There have been surprisingly few FMV games in the wake of Her Story. It's a high bar to try to reach. So does the incredibly ambitious The Infectious Madness Of Doctor Dekker [official site] reach it? Here's wot I think.
Picture the analogy: a person stands on a rocky outcrop, over a ravine. A few feet away is the other side, another crag of rock. The person must cross, so they take a few strides back, run as fast as they can, and right at the edge they leap.
Ambitious games all take such a leap. Non-ambitious games, those reworking safe well-trodden paths, need take no such risky jumps. Some leap with enormous gusto, but never had the speed or strength they needed, and fall inauspiciously into the ravine. Others clumsily trip before they've even jumped, tumbling embarrassingly over the ledge and onto the rocks below. And occasionally a game beautifully glides through the air and lands on its feet on the other side. The Infectious Madness Of Doctor Dekker takes a strong run-up, leaps high, and just about manages to get its hands onto the opposite ledge, rather awkwardly scrabbling its way up.
Which is to say, it makes it. Just not in the most elegant way.
Taking a lot of leads from Her Story, this is an FMV game in which you play a psychotherapist, meeting individually with a group of patients who were all being treated by your recently murdered predecessor. You are at once attempting to help them with their issues, varying degrees of mental illness, and find out what they know about the eponymous dead doc's demise. And to do this, you type in questions for them to answer, your queries based on key words or phrases they have used.
Which is, immediately, a superb idea for a game. But one that any experience will tell you just can't be realised in a properly authentic way. Anyone who's ever used a text parser will know just how much of your time will be spent in frustration at what isn't understood, undermining the sense of magical accomplishment every time something is.
A range of patients, some friendly, some hostile, speak in short video clips. The game logs these, lets you re-watch them, and flags them up with the question or key word you used to initiate the response on the left side. Any that contain vital information that requires further digging are marked with "**", and for more minor details just a "*". Your job is to discern which matter needs to be expounded upon, and then to figure out the right way to ask it.
One man believes he has an extra hour at midnight every night, where the rest of the world is frozen, and only he can move. A woman is experiencing blackouts and waking up on a beach. You prod them, push them to talk about these subjects, while trying to understand how this relates to Dekker, and indeed the potential that any one of them might have been responsible for his death. Indeed, with each new game it randomises who the murderer is, to prevent its being too easily spoiled. And the more you learn, and the more sessions you have with these people, the more you're drawn into a deeply peculiar world.
The game makes huge allowances for its own inevitable shortcomings (it was hardly likely that a first-time indie team was going to be the first in the world to create a Turing-test-defeating conversational AI) by letting you just type in one or two words that might prompt a further response. "Husband death", for instance, might see a female patient then elucidate on that relationship, problems therein, giving you a new trove of topics to ask about. Although it might instead have her talk about how she tried to stab him with a knife, before the game's remembered to introduce that he even exists, such is the danger of a system prompted by words the player could just as easily guess.
This is the pattern throughout Dr Dekker, where you have to do a great deal of work to make up for the game's flaws. You have to forgive it endlessly, as it divulges information as if already introduced, or has characters give you one of their range of "I don't know" responses when you ask a legitimate question, just in the wrong way. Never mind the rather enormous failing of, quite spectacularly, forgetting to tell you what the game's actually about at the start. It seems they assumed everyone would have read the details of the game from the description on the website, rather than mention the somewhat important information of your replacing a recently murdered man. You piece it together in a way that's outrageously unrealistic.
Then again, sometimes you type in a real question, a whole sentence specific to what you've been told, and the game seems to understand it perfectly and the character replies. When that happens, it feels magical. It feels like you're actually in conversation with these patients. They're savouring moments. And then the next time you try it you realise that a couple of words in your sentence instead prompted it to provide the answer to a very different question to the one you asked, and you start seeing the Matrix all over again. Or indeed it can't cope with two words at all.
"Then Doctor Dekker changed."
"How did Doctor Dekker change?"
"There's one too many questions here."
The problem above is that "Dekker" wants to link to one response and "change" to another, and it can't cope when you very sensibly put the two together. My best guess is the game looks for pairs of key words anywhere in a sentence, to trigger more specific responses, but then can't cope when two single-word triggers are said together. And that I'm piecing together how I think it might work says a lot about how much the crudeness of the system keeps pushing me out of the fiction.
"No. Perhaps ask me something physics related?"
And so it goes. The acting is, once you get used to the rather overly rah-rah drama school accents on display (a problem I also found with Her Story, although many disagreed), generally good and sometimes great. I found myself thinking about the characters when I wasn't playing, which I think is about the biggest compliment I could hand this.
The game heavily flags its Lovecraftian themes in its promotion, and it starts to become more obvious after the first act. A factor that at first I was disappointed by. Might it have been a more interesting game without? The game can tell the story it wishes, but with the set-up, the possibilities, I found it hard not to imagine the other direction in which it could have headed - something much more like In Treatment, more grounded in reality, you as a therapist facing complex, challenging situations, into which you become embroiled. Or even just to keep fantastical themes more subtle, rather than - as the game quickly does - having it rather clumsily underline obvious themes in red pen.
But actually, with that out the way so near the start, it makes room for you to get gradually absorbed into one of the better tellings of a Lovecraft theme I've seen. I tend to sigh when I see "inspired by Lovecraft" in every other game description, but here the themes are so deeply developed, and given so much space and time, that it really holds together. And oddly, despite its heavy-handed beginning, it develops a much more interesting subtlety as it goes along.
That said, gosh it's a lot longer than it possibly needed to be. With six main patients, and other randoms stepping in on certain days, and dozens of questions to work out to ask each, then all of this repeated multiple times (it's a bit spoilery to say how many), it's a lot. It starts to feel like quite a heavy workload.
This is somewhat mitigated by the option to let you move on to the next chapter when a minimal amount of information has been learned. Once all characters' names have been highlighted with an amber circle you can advance the story. But knowing that there's all these clips - literally hundreds - that you'll be missing, including huge chunks of story detail, makes it very hard to do that. Further help comes from being able to type "Hint" in instead of a question, which will prompt you to ask questions. You can choose how infrequently this is available, from every 30 seconds to every five minutes. And as the game admits, it's nigh impossible to work out all the questions to set a character to green without using it. Not least because it often requires your asking a question you already know the answer to, to trigger another sideline of detail.
Ultimately, its decision to have the murderer change each time does mean there's too much ambiguity for it to be an entirely satisfying case to solve. But yes, that opening analogy - it does scrabble its way onto the other side, and the leap is often very interesting. The characters all strongly stick with me after finishing, and I think that's probably more important than anything else.
The Infectious Madness Of Doctor Dekker is out now for Windows and Mac on Steam for £7/$9/9€