You & Him: Curing Doctor Who

By Alec Meer on June 14th, 2010 at 10:23 pm.

That Doctor Who game: a fantastic promise but ultimately an unhappy time. All that exciting adventuring we saw in the trailers and in the interviews, only to be realised as repetitive and frustrating minigames, clearly made for a gamepad. I don’t wish to twist the knife unduly – it is, after all, a free game, a very welcome bonus for UK TV license-payers, and one of painfully few attempts at sending the Doctor to the one universe he’s never really sussed out. Even a poor meal is something to be grateful for when someone cooks it as a favour.

So I come here not to bury Dr Caesar, but to praise what he could be. Any future Doctor Who game has to keep only one thing in mind to be on the right track from the off.

Watching the last couple of episodes of the Moffat era-Who – which are probably the best this ancient series has ever been – one failing has has been acutely obvious. Amy Pond, the latest companion, is so often just a cipher. That’s why the last two episodes have pushed her into the background, and people like Vincent Van Gogh and the wobbly-bellied fellow from Gavin and Stacey into the foreground.

Sure, there’ll be high drama and snappy zingers aplenty to come for Amy, but already she’s performed her main role – the wonder and excitement of jumping into a magic box and travelling across space and time. That’s why every episode shows some new character experiencing some of that. That’s the Doctor Who fantasy. That’s exactly what Doctor Who: The Adventure Games doesn’t do.

It doesn’t do it because it makes you play as the Doctor, not play with the Doctor. Really, that’s the root of why it goes a bit wrong, and why almost any developer might well have struggled to make a great game from this mandate. The joy of the series, when it works, is seeing the timelord babble pseudoscience with enough conviction and excitement that it’s essentially magic.

To explain how he does what he does and what he’s actually doing when he waves a glowing stick at the things is to ruin it – and that’s exactly what the rewiring and hacking minigames are doing. They’re trying to make you do whatever it is the Doctor does, and by doing so removing all the wonder. All a good Who game really needs to do is to show you him doing whatever mad, incoherent thing he does and let you share in it.

So: make you the companion. Sure, let Amy (or whichever other dad-pleasing actress happens to currently share the cover of the Radio Times with Matt Smith) be there too, but make you the companion. Build in a simple character generator or do it from a first-person perspective of sorts: anything that makes players feel like they’re travelling with the Doctor.

In the show’s entire history, even its most miserable, Colin Bakery moments, that’s what it’s been about. It’s humans going on a strange and wondeful adventure with a strange and wonderful man wearing strange and wonderful clothing.

The best moment of the first episode of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games was when it asked me for my name. Excitedly, I typed in ‘Alec.’ I was going on an adventure with the Doctor!

Five minutes later, I was guiding a man in a brown suit around some pavement. There was no coming back from that, really. Let me be Alec next time.

(How a developer creates worthy challenges from following, watching and occasionally being humiliatingly captured is a whole new problem, of course.)

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34 Comments »

  1. Xercies says:

    I think your last sentence in brackets kind of said it all there, yu being the companion wouldn’t work in any game sense. Sure the wonder of Doctor Who is the companions on the adventure with the doctor but you can get away with that in the TV series you can’t really get away with that in a game where basically you have to be doing stuff. if your idea was in a game…it would kind of be boring and frustrating, why is that Doctor getting to do all the work what am i doing? Nothing. So yeah I think a game really has to be in the Doctors shoes for it to work as a game.

    • DrazharLn says:

      I disagree, come up with a good enough plot and the companions can be useful and playable.

      The doctor often finds excuses not to go places, send you instead to infiltrate the splarkan base and deactivate the deTARDISifying field so the doctor can come join you.

      Give the companion some roleplaying elements while alone, give the game a twist, if you do something the Doctor doesn’t like he leaves you abandoned on Wherever III.

      It would be a challenge to give the player enough to do while keeping the Doctor active, but it wouldn’t be impossible.

    • The_B says:

      Yup, have to agree that a not-playing-as-The-Doctor game would be perfectly possible and feasible.

      One of the often considered ‘best’ episodes of the Doc since the reluanch is 2005′s ‘Blink’ -also by Steven Moffat. The important thing to note about this episode is that, in fact, the Doctor himself is not actually actively saving the day at all. In fact, it’s the human character introduced within the episode that actually does all the activities with the Doctor providing clues hints and help. So the basic example of how to do it is already there in, ironically, the series itself.

    • ulix says:

      You could also not be able to choose (or create) a companion.

      If you’d play someone like Leila there could actually be some action (and killing!) in them. Yay! (Will of course not happen)

  2. westyfield says:

    “even its most miserable, Colin Bakery moments”

    I mis-read that as Tom Baker at first, was just getting ready to type up an angry comment when I realised my mistake.

    Tarnish not the fine name of Tom Baker!

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Tom Baker was famously wonky.

      KG

    • Bret says:

      Wonky is kinda losing all meaning today, innit?

    • RobF says:

      And drunk. Wonky and drunk. Like a horse.

    • Wulf says:

      B-bu-but… Colin Baker was amazing, plus, his Doctor was the only one that was smart enough to fix the Chameleon Circuit.

      Poor Colin. :< He and Sylvester McCoy are so under-appreciated, and yet they're vital parts of Who history. I suppose I might just be more generous than most, though, because I can't think of a bad Doctor. Even liked Eccleston lots, wish he'd stayed around longer.

    • Chris D says:

      The Colin Baker years are generally acknowledged as the low point of the series. I don’t think this was Colin Baker’s fault though, and things did pick up again during the trial of a timelord series.

      Also, even at it’s worst Doctor Who is still good.

  3. Sui says:

    Yeah, I’d agree. Furthermore, I’d add that the problem with the game is that it’s clearly been made by… gamers. What’s that, you say? Gamers? Surely that’s a good thing? Well, not when the developers are trying to mould the Doctor into the action-adventurer character archetype that’s been conditioned into every video gamer’s head. This means that as the Doctor can’t actually shoot, maim or kill anyone, the player is restricted to stealth gameplay, which is very hard to do right, especially by a small Sheffield development team.

    Of course, I’m being facetious by saying it shouldn’t be made by gamers. What I mean is that the developers need to think outside the box. As a development team, I’d say they’ve got a huge advantage by having access to the show’s cast and script writers. They should have made more use of that, and rather than getting the writer to bash out some linear GAME-STORY which is basically a quest from A to B with the occasional quip from the Doctor. They should have made it not an ACTION game, but a dialoge and exploration game. Like Deus Ex or Alpha Protocol but without any of the shooting.

    And rather than making half a dosen (or so) bland, empty levels, they should have made one small level, richly detailed, but within which the player can TRAVEL IN TIME. Because, like, that’s cool. You should be able to make choices and decisions and CHANGE THINGS.

    Basically, they should have combined Deus Ex and The Ocarina of Time. That sounds like an ambitious statement considering that they’re working within a limited time frame and with a BBC budget, but actually, many of the aspects of these games would allow them to cut corners. having one level that changes as you travel between time periods would cut down on level design and art assets (providing you’re not travelling between periods too far apart), and dialogue-based gameplay would be much easier to nail / polish than making an entire stealth system from scratch.

    • bob_d says:

      This makes a lot of sense in relation to how they’ve written the companions in this series (as opposed to the screamers of yesteryear); the companion, despite not really understanding what’s going on, often has insights and questions that lead the Doctor to an understanding/solution that he otherwise wouldn’t have (or would have taken much longer to develop). A dialog-driven game where you interact with various characters, develop a general understanding of the situation that doesn’t require knowing any technical details, and then use that information to guide the Doctor in certain directions with further questions and comments makes a lot of sense to me.

    • mandrill says:

      “What I mean is that the developers need to think outside the box”

      But surely the box is bigger on the inside?

  4. Urthman says:

    The Doctor doing inscrutible, clever, surprising, weird stuff needs to be the reward for when you finish some bit of gameplay mechanic. It shouldn’t be the gameplay mechanic.

    It should be like an escort mission where the AI character is smarter/better than than you. You have to struggle to keep up and it’s you that will screw things up if at all. In a stealth section, The Doctor always goes undetected (maybe even hilariously so), but you must be careful to be stealthy. The Doctor would go up to a puzzle door and say, “Just do this!” then he does something too fast for you to follow and the door shuts behind him, leaving you to try to figure out what he did. He’d hand you some weird device and say, “Use this to keep the Cybermen at bay while I finish regasticulating this mezariffimator!” And of course you’d get a chance to rescue him or get some crucial bit of information or macguffin to him.

    • DrGonzo says:

      That sounds like a game I would buy.

    • bob_d says:

      It could easily end up being hilarious, really, the whole “do things to provoke the Doctor into action” gameplay. Especially if you extended the dynamic such that you have to go off and deliberately get into trouble in order to get the Doctor to do certain things… I’m liking the idea.

  5. James Brophy says:

    I was worried there for a moment, but those are all excellent points. The thing That I would love to see above everything else Is the tardis. Games being the only medium where it becomes cost effective to really show off the utter strangeness of walking into the tardis from outside it. Portals being the obvious way to do it. This being a technology we have had working seamlessly since prey and has been perfected with portal.

    One way to get round you actually trying to use the tardis or not being able to get too deep into it (and therefore defining it) would be if the semi sentient tardis takes a disliking to you.

    I think if this run of games are successful (Still have no idea how they are judged if there are no sales.) then there are great opportunities for this to take off in much bigger ways with a larger budget and more writers to help fill the promise of the adventure game title.

  6. kulak says:

    See Day Of The Tentacle for how to mess with time in an innovative and clever way, that has not yet been bested (yes, not even by those games who’s sole gimmick is time manipulation, YES EVEN BRAID)

  7. Urthman says:

    Oh and Sui is right, that the games should be much more conversation driven (like the TV show). You should control The Doctor’s conversation options, as well as your own.

    And there should be Time Travel strategy elements. You should get to go places/times with the TARDIS and you should have to figure out where and when. The game needs to be something like The Last Express.

    Being able to go places would probably make the player frustrated at not being able to go anywhere he pleases – this could be solved by having indirect control — The Doctor asks you which of these places/times you’d like to go — or like Sui suggests, making the TARDIS stuck in one spot but able to go to many different times. But I’d really like a TARDIS that can visit lots of places as well.

  8. James Brophy says:

    I think everyone was expecting something more like broken sword and less like em.. I don’t think any 3rd person stealth games have made enough of an impression on me to remember them. Basically something way more tell tale in style.

  9. bob_d says:

    The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a game mechanic that involves running around getting *into* trouble, rather than the *getting out of trouble* that most games involve. You’d have to deliberately steer your character into traps, getting lost, and being menaced by threats you’re not equipped to deal with, etc. so you can discover new information to advance the plot and/or so that the Doctor can rescue you.
    Of course, as you said, the whole “sidekick” dynamic is incredibly challenging to pull off, and not just in a game. The show has traditionally had a real problem with knowing what to do with the sidekicks. I think Barry Letts said something along the lines of how he saw the companion as being a bit of eye-candy who frequently says, “What’s is it, Doctor?” and could scream well. The new series have done a far, far better job of it than the original run did at any point.

  10. Bowlby says:

    “I don’t wish to twist the knife unduly – it is, after all, a free game, a very welcome bonus for UK TV license-payers”

    Wait, wait, wait – let me stop you right there. It’s included in what we pay for as a part of the licence fee, so it is not “free”. What it is, as far as I can see, is a big fat waste of licence payer’s money.

    Please, don’t hold back; you CAN keep twisting the knife.

    • Grunt says:

      By that logic, Bowlby, so is every programme ever made by the BBC so why are we paying premium prices for their DVD releases? Does our license fee entitlement not cover us for those too?

      The game was released to us without charge (although it seems non-UK residents will be asked to pay) when by the strict rules of their business model they could easily have charged for it. This is what Alec means. I hate the TV tax probably as much as you do but let’s not bite them when they want to give us free stuff.

    • Grunt says:

      Particularly if it’s free Doctor Who stuff, which is what I pay my license fee FOR. :)

      More, please!

  11. Godl1keStev3 says:

    The irony is that a heavily scripted, being led by the nose style point and click game would probably have been better recieved. I think that by shoe-horning stealth/item matching element actually made it worse. I guess there is such a thing as being too gamey. The idea that the player is a companion in the game makes more sense, from a fan point of view, but I get the feeling it would be a difficult balance to achieve. Make it simple, make it straight forward, and (this is the important bit) stop trying to make everything a game. We don’t want to rewire fuse boxes, or drag things through mazes to make… whatever the hell that thing was.

    We just want more Doctor Who.

    And the stealth sections were utter shit, seriously, no more. Please.

  12. Mathew Jensterle says:

    I’d like more of an exploration of the Doctor’s scheming side, as I often got the impression that despite his love for humanity he’s an old meddling bastard who can’t keep his nose out of things and has got to the ripe old age of 900 or so by using us as literal human shields. So a game where you get to control the character who knows nothing of what’s going on around them while a mercurial figure in weird clothes winks knowingly while he follows you around sounds perfect.

    • Wednesday says:

      I think you’re going a bit 90′s comics darker and edgier there Mathew J. The Doctor’s basically a traveling humaninst with a big heart. He has darker elements but they’re a bit more subtle than “being a bastard.”

    • Wednesday says:

      or, humanist. I blame the TARDIS translator.

    • Wulf says:

      Interestingly, that’s happening in the current series, the Doctor is being scheming and meddling with his own timeline to make events turn out better. It happens in every episode, and a couple of friends and I (one being a smart college bast who does clever things with information I feed him) pretty much have the entire plotline figured out thanks to hints Moffat has been giving us.

      I’ll start you off with the most incredibly obvious instance of it.

      Watch Flesh & Stone. The episode goes something like this:

      - Doctor loses his coat to the angels (they did this on purpose, just to be obvious about it).
      - Doctor leaves behind Amy, who cannot see, Doctor is coatless.
      - Doctor comes back and looks around himself nervously, as if to say “Has my past self gone yet?”
      - The Doctor magically has his coat back, coated future Doctor gives Amy a pep-talk.
      - Future Doctor leaves.
      - Past Doctor is seen later in the episode, still coatless.

      It isn’t a continuity error because the way they go about this is quite determined and obvious, they want you to see this, they make it mildly obvious so that you’ll have a stunned moment when you figure it out. I know I did.

      Now I’ll give the most obscure instance of it:

      - Past Doctor is given Craig’s house keys by Craig.
      - Earlier in the episode, we see an instance of ‘The Doctor woz ‘ere’, a Van Gogh exhibition advert is hung up on Craig’s fridge.
      - So Future Doctor pops back to before past Doctor shows up, meddles in things, and leaves a little telling note on the fridge because he’s an old git that likes to play with the heads of people.

      Could say so much more. Won’t. Watch the episodes and figure it out yourself.

      I’ll give you another hint to get you going though. The number 9617 shows up in The Lodger episode, what happens to that number if you apply a wraparound overflow to it?

      Moffat, you’re a clever bastard and I hate/love you for it.

  13. Markoff Chaney says:

    I think making the PC the Companion and not The Doctor you could open up a level of accessibility, which you assume you would want with a project designed to reach across differing forms of media. It would allow for something like the guide which leads you through an experience. Not only could you help the brilliant man solve some type of puzzle, but he leads you through the stealth and takes your hand a bit as well in the parts that could be considered more twitch gaming, especially when it’s the AI that’s so stupid it can’t keep up and gets you caught.

    The possibilities for guided interactive experiences in infinite situations would be as endless as can be presented in a trip to the past to learn and help preserve a piece of history or a jaunt to the future to see how our current actions can impact eternity.

  14. Premium User Badge phlebas says:

    I don’t mind playing the Doctor. But if I’m going to play the Doctor I need the game to make me feel clever. Which would mean some very well-designed puzzles such that (a) I can solve them, even if I am a 10-12 year old of moderate intelligence and (b) I feel clever for solving them, even if I am older than that and have played adventure games before.
    Playing the Doctor and having the Doctor seem more stupid and inept than I am in real life falls flat.

  15. Hulk Hogan says:

    oh doctor whom the sphess mahrenes nazis are coming in little pepper shakers get into the retardis fast

  16. jimmyWHO says:

    Have any of you guys seen this great video of a fellow Who fan?: http://www.itsasickness.com/lounge/tim-sheridan-obsessed-doctor-who. I want that TARDIS model so bad!!!