If you're going to be a psychiatrist, surrounded daily by people with a more tenuous grip on reality than they'd like, you really need to be the sane, rational one in the room. As its title suggests, though, The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is the tale of a man who's taken to treading the highways and byways of the Twilight Zone in the company of his special patients. Although it takes more than a few notes from the Her Story playbook, this text-driven FMV adventure is nonetheless a distinctive, fascinating and unsettling experience, and as you delve into the heart of the game's central mystery, everything you thought you could rely on is suddenly open to question. The plot isn't exactly intricate, but the layers of deception and doubt layered on top and the eccentric characters more than make up for that.
You play a psychiatrist who has been brought in by the practice’s manager Jaya both to treat the late Doctor Dekker's patients and investigate his sudden death. Over the course of five sessions (or acts, if you prefer), it's your job to get to know these patients, listen to their often eyebrow-raising stories, and try to find out what happened. It seems that Dekker, once reliable and reasonable, had been increasingly withdrawing into his own twisted world, only really paying attention to a handful of special patients. What was so special about them, and just what occurred over the course of the day leading up to his untimely demise?
Events play out in a live-action video view of Dekker's office, with your patients sitting on his dark green Chesterfield couch, waiting to respond to your typed questions. Each query leads to an answer that leads you to more questions, sending you further down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. It's a seemingly simple setup, but it's one that worked well for Her Story and it's given a few new twists here.
For one thing, the presentation is very sharp and modern, consisting of a full-screen view of Dekker's rather pleasant office: soothing green walls with white wood panelling and the inevitable framed Rorschach inkblot tests. There's a semi-transparent box for questions at the top of the screen and tabs down the left-hand side displaying the current list of patients waiting to see you, the questions you've asked and a list of notes and other information, but that's it. The interface is otherwise kept out of the way to help you to feel like you're there, sitting in the big chair looking directly at your patients. It's not exactly varied – it's just as well that it's a nice couch, because you'll be looking at it for pretty much the whole game – but it's very slickly done, with crisp high-definition video and little ambient clips of your patients fidgeting as you type.
Your patients make up for the samey environment by being a nicely diverse bunch. You see five main clients in every session, as well as several one-off visitors (that are technically optional but have interesting stories of their own to tell). Jaya also pops in from time to time, either to keep you updated or ask for a little informal counselling of her own, Dekker's death having affected her quite deeply.
The patients initially come across as pretty rational and (mostly) friendly, but each has a startling secret. Nathan, for example, mostly relives the same day over and over, Groundhog Day-style, only occasionally moving forward by a day. Bryce experiences an extra hour at night, when the world comes to a halt but leaves him free to move around, while another client is liable to step through doors and find himself somewhere else entirely. Some people are eager to get their issues out in the open and discuss them, while others are more reticent and take several sessions and much gentle encouragement to admit what they think they can do. Some of the situations that develop later on are particularly unsettling, but I won't spoil them for you while you can still sleep at night.
As time goes on, and all these seemingly ordinary people calmly detail the bizarre situations their abilities get them into, you're increasingly encouraged to compare and contrast perception with reality, possibly leading you to wonder whether there's even a difference. In an X-Files style, it's all too easy to start questioning whether they're delusional or whether they do actually have the superpowers they claim. Depending on the approach you take, that may be reinforced by the fact that you start to have visions of your own.
On the one hand, there's an (often tragic) backstory to go with each power, such as wanting to go back in time and avert a tragedy or just feeling overworked, providing a pat explanation for why these people have developed such elaborate fantasies. On the other, once you start to accept that what you're hearing might be real, everything fits together neatly. Bryce, for example, has developed quite the criminal and voyeuristic streak, thanks to being able to go wherever he wants for an hour a day, although he never seems to want to show you any of the things he's acquired.
Alongside asking questions, you'll occasionally have to answer them, either with a simple yes or no, or sometimes by giving a suggestion as to what to do. You can either try to bring people back to reality or encourage them to embrace their situation. You can tell Bryce what he's doing is perverted and wrong, or encourage him to have fun. Your advice won't always be followed, but it does have an impact that's felt, for example, in future conversations. However, in keeping with the time-bendingly fluid nature of the reality you're presented with, the effect isn't just on the future. To say more would be another spoiler, but let's just say that Dekker has found a unique way to allow for different endings (and murderers) without just randomizing the starting state of the game. Both what happened and why are down to you, in mysterious ways.
Given that the whole experience hinges on being drawn into your patients' lives through the stories they tell, I'm happy to report that the acting is really well done and professional. Nathan's laid-back and resigned, while Bryce is trying to sound calm but bursting with nervous excitement, and Claire is stuck-up, wealthy, and used to treating people like servants. It would be easy to go over the top in a situation like this, but all the actors manage to show emotion without chewing the scenery too much. (Apart from Claire, who like many aristocratic types seems to have been taught from birth to keep a stiff upper lip and not to show what she's feeling.)
The soundtrack, unsurprisingly, is there to provide a steadily-mounting feeling of ambient apprehension through languid chords rather than play cheery tunes. As such, it does a solid job, rarely being consciously noticeable but adding to the feeling of slowly-mounting dread.
A pane on the left of the screen allows you to switch from patient to patient with a click, as well as browse all the questions you've asked so far. Clicking on an already-asked question replays the answer clip with a sepia tint, and asterisks are used to highlight questions with answers that are worth following up on, indicating that pressing the patient about something in their answer will lead to a new response. One green asterisk indicates that there's more to say but it's not vital to the investigation, while two amber asterisks identify avenues you will need to pursue to make progress. The patient names are also marked with coloured dots, showing whether you'll need to get more out of them to proceed (red), you've got enough but not everything (amber) or they've told you everything they can (green). Once all patients are at least amber, you have the option to move on to the next stage. Get to the end of the last act, and you have the opportunity to accuse the culprit. (Not to worry if you get it wrong, though: accuse someone innocent and they'll be upset with you, but you'll get another go.)
While the brief tutorial encourages you to embrace your role by asking natural questions, such as “How are you feeling?” or, “How do cats make you feel?”, you can also just stick to keywords, such as “cats”. There's no fancy Infocom-style parsing going on here, so if you do ask questions the parser will just pick out keywords, like its distant ancestor ELIZA. For the most part this works pretty well, and there's even a neat explanation (involving verbal mirroring) for why you need to stick to pulling out exact words and phrases from your patients' responses. However, it's not perfect and every so often I ran into spots where I struggled to be understood.
For example, at one point a client tells you that her boss “accused me of stealing.” I responded with, “Why did she accuse you of stealing?” and got a blank look and a confused reply. (Each person has a set of canned responses for questions they don't understand.) As it turned out, to get her to talk about it I had to use the phrase “accused me of stealing” exactly, despite that not making sense as a question. Likewise, “How are you?” is a good way of starting the conversation, but “How do you feel?” is greeted with confusion. If you keep running into issues, the subtitles can be set to pick out keywords in italics, though only to get you to essential responses. It's also worth noting that the developers seem to be responding to issues like these through a series of updates. In the end, though, while the idea of being able to ask natural questions and get intelligent responses is neat, these little hiccups meant I tended to fall back on terse phrases instead.
Speaking of responses, your patients have a lot to say. Each of the five acts includes about as many possible responses as the whole of Her Story, and it took me around eight hours just to hear a bit more than half of them. (The title screen shows your progress within the act and how many of the available responses you have found, for the completists out there. I found that typically about 60% of the possible answers were needed to progress.) Add to that the fact that some of the responses depend on the narrative branch you've chosen and so won't always be available, and this must have been a big project.
The downside of all that dialogue and all those branches, though, is that it never really feels like there's much to the underlying plot. You will find out what happened to Dekker (at least in the version of reality you steered yourself into), and uncover enough clues to pin down whodunnit, but it's mostly a series of loosely-linked stories about his patients rather than an Agatha Christie-style mystery. Thankfully, I found these stories to be gripping, coming to genuinely feel like I knew these people, and I was glad of a brief wrap-up at the end that detailed what they went on to do. It was odd, too, not to feel encouraged to go one way or the other: helping them and giving in to the same madness that took Dekker are equally valid (and interesting) options.
The developers haven't shied away from hard science and sci-fi, either. There's talk of everything from parallel worlds to quantum suicide, from chaos theory to Cthulhu. Not just that, but they're given coherent explanations that encourage you to believe the world may just be that weird. (As a sometime-quantum physicist, I've often wondered about that!) I was left with a lot to think about, although it's also perfectly possible to dismiss all of it as just psychosis and keep your feet firmly rooted in the “real” world. Except, where would be the fun in that?
The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is ambitious and atmospheric, leading you steadily down into a nightmarish world where anything is possible. The diverse, engaging characters and branching narrative draw you in, even if the actual mystery is something of a side issue. While it can't quite achieve its lofty goal of allowing you to probe your patients using natural questions and consistently get thoughtful video responses, it comes close enough to give you a powerful feeling of being there, listening to their problems and gradually getting sucked into their unreality. The murderer could be any one of them, and even beyond that they each have choices to make, giving you ample reason to come back for another session, if you dare. It's a unique and memorable experience, and definitely one to play late at night with the lights off and the wind howling outside.