Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist is an improbable game with an improbable name.
The stated premise is that you're a master thief on a tour across Europe, slipping quiet in the night into museums and mansions and liberating their valuables. That premise is turned on its head mere seconds into the game, and twisted throughout to an absurd degree.
Released with very little warning for the low price of zero dollars, Dr. Langeskov is the work of William Pugh. Like his Stanley Parable co-conspirator Davey Wreden, Pugh is experimenting with interactive storytelling. While Stanley Parable and Wreden's second work, The Beginner's Guide, is dour and existential, Dr. Langeskov is, above all things, a farce.
In fact, Dr. Langeskov is a farce by all of the form's classic definitions. It's not what most people think of when they picture a video game: there's only one button, and playing the game is an exercise in wandering around. You walk about, doors open, doors close, the narrator directs and cajoles, and every once in a while, you press a button.
Dr. Langeskov is an absurdist short film with a light spice of interactivity sprinkled throughout. The beautiful thing is, it works. It delivers laughs in ways that only a game can. I might watch a funny short film on YouTube once, but I've already played through Dr. Langeskov's 15-minute runtime three times, each time finding new ways to make the narrator lose his mind, teasing new threads of dialog and rare gems of voice acting from the game.
Like any work of interactive fiction, Dr. Langeskov lives and dies on the strength of its narrator.British comedian Simon Amstell shines as the game's beleaguered guide. Stanley Parable's Kevan Brighting could be cruel and controlling and exasperated, but Amstell's narrator is so far out of his depth you can hear the sweat running down his neck. He's jovial and flustered, and there's real panic in his voice when the player isn't cooperating.
During one game I deliberately ignored his instructions in a crucial moment. "Please," Amstell begged. "God, please, please, please, please pull the lever." He sobbed with the intensity of an elementary school drama teacher, trying to get kids to hit their marks by sheer force of prayer. It's a remarkable performance, even if I'm certain I heard him trying not to laugh at the end of a few lines.
Though Dr. Langeskov is shorter than The Stanley Parable and offers no branching paths (it is a free game, after all), it shows the strengths that interactive storytelling will build on as this type of game matures. The ability to build fantastic environments is as good in video games as it is in animation, but being able to modify the script based on player actions is the heart of giving these stories legs. Playing Dr. Langeskov as an obedient button-pusher is a very different experience from playing as a recalcitrant rebel.
Giving the viewer the ability to shape the story they're experiencing is something that only video games can do, and it's what makes them special. As an experiment, as a game, and as a free game worth half an hour of laughs, Dr. Langeskov is special, too.
Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist is available now for Mac and PC.