IF Comp 2011: The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M

The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M is a surreal piece about a certain moral judgment, reminiscent of Tapestry. It’s on the longer side as comp games go, without actually being unfinishable; finishing ran me pretty much the full two hours.

The opening of this game does something risky, given the preferences of the comp audience in recent years: it assigns the player an apparently amnesiac protagonist, then sets him down in what appears to be a maze. Even though said maze has an obviously clued path, I have no doubt there will be a few people who quit the game right then.

Is that a mistake on the part of a novice author, or a calculated risk? I’m inclined to think the latter; I will be fairly surprised if Edmund Wells doesn’t turn out to be a pseudonym. This is a quietly solid piece, and even in those first potentially alarming turns, it breathes TRUST ME, TRUST ME. The writing is engaging, the cluing is clear, and the game presents itself with a sense of great assurance.

I found one or two missed bits in the implementation — here a disambiguation that didn’t work quite right, there a missed synonym, in another place a stray line break — but these are pretty rare instances, and they’re occurring in a game at the upper end of comp game sizes (and whose internal evidence suggests it was written in three or four months, no more). To round that out, there’s a full set of accompanying goodies — feelies, hints, instructions.

The design, too, is sound. The puzzles are at a few points a little more adventure-game-y than the subject matter seems to deserve, a little too PUT THE RED CANDLE IN THE RED CANDLESTICK for my tastes; but for the most part they involve objects resonant with symbolic meaning, and that sense increases the further you go through the game, as the actions you take become less and less about physical manipulation and more and more about what that manipulation represents. I ran into nothing that could trap the player. I don’t think it’s possible to make the game unwinnable. There is one situation that looks like it might do so, but when I tried it out, I found that the author was ahead of me and that it wasn’t an unwinnable situation after all. There were a few bits here and there where a puzzle procedure looked like it was going to be annoyingly fiddly, and then turned out to be rather less annoying and less fiddly than I expected because some authorial streamlining kicked in.

Essentially, the construction of The Life (and Deaths)… made me feel safe. Me the player, I mean. It wasn’t doing anything structurally astounding, it wasn’t experimenting with flashy new UI; but to the extent that there’s a dialect of design specific to the anglophone IF community, this game speaks that dialect with native fluency, from the way it structures its midgame (three matched puzzles you can solve in any order, contributing to one boss) to the way it guides the player through a research puzzle that’s actually more linear than it feels at the time. I felt like the author had my back. It’s conceivable The Life (and Deaths) is a debut work, but I’d say the odds are against.

Considering what the game is about, and what it asks of the player, that sense of safety is welcome.

This isn’t going to be hard-core spoiler stuff, but it’s possible you will want to play without knowing even the premise of the game, in which case stop reading here and come back later.

MILD

SPOILERS

While The Life (and Deaths) initially seems a little bit playful — perhaps even whimsical — it quickly turns out to be no such thing. The protagonist is the soul of — well, let’s not be evasive. It’s Doctor Kevorkian. He’s given another name and various aspects of his personal history are swapped out, and some rather extreme anecdotes are added. But his date of death is the same, and so are a number of details about his first patient/victim (depending on how you want to call that); the eponymous Doctor M is a character who traveled the land in his VW bus, euthanizing Alzheimer’s patients and other people whose reasons for wanting to die are varyingly persuasive. The key question, or really the only question, is how we judge his euthanasia practice.

Now the real spoilers set in.

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In this reimagination of judgment, there’s no St Peter with keys to heaven. Doctor M gets to decide for himself whether he should be in heaven or hell or neither — a somewhat C.S. Lewisy idea, though overall its theology is not especially Christian; there’s not really a concept in this game of forgiveness or redemption or the need for those things.

Before choosing a fate for Doctor M, we need to re-enact three of his most significant murders/euthanasias/acts of mercy, and this may test the player’s willingness to go along. (There’s been more complicity-brinksmanship in this comp than in any I can remember.) Fortunately, at least from the point of view of getting players to go through with this, the game uses just about every trick in the book. The tough choices occur after the player has already spent time with the game and invested in it emotionally. The first time you have to make one, it’s gated by probably the game’s most challenging puzzle, so that the challenge (how the heck do I get this lethal injection machine working?) distracts the player somewhat from asking whether he should be doing it.

It’s not, as far as I could tell, possible to dodge these reenactments, but you can tell yourself, of course, that you’re merely revisiting moments that have already occurred for Doctor M. Some of them are more upsetting than others. One patient is an Alzheimer’s patient (like Kevorkian’s real-life first patient) who wants to avoid the long misery of her inevitable degeneration, and the burden of care that would place on her daughter. One is a sick and shivering homeless man, too out of it to protest your “testing” your device on him. The last is an 18-year-old boy who wants treatment for his depression. I did, in practice, try to find a way around killing the homeless man (none was apparent) and tried to disconnect the boy halfway through his dose (which is acknowledged by the game, but doesn’t get you out of having to go through the scene after all).

When all is said and done, you can decide to go to hell with the devil, or to heaven with the angel, or to avoid both and become a guide and mentor to someone else’s judgment experience. It’s clear that the third option is preferred. The devil/angel scenarios are just flip sides of one another: in one ending, you’re revealed as a vicious murderer who ended lives for the sake of notoriety, in the other as a heroic dispenser of mercy. Neither outcome is persuasive. Choosing the neutral ending brings about a distinct and more satisfying conclusion. Moreover, the gray figures in the story are universally more positively portrayed than their black and white counterparts. It’s not so much a moral choice game as an attempt to persuade the player that Dr Kevorkian (or at the very least Doctor M) can’t be judged as all good or all bad.

In the shallow sense, I can readily accept this thesis — rejecting moral reductionism isn’t a hard call, and I’m willing to accept the suggestion that Dr Kevorkian (through his more flamboyant fictional persona) was ambiguously motivated both by a desire to stop suffering and by other more self-serving intentions.

In a broader sense, though, I was a tiny bit disappointed in what I perceived as a facile resolution. “It’s all shades of gray! That’s fine! Let’s move on!” seemed to be the upshot. But I had a bunch of other questions both philosophical and psychological. If we’re labeling this behavior as morally neutral, what would “morally good” have looked like? Is there any genuinely virtuous way of performing Doctor M’s function? Is it possible in some sense for good deeds to outweigh bad, or vice versa? Or again, from a character point of view, if Doctor M is genuinely ambivalent about his own actions, isn’t the more interesting question not how he regards himself in death, but how he handles that complexity while still alive?

So I’m not sure what I think about the game’s thematic payload, as it were. It’s technically strong, the whole game is carefully constructed around this question, and I like the workmanship and flavor of it so much that I want to see it as triumphantly Meaningful as well. I’m not convinced it quite gets there, but then, this is the kind of thing I sometimes change my mind about after another week or month of thought. I’m still considering what I think this game means.

After my regulation two hours of judging, though, it ranks pretty high.

11 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M

  1. “Edmund Wells” is a fictional author’s name from a Monty Python skit (one of my favorites, as it happens). Could _also_ be someone’s actual name, but in geek culture, when something has a whiff of Monty Python to it, it’s seldom coincidence :)

  2. A technical addendum: here are some of the things that I thought were tidy solutions to small design issues.

    The argument between the angel and the devil. You can listen to it for as long as you like; if you do, it will start to repeat itself. But it’s written in such a way that the end naturally feeds into the beginning, like seamlessly tiled wall-paper. While the player can still tell it’s repeating, there’s no single jarring moment of anti-mimesis when the characters seem to forget what they’ve been saying and jump back to another point in the conversation.

    The reuse of the here/there maze is truncated: if you go first to the inn, then have to go back for the hat, the game doesn’t make you take as many steps getting from There to Here and back again as it did getting to the inn in the first place. You just have to demonstrate, once, that you understand the puzzle concept.

    The bookshelves seem fiddly, but in practice there are several points in the game at which you need to go looking for new books and those books turn out (by fortunate coincidence!) to be in the same vertical line, so you don’t have to be pushing the ladder back and forth endlessly in order to get at a set of related tomes.

    The bottles of medicine likewise alarmed me a little when I initially saw them, because they were all color-labeled and this was hard to pair with the medicine names; but in fact once you examine each one, it labels itself according to its contents instead, making future manipulation less irritating. (I think possibly the puzzle could have stood the omission of one or two of the bottles even so — just to cut down on the feeling of busywork examining them all and looking up every medicine.)

    The game is very good at notifying you when you’ve succeeded at something whose results will only fully pay off elsewhere; for instance, the grey gentleman showing up to give you a hint about the paintings or comment when you’ve successfully “delivered” yourself.

    The text of the game is decent at hinting towards actions to take all by itself, but the bundled sample transcript is a nice touch, as it prepares you for the idea of hypnosis. (It also is an amusing read in its own right, and tells a complete mini story in IF format.)

    The design of the research puzzles — find a book, get a token object that was being used as a bookmark — is on the blatant side, but I think it works. One of the challenges of research puzzles is to come up with legitimate reasons why the information found should be a key to something else; here so much of the gameplay is about symbolically manipulating spiritual entities that the physical bookmarks do work. And the structure of these is well judged so that the player must find exactly the information he’ll need in order to understand what follows, but all other information is optional to look up.

    One element I would have liked to see added is some kind of status-line notification about exits. I don’t know why, but I missed more exits in this game than I have in many another. It’s possible that I was just being dense — the exits I missed were always described in some fashion in the room description — but there was enough variety and other content to the description text that I managed not to parse correctly the exit to Cold Storage and also the exit from Cold Storage to the Boiler area. Failing to note these meant I went to the hints when I could still have made progress on my own.

    Again, probably at least as much my own fault as the author’s, but a UI nudge might have helped me pick these out of the rest of the text.

    I really liked the door that opened to different places with four different keys. It felt both more evocative and tidier than having four different doors on that hallway; and the glimpse through the keyhole, which suggests all of the protagonist’s life experience compressed into a tiny space on the other side, was a great teaser.

    Finally, I still think the blurb could’ve been stronger. I know there’s a strong disinclination to give away the surprise premise with stories like this, but there’s quite a bit to this particular game beyond its premise, and I think it might have been worthwhile to trade some of the surprise for a hookier hook. (Maybe a bit of text involving the medicines and device, without being specific as to what it does, would still have sufficed to suggest that you were going to play a doctor and that the game had a certain amount of real-world grounding, without totally giving everything away?) I don’t know. I’ve played so many bad vague games about amnesiac people vaguely badly wandering around an under-defined landscape with mystical overtones and obnoxiously mysterious NPCs. Possibly my negative reaction to that is stronger than other people’s would be.

  3. I really, really liked this game a lot. It was quite meaningful to me and quite deep too. I readily thought about what choices were offered and the whole scenario even after the game had finished. As for the mechanics I did not mind them too much I think. The strong imagery it created I think trumped those little problems.

    I actually emailed him and yes, it is a pseudonym that he will reveal the meaning of after the competition ends :-).

  4. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Overview | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  5. I must admit, at the point when I’d seen the title and had played enough to get the basic Judging Your Bioethics Guilt idea, I flashed back to a conversation on the forums earlier this year; Victor Gijsbers said, as a throwaway counterexample, “Obviously you shouldn’t start a game ‘You are Dr. Mengele. Today is another great day for your experiments!'” I said that, uh, if I’d played a pseudonymous game that started that way, he’d have been my first suspect.

    Thankfully, it didn’t turn out that way, but that was a scary moment or two.

  6. I did not care much for the game. I think my main issue is that the supposed moral quandary that the game presents is actually pretty cut-and-dried when you get right down to it. Spoilers ahead: your character kills a homeless guy while he sleeps, without his knowledge or consent. The game generously calls this “assisted suicide”, but there is no indication in the game that this particular victim is a suicide at all. Arguably none of your victims really commit suicide– you hypnotize them and then command them to commit suicide, unlike the real Dr. Kevorkian– but in the homeless guy’s case, you don’t even bother with that. You just straight up murder him outright in a dark alley. Oh, but you gave him your rain coat when you see him shiver, so I guess that somehow makes up for murdering him afterward? The protagonist/game may consider it self-evident that the life of a sick homeless man isn’t worth living, and that it’s the prerogative of society’s elites to unilaterally end such a life, but I disagree.

    But, I suppose some might object, the game allows you to send yourself to hell. Although I do think that the inferno was, relatively speaking, the most satisfactory of the endings offered, the whole moral system of the game world is utterly unjust, from the perspective of the homeless guy. You go to heaven if you murdered him out of “pure motives” (have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, I guess), and to hell if you did it solely for monetary reasons. The actual consequences of your acts matter not one whit, only motives matter– as the angel and devil readily explain to you. Moreover, the homeless guy, not to mention your other victims, are with you whether you decide to go to heaven or hell. So not only does the protagonist arrogate to himself the power of life and death over others, not only does he get to decide for himself if he deserves heaven, hell, or neither after solving a few manipulation puzzles, he gets to decide where his victims spend eternity too. Ugh.

    The hat puzzle was neat though. I did like that part.

    • Moreover, the homeless guy, not to mention your other victims, are with you whether you decide to go to heaven or hell. So not only does the protagonist arrogate to himself the power of life and death over others, not only does he get to decide for himself if he deserves heaven, hell, or neither after solving a few manipulation puzzles, he gets to decide where his victims spend eternity too.

      For what it’s worth, I really didn’t read the ending that way. I saw the people found in heaven and hell both as projections of the protagonist’s wishes — his moral system being so solipsistic that the reality of what eternal judgment came to these people not only has no bearing on his case, but isn’t even accessible information. (Perhaps the soul of the homeless man is even now undergoing some kind of judgment process over the things he did earlier in life; perhaps other people aren’t even sent to heaven or hell and it’s all just a matter of people assessing themselves against whatever moral structure they themselves believe in.)

      That doesn’t really answer the rest of your objections, of course.

  7. Pingback: IFComp Reviews, Part 6 « Saucers of Mud

  8. Pingback: IF Comp 2015: Map (Ade McT) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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