I don’t think I truly appreciated John Hurt’s acting ability until I saw him in Tender Loving Care, a late-90s-era game with live action footage, created by the same people who made 7th Guest and subsequently brought to iOS by Trilobyte Games.
This is a truly extraordinary game. It has decent production values for its time, including hours of live video content; offers an assortment of conceptual innovations; deals in the realm of character and emotion rather than physicality; and then manages to be boring, offensive, and misguided in ways I’ve not seen in a game before. It is supposed to be an erotic thriller, but the one time I felt true apprehension was when I restarted the app after some time away and saw that I was offered only a “Begin” button. Had it lost my progress? Was I going to have to go through those three hours again? Answer: No, it hadn’t; it just had a UI bad at communicating state.
The premise is that Dr. Turner, played by John Hurt, is showing you scenes from a case that went terribly wrong. The case involves Allison, a woman who has lost her daughter in a car accident but lives in the delusion that Jody is still alive; Michael, Allison’s frustrated and exhausted husband, who hasn’t processed his own grief or gone back to work, but who has been forced to look after Allison as she’s ceased to be a partner in any meaningful sense; and Kathryn, the live-in psychiatric nurse specializing in trauma whom Michael has hired to sort things out. Kathryn is cartoonishly provocative, wearing insufficient clothes and licking her lips to camera.
In between film sequences, you can answer questions Dr. Turner poses about the situation (“When Kathryn took off her shirt, did you feel… offended? turned on? amused? Was Kathryn’s action appropriate? Who killed the family dog?”). I am usually a defender of the reflective question in interactive fiction: the story exists partly in the player’s mind, and I can point to a lot of cases where asking an open-ended question with no effect on story outcomes is a productive technique.
Here, though, the effect was rather to decrease suspense. In some cases, a bit of film might suggest some interesting hypothesis about what was really going on, but if John Hurt didn’t immediately ask me about that hypothesis, I knew it was a dud. If strung together end to end, the film in this game would not make a good movie, but it would make a better movie than the interactive version because it would at least allow me a little more uncertainty. Also, it would be easier to fast-forward.
After the plot quiz portion, you get to explore a 3D version of the house with a few hotspots per room, which permits you to read the diary entries of the various characters in between scenes. Then you answer a second test posed by Dr. Turner, this time a Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) more abstractly addressing the player’s psychiatric state.
Here’s an example of one of those TAT questions:
(Note that to view this you’re supposed to be crossing your eyes so that you can see the dog in full stereoscopic vision. Maybe my eyes are bad at stereoscope images, but if I do this, it looks as though the dog’s hind legs are hovering above the ground while its head is hollow. Then again, maybe that’s intentional.)
Meanwhile, John Hurt reads the question aloud for you. And this is where my respect for him skyrocketed, because even though the situation is silly and the questions are silly and he was probably chafing at his contract, he reads with conviction, drawing out the word “miserable” to show you that he means it. He, John Hurt, has done the acting work of understanding the hypothetical flea from the inside and he knows its sorrow.
If only someone, either the writers or the actors, had done the same work for the other characters in the story. Naughty Nurse Kathryn is meant to be thrillingly ambiguous in her motives, coming on to Michael and to Dr. Turner and possibly to Allison as well, while frequently suggesting courses of treatment that sound foolish to the point of being dangerous. (Richard Cobbett has a good spoilericious summary of the plot and interaction, if you want to see just how absurd it all gets.)
There’s one segment where she crosses her legs while speaking to Michael. This is played for maximum hamminess at the time, and then, lest that still be mistaken for subtlety, Dr. Turner asks you what you think about her legs, and you can find diary entries from both Michael and Kathryn describing their leg-related thoughts and views.
Elsewhere, the game reveals (in a way we’re clearly meant to find scandalous and titillating) that she is polyamorous and has had lesbian relationships in the past. On the other hand, sometimes she writes in her diary about how devoted she is to helping Allison get well, or tells the camera that she has to use seduction in order to continue to have access to the patients she’s helping. It’s all in a noble cause!
The result is both unpersuasive as a depiction of human behavior and astonishingly dull. The exploration sections involve wandering around the house and finding one piece of evidence after another that more or less repeats what we’ve already been told, as well as some red herrings that exist mostly to tell anecdotes about other sex the characters have had on past occasions. (If you have the patience, you can listen to a call-in radio show in which the caller laments that her husband refuses to wear a Nixon rubber mask during sex.) Plot twists are telegraphed an hour ahead of time. Many scenes have no real purpose, recapitulating the same conflicts without adding new information or changing the stakes.
Meanwhile, Kathryn doesn’t seem like a real person. Allison and Michael are fairly unbelievable, but Kathryn is the worst. At no point could I believe there was an “I” behind Kathryn’s behavior. She is, instead, a collage of sex-fantasy tropes. And the tropes assume that the player is a straight man; are gender-essentialist; support myths about mental illness; pathologize kink; and treat queerness primarily as a source of fascination and/or disgust for straight people. It doesn’t acknowledge asexuality at all, implying that people with a low sex drive are inherently disordered.
All these Thematic Apperception Tests are meant to be evaluating the player’s psychology, especially around sex. Many of the questions allow essentially for two viewpoints: Sex Is Dirty, and Sex Is Dirty But I Like It A Lot Anyway. Very occasionally there’s an ‘X is natural’ option as well, but many other times there’s no straightforward sex-positive option. There are a few references to religion in general and Jesus specifically, but religious expression appears to be largely conflated with prudishness rather than offering any real space to explore the interplay of sexuality and spirituality, or for that matter the possibility that the player wasn’t raised culturally Christian. “That would be fine but only if X consented” is also an option I wished for a few times.
Where’s “having a nice relaxing morning on vacation which she probably deserves because she probably works really hard the rest of the year so let’s leave her in peace”?
Elsewhere questions assume that the player is unhappy or embittered:
And, well, none of the above? The last person I fell in love with is now my husband, and I get along with my exes, who are fine people who treated me kindly even if we weren’t suited in the long term. Maybe including an “actually, everything is good” option would make this choice unbalanced from a gameplay perspective, but in a personality test, it may still be the truth.
So some of Tender Loving Care‘s design difficulty is that it wants to tell a story partly about relationship/sexual dysfunction and relate it to the player’s own relationship/sexual issues. Unfortunately, this requires making enormous assumptions about where the player is coming from. Atlus’ Catherine does something similar with its story about dating commitment punctuated by quizzes about dating, but at least it doesn’t go so far as to claim it’s producing deep insights about you personally.
I gather from internet forums that there are several endings to this story. I can’t face replaying five hours of the thing to investigate, especially since there are many many questions and it’s completely unclear which of the answers are affecting the story outcome, and how. There’s no intentionality (you can’t plan ahead) and no perceivable consequence (you can’t tell what you’ve accomplished) in this game.
However, if anyone produces a YouTube video that cuts together John Hurt reading the most ridiculous of the TAT questions, that I will heartily recommend.