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.Continued on the next page...