Wednesday, 17 May 2017 00:00

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker Review

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Hello, Doctor.

You don't look well. Maybe madness is like a cold: your patients caught it from your predecessor, and now they'll pass it on to you. We say there are no right or wrong answers in our office, but if you value your own sanity, there are definitely questions you shouldn't ask.

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker comes from D'Avekki Studios Ltd, an indie team with over ten years of experience in creating interactive murder mysteries. Their previous projects include the kind of party games Agatha Christie would write about, where every player is assigned a fictional character with secrets, and one of them is the murderer. D'Avekki habitually combines hard copy, tabletop, pen-and-paper tools with downloadable evidence and video interviews, and even mobile support, so each guest can access it all from a phone. Now, Doctor Dekker,the studio's first foray onto Steam, puts the “video” in “game,” with over seven hours of high definition film, divided into more than two thousand replies to the questions you type to your patients.

I cannot overstate the quality of the acting and choreography that goes into these scenes. Each character is hauntingly, vibrantly realized. All boast an independent, engaging arc, although their stories are linked by the murder of the titular Doctor Dekker, their psychiatrist, whom you are hired to replace. One of the patients murdered Dekker — or maybe it was your assistant? Did she do it? Did you? How about the janitor? Are you scared of your patients? Of the monsters they see? Of yourself? Maybe, instead, you should fear the physics professor down the hall, who argued with Dekker about quantum suicide.

Go crazy. Believe in the occult. And don't drink your coffee.

I made my first mistake in Doctor Dekker when I tried to do my job as a therapist. It turns out, you have to act more like a detective in order to progress, whether you like it or not, whether it's good for your patients' mental health or not. I'm completely convinced this story takes place in an alternate reality, one where psychiatrists don't go to school and the police don't do anything. Once you accept that, you'll enjoy yourself. Go crazy. Believe in the occult. And don't drink your coffee.

Doctor Dekker's user interface, however requires your patience. You can ask your patients anything. But, unless they recognize the correct combinations of keywords in the questions you type into the box at the top of the screen, they won't understand, and you receive a try-again response. To the developer's credit, each character has several of these responses for variety, which sometimes even contain clues about other questions you can ask—but they still grow stale when you're trying to find what the game wants you to ask next. (Sometimes, a hint told me to ask for information a character already revealed in a previous response.)

Conversations turned into stunning non-sequiturs. I didn't enjoy going down my list each time I got stuck, typing Dekker's name, and hitting Enter. Dekker murder, enter. Dekker crazy, enter. Obligatory Cthulhu fhtagn, enter. You can ask for a hint, but this feature has a cooldown, and I spent many fifty-second stretches waiting until I could ask for help again. Some responses can only be accessed through very specific phrasing, making you think you're barking up the wrong tree when you're actually on the right track.

Excuse me, Nathan. I just need step out and to talk to Marianna for a second. I need to ask her if she thinks you're hot or not.

The story is fantastic. The means through which you access it is not. The question and keyword system feels clunky and frustrating rather than intuitive and free. It's a linguistic hidden object game, and the effect is limiting. Most key phrases hide in the patient's' own words, so I started parroting back at them, just like a cartoon cutout of a real psychiatrist. Some phrases for one patient  hide in a different patient's words, so it's a good thing you can quickly switch between them. Excuse me, Nathan. I just need step out and to talk to Marianna for a second. I need to ask her if she thinks you're hot or not.

The story takes a dim view of psychiatry. Therapists use their patients. Patients use their therapist. Steadily, you drive each other crazy. The title's focus on Doctor Dekker's murder, rather than the welfare of the patients, while still billing itself as a simulation of psychiatry, broadcasts a bold and provocative message about the industry.

Doctor Dekker maintains credibility despite unbelievable elements through two methods: unreliable information as a result of madness in yourself and in your patients, alongside explicit discussion of multiple universe theory. Uncertainty about whether what you see is real, and whether your perceptions are reliable, form a key component of any Lovecraftian tale, which Doctor Dekker pulls off well. On the other hand, even if the setting of the story isn't  intended as a full alternate reality, it inadequately grounds you in the assumptions of its cast — the assumptions that form each person's reality. I didn't expect a medical professional to warn me about psychic powers like they were real.

This release tells a brilliant and engrossing story, but its user interface frustrates you with endless, obscure, repetitive guessing. Eventually, you give up and wait for hints, only to discover what you were supposed to ask isn't a logical continuation to any part of the conversation you were having. But, you sit, and you wait, because you want to know, to dig deeper into the madness. I wouldn't be as mad as I am about hangups and annoyances in the user interface if it weren't the gatekeeper to my next bite of a phenomenally acted narrative.


The Verdict

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker delivers a fresh, memorable, and intricately woven tale of psychological horror. The developer's experience in crafting murder mysteries shows, although investigation of the titular Doctor Dekker's death overwhelms the simulation's promised psychotherapy aspect. Smart, provocative, and a masterclass in acting, this full motion video release falters in its user interface, but the narrative compels you to power through all the same.

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Kelsey Erwin

Kelsey seeks out RPGs with the narrative clout of Greek tragedy and strategy sims more punishing than QWOP. Their favorite part about being a gender neutral PC gamer and reviewer is that it's probably the only thing no one else on the site will put in a biography. Super saiyan special snowflake originality! Kelsey always keeps a pot of hot tea close at hand, and the sign of a truly great game is when it can monopolize Kelsey's attention so completely that the tea grows cold. While a dedicated believer in the PC Master Race, Kelsey also still spends time with their old favorite console, a cinderblock size Playstation 2.