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.
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.
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.