I originally wrote this article about the new Doctor Who video game for Eurogamer, but then E3 happened and by the time the annual gaming conference was finished the game had already been out for a while. So as a result, Eurogamer nicely said I could publish the article anywhere I like.
I’m lucky enough to know Phil Ford, the writer of the game and of various Doctor Who episodes (along with being the head writer of the Sarah Jane Adventures) and he was cool with being interviewed for the article, presented in full below. And if you’re arriving from Radio Free Skaro…hello! Thanks for listening ot the podcast and I hope you enjoy my site.
One of the UK’s oldest heroes is entering a whole new world.
Doctor Who returned to the small screen in 2005, hypnotizing a whole new generation of viewers with the adventures of the Doctor and his companions as he once again hurtled through space and time vanquishing his enemies with only a keen wit and his trusty sonic screwdriver.
Though the new show soon spread to other media such as novels, toys and comics, video games were unexplored territory until the BBC announced earlier this year that they would release four “adventure games” featuring Matt Smith, the newest incarnation of the Doctor, and Karen Gillan, who plays Amy Pond, his new companion.
Both the BBC and Who show runner Steven Moffat were adamant that these games are part of the current season, not stand alone amusements. To that end, writer Phil Ford (along with fellow Who scribe James Moran) was recruited to write the Doctor’s first foray into interactive adventure.
Ford is already a Who veteran, with writing credits for the Waters of Mars special, several Torchwood scripts and and his ongoing role as head writer for the Sarah Jane Adventures. He also penned Dreamland, an animated adventure featuring David Tennant as the Doctor.
“I got involved in the video game because they asked me. Simple as that. I’d just finished working on the Dreamland animation and – I think – Waters of Mars and the question was asked if I’d be interested in taking on the games. Whether that was partly to do with my experience in writing animation – both for Doctor Who and, back in the day, Captain Scarlet – I don’t know,” Ford said.
The biggest challenge in writing the games, Ford said, was that they had to be seen as Doctor Who adventures first and foremost. Moffat and Peirs Wenger, the show’s producer, were “always determined that the stories should feel like they’re part of the TV series. That’s in fact how they are described – as a part of the TV series; it’s just that they’re being enjoyed on computers instead of TVs.”
But unlike television, where an entire 45 minutes can be devoted to drama, the game format only allows for a limited amount of time to get gamers into the story before they rightfully demand control of the main characters.
“You have around 15 – 20 minutes to do all that storytelling and set up things so that the player knows what they need to be doing in the next game. And you need to do that without it being too on-the-nose,” Ford said.
While the games hinge on interactivity and allow the player to step into the shoes of the world’s most famous time traveller, the adventure games are by no means an open-world rendition of the Whoniverse.
“The player won’t be able to take the game off into some crazy new direction, but there’s plenty of material designed to cater for most eventualities. I don’t think the player will ever find themselves sucked into a game-less, drama-less black hole,” Ford said.
The games are very much a part of the new series, but also had to exist as stand-alone episodes, due not only to scheduling of the TV series but the games themselves.
“They don’t have their own arc because it’s quite possible that someone could come along sometime after they’ve all been launched and play them in a different order – as they might watch stand-alone eps of the show on some form of download,” Ford said.
While the new medium comes with some restrictions compared to traditional narrative storytelling, it also offers a huge advantage by creating environments on a scale that simply isn’t possible on television. In the first adventure game, “City of the Daleks,” viewers will finally see Kaalann, the capital city of the Dalek Empire, instead of a dank and wobbly corridor or a disused quarry.
“We’ve been to Skaro before. But we’ve never seen it in the kind of brutal, visceral detail we do in City of the Daleks. It is just breathtaking,” Ford said.
One of the biggest quandaries facing developers of a Doctor Who game is how to deal with a main character who never uses guns or other weapons. While clever and witty solutions have pulled the Doctor out of scrapes on television for more than 40 years, gamers are used to solving problems with their trigger fingers. Ford regarded the Doctor’s avoidance of weapons as a unique and compelling aspect of the games.
“Gamers are used to blowing stuff up and blazing gunfire. The thing about the Doctor is that he’s all about negotiation, thinking things through. It was never a big issue for us, because there was no way we were going to turn the Doctor into an Uzi-toting Time Lord.”
In order to stay true to the show, both Ford and the game’s designers turned to other gameplay mechanics to convey the Doctor’s character through interaction.
“There is still a lot of action in Doctor Who – a lot of running about and hiding and that’s a common games element. And you get puzzles in games, and that’s ideal for the more cerebral side of the show. What was more of an issue for us was the sonic screwdriver! In the show the Doctor uses it to get of so many situations. That did cause us a couple of headaches,” Ford said.
“City of the Daleks” is the first of four games the BBC will release throughout the summer. Ford also penned the next game in the series, which features the Cybermen menacing an isolated Arctic research station, as well as the as yet unnamed third game in the series.
“In one go I was got to write for the Daleks, Cybermen and one of my favourite nasties of the new era. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away from the project,” Ford said.