Doctor Who Deserves a Decent Video Game

The BBC's most famous fictional fellow with a time-traveling telephone booth has never had a good video game to call his own.

by Mike Diver
Sep 15 2015, 4:30pm

Cover art detail from 'Return to Earth,' a game so bad all usable screenshots have been destroyed

Nintendo's Wii was a remarkable console. It broke down barriers, offering a point of re-entry for lapsed gamers who felt the medium had moved on too far for them to feel involved, and a safe space for newcomers to take their first steps. It brought friends and families together, tacky plastic peripherals clashing over those mega-tubs of Quality Street you get at Christmas—or just after, for half the price. It didn't care who you were, what your gaming past was, or what you wanted to achieve in waving a remote in front of a TV screen like you were trying to land a pixelated plane being beamed into your living room. The Wii never discriminated. Casual, hardcore, super-fan or fair-weather enthusiast, all players were welcomed.

Yet the Wii was host to some truly appalling video games, some of the worst ever made. There was Ninjabread Man, a game so badly broken and bug-riddled that playing it actually makes its awful pun of a title seem pretty funny. Pimp My Ride, the game, made the TV show it took its license from look worthy of all the Emmys a man could carry. There was Sexy Poker, which you've already worked out the depressing premise of in your head.

And 2010's Doctor Who: Return to Earth, despite all the promise of a great license and the incredible popularity of the BBC's flagship sci-fi series, was one of the Wii's most abhorrent exclusives. Official Nintendo Magazine, a publication you'd think would at least be sympathetic towards even the hottest garbage finding a home on a Nintendo system, awarded it a 19 percent review score. "A profoundly miserable experience," they wrote, chucking in such choice, unlikely-to-make-the-back-of-the-box words as "abysmal," "incoherent," and "contrived."

Sadly for fans of Doctor Who—and of gaming—Return to Earth was far from the first video game bearing the license to come out stinking worse than the dead Face of Boe left to crisp in the final fires of the Time War. Of the titles released since Doctor Who's 2005 revival, when Christopher Eccleston assumed the role of the Ninth Doctor, only 2013's match-three-style Doctor Who: Legacy, released to coincide with the series' 50th anniversary, received anything like a positive reception, and that was mostly because it was a freemium game that didn't immediately try to bleed your bank account dry. Someone did think of the children, for once.

At least all the monsters have been present and correct in relatively recent Who games, though. Back in the 1980s, when the BBC didn't fully own the rights to iconic characters like the Daleks and K-9 (it still doesn't), substitutes had to be used. 1985's Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror, a semi-Metroidvania-style platformer from a time before the original Metroid was even out, saw the Sixth Doctor encounter sort-of-familiar robotic enemies, except these ones were rolling around on caterpillar tracks. Close enough, but the game's production costs crippled its developer, Micro Power, and they effectively folded soon after its release.

On Motherboard: The Physics of Doctor Who's TARDIS, Explained

Back in 2012, Supermassive Games—the Surrey studio behind this summer's surprise hit Until Dawn—teamed up with the BBC for Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, which was supposed to represent the first game in a series. But while the puzzle-platformer wasn't in the Return to Earth bracket of unplayable brokenness, again the Who license had been squandered on something of a stinker. A wealth of great inspiration saw the game realize some creative moments—a section where River Song has to keep her eyes on several creepy sorts from the Silence as she side-scrolls her way towards a stasis field generator stood out as something different from the game's more basic puzzles—but they were in vain as The Eternity Clock couldn't squeeze in enough of the show's singular warmth and wit to elevate the generally generic gameplay and overcome its own array of bugs. Said series was quickly canned.

History is littered with further failed Doctor Who franchise tie-ins—which is baffling, looking at what a terrifically profitable commodity it is for the BBC today. How can such an iconic character have been so poorly served by video games? We might have seen an outstanding title in the late 1980s, when licensed video games enjoyed a boom as companies like Ocean began to properly capture the spirit of movies like Batman and RoboCop in multi-format releases. If the TV show had been an all-ages international hit as it is today, back then, studios would have been queuing up to take it on. But it wasn't. It was adrift in the broadcasting doldrums, a fading franchise eventually put on ice in 1989 after Sylvester McCoy's tenure as the Seventh Doctor failed to reverse falling viewing figures. And post-comeback, we're yet to see the definitive Who game materialize, despite a fair few attempts. Which leads to the question: Will we ever?

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The Doctor—multiple (re)generations of him—will appear in a video game this year, as the forthcoming LEGO Dimensions features a Doctor Who level pack. But regarding a headlining-capacity release of his own, the horizon appears empty. Unless, that is, you make your own. The Doctor Who Game Maker launches on the BBC website today (September 15), to coincide with the beginning of the TV show's new series on BBC One this Saturday night (September 19). A statement from the corporation promises the suite of drag-and-drop tools—I'm picturing a simplified take on what Super Mario Maker's doing right now, so very well—will enable the creation of "brilliant games using a range of heroes, monsters, and worlds visited by the Doctor." It's more an educational vehicle than video game proper, part of the BBC's Make It Digital campaign, but the Game Maker will at least place the blame for any shoddy results, shareable online, firmly at the feet of the player who created them.

Beyond that, what would a good Doctor Who game even need, if made today? For one thing, it'd need to find focus within a fiction that permits its central protagonist—and, presumably, a companion or some—to travel anywhere in space and time. A Doctor Who game can be set in any period of human history past, in the here and now, or in a time so far ahead of where we are now that it can be completely ridiculous and yet somehow make sense because, hell, what do you care what the Earth's really going to be like in 2816? That in itself represents a massive demand on a creative team: limiting themselves to best serve a story, when the possibilities for environmental design are endless. What would the "game over" conditions be, when the Doctor can regenerate, becoming a new person? Can the Doctor actually die? (Yes, he can—not that he ever has, yet, I don't think, but we're now on Doctor 12 of a "maximum" of 13.)

'LEGO Dimensions,' Doctor Who trailer

Could some ambitious team take it on in the way that Rocksteady approached Batman with its Arkham series, and build their own Who universe (am I allowed to write "Whoniverse" here, or will someone come for my VICE card?) separately from what we already know, but retaining the same character names and their established personality traits? Perhaps different Doctors would possess different abilities, meaning that each playthrough could lead to new conclusions based on what's been unlocked between the opening cutscene and end credits? It'd have to be kid friendly, to a degree, but that doesn't mean it needs to lack imagination, novel gameplay or introduce entirely new characters (a brand-new Doctor, even) to fit an innovative mechanic—just look at Nintendo with their track record of producing amazing games playable by parents and children alike. In fact, just look at Nintendo.

Wait, you did that once already. Return to Earth. OK, maybe don't do that again.

There's also the Telltale model to consider, basing a story-driven, point-and-click-and-QTE game on the franchise in the way the Californian studio has The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and, soon enough, tales from the Marvel Universe. That could work, certainly, and Telltale's record is decent at the moment—Tales from the Borderlands is scoring well, and Minecraft: Story Mode might prove more than the cash-first car crash of a tie-in that it looked like on its reveal. But it'd be a quick fix, an easy and obvious way out, an overly linear adventure when the scope for a Doctor Who game is immeasurably massive.

The opening moments of 'Doctor Who: The First Adventure'

Such an approach surely wouldn't satisfy those who've been waiting to play the Doctor in a meaningful way ever since 1983's The First Adventure gave a quartet of mini-games ripping off Pac-Man and more a Who makeover and shamelessly called itself the original "official" Doctor Who video game. (And besides, we've already had The Adventure Games, not that you can play them anymore.) Instead, I imagine fans pre-pubescent and post-retirement alike dreaming of a Mass Effect-like experience full of interplanetary exploration, countless aliens to fight and befriend, and just a dash of above-the-shirt romance.

But I don't think we'll ever see it. I don't think the program rights holder, the BBC, would risk its most valuable IP with any studio that wanted to go big and bold with a character so strictly controlled, so meticulously shaped over several hundred episodes, be that BioWare, Telltale, or anyone else. Inevitable interference from New Broadcasting House would undoubtedly compromise any game director's vision for where an interactive Who goes; which might be why what's come out thus far has been so pathetically piss poor or, at best, entirely rudimentary. Too many voices, too little sense: a decent Doctor Who may forever prove the impossible game.

Of course, I could be proven wrong. I'd like to be proven wrong. But until then it's either build your own, make do with LEGO Dimensions, or just shut up and play The Phantom Pain like everyone else.

Get more information on The Doctor Who Game Maker, and the new series of the TV show, at the BBC. LEGO Dimensions is released on September 27.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.

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