IFComp 2011: The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M

Spoilers follow the break.

This is an afterlife fantasy, pop-religious imagery mixed dreamlike with significant fragments of the player character’s mortal life, all towards the end of figuring out what his life was about and what sort of final fate he deserves. We’ve seen this sort of thing before — Tapestry is probably the best-known example, as well as one of the first — but this game pulls a new trick: the character whose life you’re examining isn’t purely an invention of the author. He’s very clearly based on a specific real person. Namely, Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Dr. M, as the game calls him, isn’t quite Kevorkian. Plenty of details are changed. But enough is left the same to make it really, really obvious who the story is actually about. And the question of passing judgment on him is made extremely explicit: two of the main NPCs are an angel and a devil who argue about which of them gets to take him. That choice is ultimately up to the player, but the nature of the choice is inevitably different than it would be for a more completely made-up character. Kevorkian is a polarizing figure, who most people have made up their minds about already.

Including, of course, the author of this game. I was rather surprised to see other reviews emphasizing the moral ambiguity on display; it seemed to me that, despite making a big show of symmetry in the structure and puzzles, most of the fictional additions slanted things very much against him. For one thing, the standards of judgment personified by the angel and the devil are skewed. The angel talks about Doctor M as if he were a kind of saint, driven entirely by mercy for those who suffer, while the devil hints at more selfish motivations, a desire for fame and fortune. Guess which is borne out by the flashbacks? Sure, he’s not a pure monster, but only one side here expects purity, and comes off as naive because of it. Then there’s the business of Doctor M hypnotizing his patients, and even using a swinging pocket watch to do it, like a villain in an old movie. This isn’t quite what it sounds like: at no point do we see him using suggestion to plant suicidal thoughts into a patient’s mind or anything like that. He just hypnotizes them when they’ve already agreed to press the button, and reminds us, a little defensively, that it’s impossible to hypnotize someone into doing something that they don’t really want to do. But given that people only come to him if they already want to die, it’s not clear why he considers the hypnosis necessary. The reasons seem grounded less in practicality than in the author’s desire to evoke Svengali.

Plus, he just straight up murders a dude in a back alley in order to test his machine. If you accused the real Dr. Kevorkian of that, you’d sound like a crazy conspiracy nut. In the end, there’s a third option beyond Heaven and Hell. I mean, of course there’s a third option. This is an adventure game. It involves staying on as a caretaker at a different version of the inn-between-the-worlds where the game takes place, with a different angel and devil, helping to guide other souls undergoing the same trials you’ve just endured. Your first case is Sir William Gull, accompanied by quotations that will be familiar to anyone who’s read From Hell. In other words, even the ostensibly neutral ending goes and compares Doctor M to Jack the Freaking Ripper.

But I have to say the same thing I said about The Binding of Isaac: whatever you think about the subject matter, and however upsetting you find the imagery, this is a really good game. The prose is engaging, the interactions are well-crafted, and it’s one of the few games I’ve seen lately with ASK/TELL conversation where I felt like most of the things I was inclined to talk about were handled and, indeed, informative. The bits of biography aren’t just handed to you, they’re framed by investigation into things past, strewn with supernatural obstacles and concretized dreamstuff. The whole experience was compelling enough to make me keep playing without a break straight to the end even after the Comp’s two-hour time limit was up, something I don’t think any other entry this year has inspired. I even kept playing with undimmed enthusiasm after consulting the hint menu. That almost never happens.

The hint menu, by the way, is one of the few places where this game fell down for me. It just didn’t take into account my variety of stuck. I’ll give the specific details, because they form a pretty good description of the game content: Behind a certain locked door stand three specters guarding a coffin. Examining them made it clear that they were the shades of three particularly important patients/victims of Doctor M who I had seen mentioned before. How do I get past them? The hints told me to find and euthanize the three people whose ghosts they were. But as it gave no hint about how to go about this, I remained stuck. The trick turned out to involve the locked door that led to that place: it’s a magic door, and leads to different places depending on what key you use to unlock it. There are ways to discover this in the game — in particular, it’s probably pretty clear that it’s a magic door if you use any other key than the one I had used, because that way you wind up in a scene from Doctor M’s past. But the only way I managed to learn it from the hint menu was by reading random entries on things that I thought I had already solved.

Such quibbles aside, this game is polished enough that it’s produced some speculation that it’s by an established IF author writing under a pseudonym. I mean, the pseudonym part is pretty certain; the game was submitted to the Comp under the name “Edmund Wells”, which anyone sufficiently familiar with Monty Python will recognize. As for the rest, well, consider that it was almost certainly inspired by the news of Dr. Kevorkian’s death, which only occurred in June. So “Wells” only had four months to work on it, and it’s probably going to place higher than certain works that took all year or even longer.

2 Comments so far

  1. matt w on 11 Nov 2011

    I’m glad to see someone else who thinks the game stacks the deck. In my two hours I only just got into my flashbacky office, but the stories of “Thomas Youk” and “John Doe” sounded fishy to me. And a quick Wikipeding reveals that Doctor K. got in trouble over assisting the suicide of someone named Thomas York — who, like John Doe, was an ALS sufferer, but who unlike John Doe seems to have consented, and who unlike Thomas Youk wasn’t eighteen. I’m pretty sure I think Kevorkian was a bad guy, but I also think a game like this should try to change the facts less than it changes the names.

    (I’m also less inclined to cut the game slack because I disliked it at a mechanical level. It seemed to revel in making me jump through hoops — I was always disambiguating what I had to interact with, because everything came in pairs; or examining a label and then typing in “consult book about impossible-to-spell chemical,” twelve times in a row; or the incredibly fiddly ladder interaction; even the way you had to dive to the bottom of two menus to get a hint; and it doesn’t even accept “Dr. M” as a synonym! My tolerance for this was probably destroyed because I played it just after Andromeda Awakening and Death of Schlig, but still, the fiddle factor was so great that I wondered whether it was part of the point, like the OTT difficulty in “Don’t Look Back.” Also there was a guess-the-topic that completely killed my engagement with the game, and is the reason I didn’t get farther in two hours.)

  2. IFComp Reviews, Part 6 « Saucers of Mud on 13 Nov 2011

    […] ALS; in the part of the game I played, it wasn’t clear whether John Doe had consented, though Carl finished the game and describes this as “straight-up murder[].” I’m inclined to […]

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