“One day video games will be indistinguishable from real life!” is a statement that comes around once in a console-generation. From the 16-bit to the invention of 3D gaming, there were people stating that photo-realism would happen. But it hasn’t yet. The closest we got was the mid-nineties boom of Full Motion Video games that looked really cheap, were low res and had the cast full of family members of the programmers. Things started to move on, with games like Gabriel Knight: The Spirits Within and Wing Commander adding some money into proceedings, but the playability just never fully clicked.
So Full Motion Video games drifted into the ether, with the odd Tex Murphy game still coming out. By this, we’re talking about the use of actors in cut scenes and in-game. FMV was placed in, but usually with CGI-rendered sequences. It was never really used in a great way. The Command and Conquer: Red Alert games threw it in, but it was named stars looking slightly embarrassed.
With Sam Barlow’s excellent Her Story, it felt like there was a FMV game that really knew how to use actual people in a game. It was essentially looking through archived footage, but it played out an interesting story in a non-linear way. It’s similar in some ways to The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, but with the scope of what you’re doing to interact with the game expanded much, much further.
Doctor Dekker sees you play as the replacement psychiatrist for the recently murdered Doctor Dekker. Interaction with the game is primarily through the use of a text parser where you type in questions to ask a series of patients. If you include certain keywords in the text then you’re rewarded with one of over 1600 filmed responses. Eventually you’ll know enough to advance to the next day. But one of five regular patients (or your personal assistant) may have killed your predecessor – and you’ll be trying to find out who!
Seems simple, but the game throws in two major elements: the killer is random on every play through and there’s gradual elements of the supernatural that are seeded in. So as you break through and start to learn more about the mental state of your patients, you start to learn the supernatural elements that are associated with them. As you question whether they’re telling the truth or not, your own sanity comes into question. The game starts messing with you and tries to skewer you towards a conclusion.
With narrative-led games such as this, the strength is always in the writing. Doctor Dekker is full of great examples of writing and story design. Told over five acts, you can speak to any of the patients in any order, speaking to your assistant or have a go at one act “guest” patients with different troubles for you to solve. You range from someone who believes he’s reliving days to a cold woman who claims to have reanimated a husband she stabbed to death. But as you question them, common threads unfold: Dekker developed an unhealthy relationship and obsession with each of his patients.
With FMV games there are actors involved, and Doctor Dekker has a cast of professional actors who are mostly unknown but impress immediately. The highest profiled actor is John Guilor who gained a cult following due to an impression of William Hartnell’s Doctor from Doctor Who and his whole as the villain in FMV game Contradiction. But he only appears in a one-act cameo in one of the more interesting guest patients.
Of the regular patients; they’re a mix of various personalities – all individually standing out in their own right. There’s the upbeat Care-Nurse Elin (Helen Jenkinson) who can apparently shape-shift in front of dying people to the very cold and unnerving Claire (Helga Ragnars) who calmly describes the act of killing her husband with the same enthusiasm as removing lint off a shoulder. There’s time devoted to give your personal assistant Jaya (Bianca Beckles-Rose) grief counselling as she tries to offer her own weird witty commentary on the patients and your own sanity. There’s the very creepy and too-excited Bryce (Millin Thomas) who claims he has access to a 25th hour in the day, but his actions and demeanour come across as unhinged. There’s also the very stoic and reserved Nathan (Dom Lister) who claims he’s in his own version of Groundhog Day, and offers the game’s first attempt at unnerving you when you find yourself in one of his sessions over and over again.
Rounding off the game is the acting MVP of Aislinn De’ath as Marianna. Just to clarify; the first name is the actress. Marianna is a young woman who is flirty, seductive but also could very well be the most dangerous character in the whole game. As you progress, you get the idea that she may very well be a siren, and that you are starting to do things against your control. There’s a almost uncomfortable element that starts to develop as the acts go one, with some subject matters appearing that could be on the verge of questionable. De’ath, however, does a very brilliant job of maintaining an ambiguity of whether she’s telling the truth or whether she’s lying. There’s a few key moments throughout which show a lot of aspects to the character that makes her feel a lot more fleshed out and multi-faceted in comparison to some of the other patients.
In contrast to that, elements of the gameplay can occasionally slip and muddle the story-telling. As with Her Story, the text parser allows for the user to type in anything and get any information in a non-linear way. Doctor Dekker tries it’s way around to encourage you to analyse previous answers and work things out; but you can very much play by just typing in keywords instead of questions. You could type a word you weren’t meant to know yet and jump ahead. Whilst Her Story got around this by the fact that you are looking at archived video out-of-order anyway.
This means that you’ll get to some points where you’ll be asking questions and moods of the characters jump around the place. Key questions you need to ask obviously change the mood and mind-set of the character mid-act, but then the next answer they give they don’t flow with the continuity of the previous answer. It’s possibly a nightmare to get right on a programming and filming level, but it can take you out of the immersion of the moment.
My first play through though, I ended up selecting from a list of questions in a Lucas Arts-style dialogue tree. It may not have had the same impact as the text parser, but it allowed me to go through the story and feel as if I had some semblance of creating my own narrative. Plus I’ve always preferred SCUMM to the AGI interface. I do think the game deliberately doesn’t let you get the patients to green on this method though. My personal preference with games such like this is to focus more on story. I had fun reading into the characters and learning much more about them. I also got the killer completely wrong – it was my last guess after accusing everyone else.
There’s plenty of fun to be had, and a great story with interesting characters at play. If the idea of immersing yourself into a narrative appeals to you, then you will love The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker. It’s another step in the right direction for FMV games, and for this recent uptick in narrative-led games in the past few years.