[Where did the BBC-funded Dr. Who video game come from, how does it use the seminal sci-fi TV series' canon, and how are public-service broadcasters approaching games in today's market? Writer and game theorist Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne investigates.]

Out of nowhere, in the immediate build up to the new and current season of Doctor Who, the BBC announced a series of four tie-in adventure games for the PC and Mac. The games, they said, would be episodic, each only a couple of hours long, and -- curiously, from a series famously devoid of a proper canon -- were intended as full and legitimate episodes of the show. Furthermore, funded as they were by the BBC proper, the games would be free to download for anyone with a UK IP address.

Last Saturday saw the official release of the first of those four games, City of the Daleks. The next three chapters are intended at one-month intervals, with Mac versions tailing by a week or so (the first hitting on June 15th) and retail versions for foreign customers due about a month later.

There are several curious aspects about these games. For one, the BBC has never undertaken an interactive project of this scale; the games serve as a first experiment of a new, potentially larger associated venture. For another, considering the BBC’s lack of experience, its choice of talent was uncannily on-target: Sheffield’s Sumo Digital, the technically superb guardian of Sega’s home ports, led by Broken Sword designer Charles Cecil. Not an obvious pairing (if presaged by 2007’s Broken Sword: The Angel of Death), yet perhaps an ideal one.

Just as odd is that these games -- spin-offs of a wildly popular yet curiously unexploited genre series, produced in a commercially neglected genre, overseen by some of the bigger talents in the game industry -- are to be publicly funded. This makes them free to the public, and it also gives them a remit of accessibility. In theory, anyone who holds a UK TV license should be able to play the games, both technically and in design terms. As it turns out, these are the limitations of which discipline and creativity are born.

Bigger on the Inside

The games are episodic in the same way as the parent show: each is a self-contained adventure, though you get more if you play them in order. The downloads only about 300 megs apiece, smaller than a 45-minute .avi file. The target computer is an average five-year-old desktop PC, so the game will play on nearly anything -- even an Asus Eee, with a bit of a groan. If you’ve a better setup, the game will scale to an extent. Similarly its game’s design is as close as it can get to one-switch: for much of the game, all you need is a single mouse button. Advanced players can complicate the controls at will, and spread out across both keyboard and mouse. There are even unlisted control schemes, such as a gamer-friendly WASD. Much as with the parent show, it’s all about scaling.

For the longest-lasting sci-fi show in the world, the BBC has been slow to exploit Doctor Who’s interactive potential. In the 1980s there were a few text adventures, and then in the early ‘90s BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm, licensed a couple of dubious Doctor Who PC games, including a platformer and a first-person shooter. Since the show’s wildly successful revival in 2005, we’ve also seen a collectible card game. The games’ individual merits aside, none of these genres exactly rings true to the show’s talky, exploration-heavy premise. Not much of a surprise for licensed games, of course.

By comparison, The Adventure Games are a venture of the BBC proper, and a collaboration with the current TV production team. Over the last few years the BBC’s website division -- also paid for through the TV license fee -- has experimented with Flash games and animated episodes. Some of those efforts resulted in the reanimation of a couple of lost Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s. All of these efforts, however, have been tentative and have skirted the edges of procedure. The reanimated episodes, for example, were funded with an unexpected surplus, as a bit of individual initiative rather than as an official venture. As such, there is no further funding and the efforts have halted with two episodes.

With The Adventure Games, the BBC has some motivation -- namely competition. Channel 4, the TV station established some thirty years ago to provide an alternate perspective to the cultural mainstream represented in ITV and the BBC’s two channels, has recently begun to expand its remit to cover videogames.

Just as the channel is required to show less enfranchised voices and to commission all of its programming from independent bodies, it recently has become a significant source of funding for British indie games. In turn, the BBC seems to be responding in familiar BBC style, by luring huge and established talents to develop broadly appealing in-house entertainment -- not unlike how seven years ago they brought in renowned Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies to revive Doctor Who.

If Channel 4 means to be the patron saint of indie games, then the BBC’s natural role is a sort of a British Nintendo. (To add to the curiosity, only days before The Adventure Games project was announced, BBC Worldwide in fact announced a licence deal with Nintendo.)

Wibbly-Wobbly

The game scripts are by frequent Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Sarah Jane Adventures writer Phil Ford. Series composer Murray Gold is handling the music, a mix of familiar cues and some original material. Series producers Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, and Beth Willis are all overseeing the project. Sumo’s team has full access to production designs. Stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan provide both their voices and a bit of motion capture. All of that ensures a certain consistency between the two productions. Continuing the oddness, though, the game’s production has affected some aspects of the TV production.

For all its ambition, Doctor Who has always had an awkward sense of place. Alien planets generally look like gravel pits, forests, or dubious studio sets. During the show’s original run, often BBC set designers and costumers could hardly be bothered with futuristic designs. Green screen was still in its early and clumsy days, and CG was years off. Even after the revival it took a few years to learn how to budget for CG matte paintings and elaborate set dressing, meaning the most fantastic environments were either just off-screen or glimpsed for a second or two before the scripts locked the actors away down a storm tunnel or in a cupboard somewhere.

The end effect of a wholly digital environment is that the games are afforded a degree of verisimilitude and environmental ambition rarely allowed in the TV show. On witnessing what Sumo had done with one alien environment that was due for filming, Steven Moffat asked that the TV sets be changed to match the game. In the future, he said, whenever they visit that environment they will look to the game for their model.

In press releases, documentaries, and interviews, the production team has made unusual pains to document that the games are completely canonical, and should be considered an additional four episodes of the TV show. It’s hard to know how to take these statements, as Doctor Who has always had a Laissez-faire stance toward canon. Moffat’s predecessor, Russel T Davies, often outright stated, “There is no canon.” For that matter, several episodes of the revived series (including yesterday’s) are adaptations of tie-in fiction -- those hundreds of novels, audio dramas, and comics that sprung up to fill the void when the show was off-air through most of the ‘90s. Reconciling and regulating all the different narrative strands on an official level would be a nightmare.

Yet here the games are, ostensibly afforded a kind of word-on-high legitimacy that long-running licensees Big Finish and Virgin Books could only aspire toward. Again, rather curious.

Reversing the Polarity

For all the PR, one does wonder when the games are set within this year's TV continuity. There's no room between the first six TV episodes, and anyway the new-look Daleks aren’t introduced until episode three. The Doctor is traveling alone with Amy, so the games won't fit between episodes six and nine. Considering the events of episode nine, and the subsequent emotional fallout, the games would be a poor fit before episode ten. Episodes twelve and thirteen are a two-parter, so that only maybe leaves gaps between episode ten and eleven, or between eleven and twelve. Rather late in the series.

Never mind. The first game, at least, is perhaps more developed than half the TV episodes this year. Its slow adventure-game pacing and focus on logic harks back to the pre-revival series, as do several cute though not overly reverential details of setting. The environments are rich and involving; when you step out of the TARDIS into a devastated 1963 London (yes, the show began in 1963), the first thing you see is the remains of Nelson’s Column, strewn across the pavement. Areas lead logically from one to the next, and there is rarely question as to where you are going or why.

The world is scattered with matchbook history lessons -- the etymology of our term “taxi cab”; the history of the printing press; London’s long relationship with buses -- that recall the TV show’s long-dormant eductional remit. Amongst all the details one gets more of a sense of the logic and systems and culture behind the scenario at hand -- particularly when the action moves to the eponymous Dalek city -- than the show has provided for a while. Exploring a bit reveals some cute and pointless collectible cards and jelly babies. A thorough player may be surprised to find Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, beaming back from the screen.

Minimally, the game plays with the mouse and the right mouse button. Occasionally it will call for a middle-click or a left-click or perhaps a single keystroke. Generally it will advise the player before expecting anything so complex. Context sensitivity picks up most of the slack; if there’s something to do, chances are a click will handle it. Again, if that scheme feels a bit cramped, players can sprawl at will across the keyboard and find a cozier, perhaps more immediate, scheme.

Speaking of cramps, the protagonists suffer from that stiff-knee syndrome of so many adventure game characters. Oh, when the moment arises -- usually during a cutscene or at a scripted hotspot -- the Doctor and Amy can climb and jump and crawl wherever the story requires. A shame then that running into a shin-high obstacle will cause them such difficulty, and that they lack the energy or motivation to step over any unnecessary barriers.

The inventory holds only four slots -- refreshingly small, especially as one slot is nearly always filled with the sonic screwdriver. This limitation keeps any puzzles or side jaunts fairly in-the-moment, and again comes off feeling like more of a discipline than a constraint. As you explore and experiment, the world reacts as you expect based on the TV show’s (wildly inconsistent) rules. So, for instance, the sonic screwdriver is no use on wood. Also refreshing is the game’s focus on sensible, context-sensitive problem solving -- rewiring control panels, decoding transmissions, Operation-style steady hands challenges -- over the magic solvents and sonic waggling of recent TV history and the arbitrary puzzles endemic to the genre.

Since our protagonists are a pacifist inventor and a kissogram girl, action sequences tend to be reactive, and about avoiding overt confrontations. Here Sumo had the right idea in principle, but the wiggly, simplified controls tend to complicate any careful or abrupt player response. In design terms this means that the Daleks need to be dumb as a rock for even expert players to circumnavigate them. It’s a little weird, being able to walk a yard away from a Dalek and stand behind a door frame, and listen to the cries of “EXTERMINATE” diminish to nothing. The Dalek isn't being crafty, and waiting for its moment; it has just forgotten. Or maybe grown bored. Foxhound would get a kick out of these guys.

Graciously, the game auto-saves before and after anything important, allowing players to jump in and out at will and to quickly re-attempt a failed segment. Aside from a few bugs -- some sound sync or corrupted or missing sound issues -- the game is pretty stable.

Technically and creatively, Sumo seems to have captured the show about as well as possible. Granted, the actors’ line readings sound like the first take for an audio book. Karen Gillan’s emphasis is all over the place, and Matt Smith sounds like he’s reading to himself. And the story itself perhaps borrows too much from Back to the Future, which never made much sense in the first place. Yet at no point does the game feel throwaway. For their part, Sumo and Cecil have digested and translated the show’s appeal in a way that spin-off and licenced material -- including much under the Doctor Who banner -- rarely does.

Megabye Modem

The question is, why? To quote Tom Baker’s Doctor, as he gawped at the remains of planets shriveled into exhibits in a gallery, what’s it all for? It’s great that we’ve got a decent Doctor Who game, and it’s interesting that the production team is taking the project so seriously -- or at least is playing along cordially enough -- but what does the BBC hope to gain here?

Surely the game is more than a competitive jab at or response to Channel 4. Granted they’re both public broadcasters with a certain remit, and the lack of direct commercial concerns means that not every move has to be absolutely sensible so long as they can argue its creative or social merit -- but likewise, it’s not like they’re chasing a buck here. There’s no market to corner, and nothing really to compete over. The games are effectively free to their largest and primary audience, and I don’t imagine foreign sales much justifying the expenditure.

Then again, lately the BBC has been in a weird place culturally and financially. There are growing movements to abolish the TV license fee, meaning that to avoid defaulting to a commercial broadcast model the BBC more and more has to justify its funding. In an era where fewer and fewer people watch TV, and those who do generally record it or download it later, the BBC seems to be constantly experimenting with format and new forms of publicity and new ventures (many of them, such as 3D theatrical trailers and week-long event programming, spearheaded with Doctor Who and its spin-offs), all to ensure the corporations’s tentacles remain genially laced through every aspect of British culture. When TV ceases to be a part of everyday life, every bit of mindshare helps.

And to that matter, even between public service broadcasters viewing figures and audience share have taken on an importance far apart from the early ‘80s, when Channel 4 was more or less created with the intent that nobody watch it. Instead of a battle for ad dollars, the BBC is in a battle for relevance. And the moment they slip, they could be in big trouble.

It’s not unlike the spot that print publications are in now, and that Steve Jobs is doing his best to exacerbate. If a magazine, if a newspaper doesn’t keep up its mindshare, doesn’t make itself a crucial part of people’s lives, then it’s in trouble. When people are turning to the web and to the iPad more than print, the publications have to assess their likely audience and how much of their energies to divert. The problem is that publications don’t actually have any extra budget to spend on iPad development. Many of them can barely maintain their web presence. And yet without that presence, maybe people will forget them. Maybe they will lose their relevance, their importance. There’s a bit of desperation at work.

You might also think of it in terms of the browser wars. It’s not like Microsoft and Google and Mozilla are selling their applications, so why are they so hot on trouncing each other? Because everyone uses a web browser, and whoever controls the browser -- both the technology and the branding and feel of the thing -- controls the user’s experience. Everyone has a different idea of making over the world in his own image. Right now Google wants to move everything to the cloud, and kind of return computing to the old PC terminal days where the data is all “out there” somewhere. “Out there,” of course, being in Google’s hands. I’m sure Facebook is hard at work on its own browser. I’d like to see their idea of an OS.

How does this relate to the BBC, beyond the culture tentacle thing? Maybe it’s got something to do with the iPlayer, sort of the BBC’s very own Hulu. Maybe it’s got to do with the shift away from TV and toward computer screens. They say the test of any new medium or format is its suitability for porn. They say the spearhead of most computer technology is videogames. These days the BBC says the test of any new venture is its suitability to Doctor Who. And much like the New York Times or Wired, the BBC really wants a piece of your computer. It’s got to survive somewhere.

Maybe in the future, when we get all our TV through the Internet, it will be hard for entities like the BBC to resist the old multimedia chestnut. And maybe, freed of the boundaries of CD-ROM and ridiculous production companies, there will be a time for... well. Something more advanced than the alternate angles you get on DVD and Blu-Ray. And maybe the BBC is preparing itself for that eventuality.

Or maybe someone in financing just really likes Sam & Max.

As I played City of the Daleks, it struck me that, given the lack of a budget for further reanimated episodes, I would love to see some of the missing Doctor Who stories remade as episodic games. Stories like The Web of Fear, which so bore me in audio form, would make such atmospheric adventures. It’s a shame that in looking to the future we can’t conserve a little more of the past.

Ah well. Time moves on.

[Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne is a writer most recently hailing from Brooklyn, New York. When he manages to detach his brain from his keyboard, he spends his hours concocting bagels and exploring the deep places of the Earth. You can sponge up more of his work at gloaming.aderack.com. ]