'story version' (without the rats) or to not get too hung up when you die and play it for the different stories you get from patients.