For our anniversary, I got my wife an imported copy of Doctor Who: Evacuation Earth for the DS. Before you call me Homer Simpson giving Marge a bowling ball know that she specifically asked for this. Unfortunately, she gave it up pretty quickly as soon as she discovered the game was really nothing more than a Brand X Professor Layton. I lasted just slightly longer than she did. What kind of crap Doctor Who adventure gives you a sonic screwdriver at the get-go, but makes you look for a lock pick?
1. You Have a Protagonist That Can’t Kill Anyone
The thing that has always made The Doctor different is his dislike of guns and his refusal to kill people. Sure, sometimes that’s not exactly a good thing. After all, he let the Family of Blood live, but trapped them in the kind of Hells that make Dante look at Hieronymus Bosch and say, “I wish I’d thought of that.” And yes, despite his moral code The Doctor has in fact killed many living being, sometimes just to casually prove a point.
Those lapses, though are lapses. If you focus on them you get something like Dalek Attack which is basically Metroid starring The Doctor, and thus misses a lot of the point. Seeing as how even the most family friendly of games like the Mario series are still at their hearts one long progression of murder, that leaves not a lot of action left that The Doctor can do.
2. Creating Puzzles That Make Any Sense Plotwise is Really Hard
If The Doctor can’t kill someone, then just make the game a puzzler. Simple, right? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that idea except that making a puzzler that isn’t ridiculous is actually very hard.
Remember how I mentioned Evacuation Earth? It uses the exact same system as Professor Layton and those are great games. What’s the problem? The problem is that Professor Layton games are about puzzles. Ninety percent of the games are “That reminds me of a puzzle” with the plot being mostly secondary while at the same time just another puzzle. Or take something like Portal, where puzzles are the M.O. of the antagonist.
Pretty much any other puzzle game has to use ridiculously contrived conundrums in order to pad the gameplay, which is how you get the aforementioned looking for a lockpick when you already own the ultimate one. Which brings us to…
3. The Sonic Ruins Gameplay
The Sonic Screwdriver in the classic series was at one point so ridiculously overpowered that producers had to break the thing just so lazy writers would stop using it to get out of plot holes they had dug. You could argue that in the new series the same problem occurs a bit, though you could say the same about the phrase “deadlock sealed” in order to wave away reasons why the Sonic doesn’t work in a given situation.
That’s the problem with the tool. If The Doctor doesn’t have it in a game, he’s not the Doctor. If he does have it, there is no progression of abilities because they are already ingrained. It’s bad enough that Batman has to retrieve his stuff one quest at a time in the Arkham games, but at least they are different items. The Doctor only has one because The Doctor only needs one.
You can use a puzzle mechanic like Eternity Clock does to add some excitement, but it really does feel forced. In short, the Sonic itself is a roadblock to the necessary accumulation of superior skills which is the basis of all adventure games.
4. They Don’t Make the Genres That Would Be Most Perfect Fits Anymore
There are two types of games that would make the most sense for Doctor Who, and both are almost obsolete. The first are point and click adventures along the lines of the Monkey Island series, or for a closer comparison the old Discworld games starring Eric Idle. Though stuff like Ace Attorney comes close to this, it’s still not quite as good as the games Lucas Arts used to do.
The best part of these is that they allow for plenty of witty quips from The Doctor, as well as allowing you to directly be his companion by calling his attention to things in the game. Is there any companion who never uttered the phrase, “Doctor, look at this?” A point and clicker where there is no Fourth Wall between you and the Time Lord would rock.
The other genre is the old text adventures from the early days of PC gaming. These required a lot of imagination, but they are really nothing more than high tech Choose You Own Adventures stories. Since there is already a wonderfully excellent line of those ready to be adapted, it just seems silly not to. They would make excellent minisodes or browser promotional games.
1. The Best Setting Seems to be Off Limits
If there is one really distinct difference between Classic Who and New Who, it is the absence of the other Time Lords and the planet Gallifrey. With the exception of The Master and a brief appearance of Gallifrey during “The End of Time,” one of the major cornerstones of the Whoniverse is missing. The reason is because The Doctor committed the genocide of the Daleks and his own people between the 1996 movie and the 2005 reboot.
The Last Great Time War, fought by the Eighth Doctor, is also the last great untold Doctor Who story. It is the series’ Clone Wars, and if there was ever going to be an epic, Mass Effect-level game for Doctor Who then this is the story it would be. We know a great deal about the war from hints the three modern Doctors have dropped, as well as from comics and novels starring the Eighth Doctor. There’s plenty of framework for plot among all these apocrypha.
This is the moment when The Doctor is a soldier. When he is the man he’s tried so hard to put behind him ever since. The events of the Time War star a Doctor that we know the least about, so his behavior is not as set in stone as it would be for the other ten. What horrible things did Eight endure in the war, the epic struggle that made him decide not only did the Daleks need eradicating but even his home planet and everything on it? And how did he accomplish that destruction in the end?
Such a game would be many things. It would be a redemption for Paul McGann’s Doctor, who suffered so badly from a poor script and doomed the series to nine more years of cancellation. It would show the regeneration into Nine, currently the only one never televised, and most importantly it is the story that can break all the rules because we know they were in fact broken.
In any case, it has to be better than using the TARDIS to go back in time and fix a pothole.
This piece originally appeared in Art Attack, an Houston Press blog. While we wait for Luke Y. Thompson to start as editor of Topless Robot, we’ll occasionally be publishing stories from Voice Media Group sites.