Originally Published: 31 May 2010
London, 1963. The sky is an odd shade of red, exuding a sense of foreboding and despair. Trafalgar Square lies in ruins, Nelson’s head, which once rested so proudly on the magnificent stone shoulders of his statue atop Nelson’s column, lies on its side, the stone eyes staring blankly at the destruction all around. A lone human makes a valiant dash for freedom, pursued by an unknown form appearing out of the gloom. A form with a shiny red body, decorated with round black globes, the menacing mid-section housing weapons of destruction far beyond the understanding of the human race, the menacing eye-stalk sweeping the area looking for things out of place, things that don’t belong. Things like that big, beautiful, blue box standing off to the side, looking for all the world like it’s been there forever but, at the same time, like it’s just arrived. The doors of the box swing open and two people step out…
To say I was excited to be going to this press launch was an understatement. As a massive Doctor Who fan, and a massive gamer, it was almost as if the mothership was calling me home. The Doctor Who games had been announced a couple of weeks previously and, at the end of the third episode Victory of the Daleks, a sneaky trailer for the first adventure had been shown – but relatively little was known about the games. It was no secret that there were to be four adventures involving the Doctor and Amy Pond, and that we were to tackle some iconic Who monsters as well as explore some exclusive areas that could only be realised in a game environment. This was to be the day that we found out more about the games and, in particular, what the first game was actually called.
Setting off bright and early on a sunny (but deceptively cold) April morning, Sheffield station was the first port of call. Chosen as the meeting point for all the parties involved in the day’s activities, our instructions disclosed that the exact meeting location was unknown but “should be obvious from the Daleks.” When you see those words in an email you can’t help but smile. When you turn up at a location and see a crowd of people gathered round a group of the most feared monsters in the galaxy snapping pictures on their mobile phones, or confused commuters phoning their friends saying things like “I’ve just got off the train and… well, there are Daleks outside the station…” that smile becomes a grin. And that grin tends to hang around for the rest of the day. Everyone should start every day with a Dalek invasion.
Having arrived early I was treated to over an hour of Dalek based fun –with older people snuggling up close to the mysterious yellow ‘Eternal Dalek’ for a candid photo. The younger children in the crowd had to be encouraged to come close to something that was, a few days ago, menacing the Doctor while he threatened to blow them all to kingdom come with a jammy dodger. To their credit, the guys from BBC Radio Sheffield and the voice of the Daleks, Nicholas Briggs, did their best to put pay to any fears the kids may have had. Amongst other things, they invented the ‘Sheffield Tickle’ – simply tickle a Dalek’s plunger and it will instantly warm to you, reducing your chance of death quite considerably. I’d keep an eye on the show to see if the Doctor implements this particular tactic himself.
Once our time with the Daleks had passed we were transported (by bus, disappointingly the same size on the inside as it looked from the outside) to the headquarters of the game’s developers – Sumo Digital. Based in a fairly non-descript trading estate in Sheffield, Sumo Digital (formed in 2003), are behind titles like Outrun2: Coast 2 Coast, Sega Superstars Tennis and Virtua Tennis 3. Sumo won over the hearts and minds of the BBC development team in a tightly fought competition with thirteen other studios from all over the globe to be the people behind Doctor Who: The Adventure Games. As we explored their studios, that passion for the source material became more and more evident. In fact, it was even a case that they had to turn team members away as everyone clamoured for a place on the game’s team. But, like Satellite 5 (from Chris Eccleston’s run), Sumo Digital is hiding something. There are other forces at work behind the scenes and in this case it’s not the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxenrodenfoe, or even the Daleks themselves. It’s something, someone, far more legendary.
When Kirsten interviewed Charles Cecil a year or so ago, about the Broken Sword games, I was jealous that she’d managed to meet a gaming legend. I was lucky enough to hear him speak about his career in videogames at last year’s Eurogamer Expo in Leeds. During the course of his enthusiastic and informative speech he made reference to an upcoming project that he was working on, something he could say nothing about, but that was quite a big deal. It really is a big deal. Charles has brought a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to the team at Sumo and the collaboration of these two forces has produced something that is, as The Doctor would say, fantastic. The BBC themselves are also heavily involved in the project providing access to the Doctor Who sets, as well as arranging time for both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan to be photographed, filmed and recorded to ensure that the Doctor Who experience is as authentic as possible.
Licensed products and tie-ins usually have an issue around likenesses or the voice-overs, but in this case everything is there. The characters you’ll play on screen look like the characters you see each week, they sound like the characters you listen to each week. They move and act like The Doctor and Amy. This is a small example of how committed to the project the BBC are. The first game, City of the Daleks, features a section set on Skaro, the Dalek homeworld. Skaro has never been seen in the TV shows, or certainly never more than a misty quarry somewhere (most of the old Doctor Who locations involved quarries or, if pushed, Chislehurst Caves in Kent – the rock walls in the caves are still glittery from their time on Doctor Who). When it came to creating the vision of the planet, the designers asked the BBC what Skaro was like. No-one could really describe it, other than saying that it’s “brutal”. That’s not a lot to work with, but allowed to let their imagination run a little, the graphic designers at Sumo set to developing the Dalek homeworld. As it had never been done before, the finished image would be what Skaro looks like, not just for the game but for the TV series as well. Should the TARDIS ever land on Skaro in the show, the work done by Sumo Digital would be reflected in the show itself.
This close working relationship between the crew of the show and the team working on the game is best summed up with a tale of the TARDIS. Obviously the TARDIS has been completely redesigned this year and we know, from the first episode, that there’s a library and a swimming pool in there somewhere. There is also, in the console room, a set of stairs that lead to an upper level. On that upper level is a door. Ask any of the set designers for Doctor Who where that door leads. Nobody knows. Now we know. The door is there so that when you get to explore the TARDIS in game you can go through it. Where it will lead you is anyone’s guess, but the door is the best way of explaining how closely the two teams are working together. If the games didn’t exist, someone is bound to ask where that door leads and someone, somewhere, would have to come up with an answer.
The game itself was the real draw of the day. While the Daleks were great fun, and getting to see an episode ahead of the rest of the country was an absolute joy (even if it was the first part of a two-parter and we had to wait even longer for the conclusion), the main reason for going was to get a hands-on sit down with the game. City of the Daleks is constructed just like a TV episode. It’s written by one of the writers for the show (Phil Ford who, amongst many other things, wrote Waters of Mars and several episodes of Torchwood) and it plays just as you’d expect an episode of the show to play out. You have a pre-credits sequence, you have opening titles and then you have a beginning, a middle and a climactic end. The game utilises both puzzles and stealth sequences, seeing you creep past the Daleks with Amy hot on your heels before solving, for example, a timed (and occasionally ruthless) minigame or collecting a vital piece of equipment. The stealth element, at least in the build we played, was brutal (or, maybe, we were rubbish). Members of the Sumo team were interested in how many times we had died, for instance, as a way of fine-tuning the stealth elements. In my case, during the first section of the game in Trafalgar Square, the answer was far, far, far too many. And that doesn’t include the number of times I got Amy killed – those I just felt too bad to even count.
So, on Saturday June the 5th the Doctor Who games will launch. You’ll be able to join the Doctor and Amy as they explore an apocalyptic 1963 London. You’ll visit the planet Skaro and your jaw will drop at the immensely detailed backdrop (seriously, just take a minute to look out of a window when you get there – you’re perfectly safe) and you’ll get to hear the Red Daleks speak – something which they didn’t do on the show. And best of all, you can do it all for free from the Doctor Who website, so what are you waiting for?