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.)