Lovecraftian horror is a tricky genre to nail down. The creeping sense of dread, of being locked in the throes of insanity, has to have some basis in your own imagination -- giving it form or name often softens the scares. The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, which hit Steam last week, is a slow burn. It's not without its share of bumps, but for a subset of FMV enthusiasts like myself, it's perfect B-movie schlock with a hint of Cthulhu.
The venerable Doctor Dekker has been murdered, as you're informed in a cold-open. As a replacement psychiatrist sent to fill the vacancy, you're tasked with both managing his clientele and helping the police track down his murderer, whom they suspect is one of Dekker's patients. Dekker, it seems, was enamoured with his patients to a dangerous degree; rumours of illicit affairs and obsession with their problems swirl in every conversation, and it's your job to suss out motive and cross off alibis while helping the patients cope with their various problems.
I'm a fan of full-motion video, or FMV, games. When I was young, I watched my mum play FMV classic The 7th Guest on our computer. As I grew up, the scenery-chewing video skits interspersed throughout the Command & Conquer series were part of why I loved the series. So when I saw Dekker at the top of the Steam charts, it stirred up some of that childhood nostalgia and beckoned me to dive back in.
At first, the patients of the departed doctor appear to be by-the-numbers tropes, like a menagerie of Clue characters. The heiress Claire seems cool and composed, but there's something suspicious about her relationship with her distant husband David. Bryce is manic and energetic, while Nathan seems numb to the world. Beach-dweller Marianna seems free and full of wanderlust.
But as you delve deeper, you uncover more sinister notions. Each of these patients claims to suffer from an uncontrollable ability that is undoing their lives. One's days loop endlessly a la Groundhog Day, until a tragic event occurs to shock them into the next day and another loop, waiting for another tragedy to happen. Another claims to be able to "shift" into the appearance of loved ones, a skill she utilises to ease the ailing elderly into the afterlife.
In sessions with each patient, you interact by typing questions or comments into a textbox. The game interprets your input and responds by spitting out a full-motion video reply from the subject. Folks who played Her Story will be right at home, though the game falls into many of the same pitfalls as Sam Barlow's 2015 FMV murder-mystery.
A simple but effective interface for questioning people who believe they can commune with immortal gods.
It's a little too easy to either deceive the system into giving you a response you shouldn't have come to yet, or get caught up on synonyms and misnomers. In one session, I had a new name revealed to me as though I was already familiar with the character. It took some real work retreading old lines of questioning to locate the branch that would have organically led me there and introduced that character to me.
In those moments, the psychiatric sessions seem less like a conversation with a patient, and more like a scavenger hunt for the correct order and sentence structure to elicit progress.
More often, though, I found myself spitting out different mixtures of keywords and phrases, trying to discern what the game wanted me to ask it. Once I had accepted that it went off phrases, I could even start to just repeat the words it wanted. If a character mentioned a list of things, like "I saw Bryce at the Providence art gallery last night and he said something strange," it was easier and more consistent to simply reply "Bryce" or "Providence" or "something strange," than to bother with constructing a real sentence or question for the subject.
Dekker clicks when those code-word constraints are lessened and it feels like a genuine conversation, a delve into the psyche of someone who genuinely believes they have a special ability. These lines of questioning go deep like roots, each hinting at some new development, either in the murder case or in bringing you one step closer to believing that a person just might actually be able to raise the dead.
Dekker effectively gamifies curiosity by tying your sanity to the number of questions you ask. The more inquiries, especially when tied to each person's power or to the greater unknown, the more insanity you gain. The deeper you peer into the abyss to sate your need to know, the more the abyss peers back into you; while I was curious about tales of an underwater being made of pure light, the notion was also driving my character to madness.
Jaya headlines some of the game's best moments.
In one of my last interviews of the game before the final verdict, a subject called attention to the fact that I had not only entertained the idea of her having supernatural powers, but even facilitated and encouraged it.
Not so unwittingly, I had played accomplice to a much darker purpose, and I was every bit as guilty as the monster I made her out to be. Calling attention to how I had given priority to my own curiosity over finding solutions, Dekker managed to guilt me for my actions in a rare way.
It would be difficult to sell these kinds of developments without strong performances from the cast. I was particularly enamoured with Jaya, the assistant who seems to play both the angel and devil on your shoulder at any given time.
The subtle way she delivered her lines was surprisingly nuanced for an FMV game, where theatrics are usually the norm. The patients do their part to sell their personas as well.
There were some side characters, somewhat shoehorned in, who took the story off the beaten path. Wholly optional stories, these one-shots with cameo characters serve as pleasant vignettes but lose steam when it becomes apparent they're not tied to the murder of Dr. Dekker or the proceedings at hand.
One even mentions meeting and talking with a core cast member for hours, but when I brought up her name to the cast member in question, the game continuously delivered from its pool of "wrong question, try again" responses.
Because of that, the side stories end up feeling tangential, a clear deviation from the core progression of the story, and reminded me that I was playing a game with achievements and optional content rather than holding a conversation of any kind. The real star of the side stories is actor John Guilor, who fans of another FMV game called Contradiction will remember as cult leader Ryan Rand. He's every bit as thematic and hammy, and it's fantastic.
This side-story was just about everything I'd hoped it would be.
By the game's conclusion, I had resigned myself to only going slightly mad, just to see through the end of two particular story threads. Though it boasts seven endings, there's no indicator as to which specific ending you've received other than a quick screen informing you of your sanity level. There were a few threads left unwrapped, ones I suspect I'll have to spend another six or so hours sussing out, as my first playthrough took about six hours from start to finish.
There's plenty of hitches in the chatbot responses and peripheral content, but when it comes to what counts for me, Dekker manages to nail the important bits. It's a strange mixture of cheesy Mystery Science Theatre subject fodder and genuine Lovecraft homage.
There's some really awful special effects in certain sections that still managed to reel me in and even get a few jump-scares out of me, maybe due to their earnest artificiality. It reminded me of those younger days, when a ghost in The 7th Guest would appear in a hallway, rendered in low-fi imagery but still getting a jump and laugh out of me at the same time.
At one point, I stumbled upon a line of dialogue in which a character nonchalantly informed me that the specter of a small girl had been standing behind me throughout the interview. It was a dead-end line of questioning that barely went anywhere, but it still made the nape of my neck bristle. It isn't a high-quality production, but then again, that isn't what I want from this sort of thing.
I crave the ham mixed with paranoia, when an actor stares dead into what I imagine is a wall of cameras and sells me on the visage of a hooded, faceless man who's been hunting him. The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker creeps in slowly, but once it's latched on, it drags you to the bottom and keeps you there.