In order to discuss The Infectious Madness of Dr. Dekker, I will have to dive into light spoiler territory. If you prefer to go in without narrative details, just know that there’s a wild story inside Dekker, but you will have to fight a belligerent text parser along the way that will mar but not ruin the experience.
Building on the Lovecraftian mythos, you play as an unnamed psychiatrist taking over the practice of the eponymous Dr. Dekker. As for the former head of the practice, he recently turned up dead. So on top of getting to know your new patients and their respective mental health issues, you will need to find out how Dekker met his unfortunate end.
The game unfolds through FMV sequences capturing the session with your patients. You can switch between patients at will until each one reaches a minimum narrative threshold. At which point you can keep exploring side inquires or hold a wrap up session with your assistant Jaya and move on to the next day.
Mental health and madness are often conflated in Lovecraft inspired stories, and Dekker is no different. This can be problematic if the narrative does not give sufficient weight and time to the very real mental health issues at hand and instead pulls a hand wavey “madness is weird”. Indeed, the central premise still treats mental health as an infectious disease, which could present a host of problems if not handled properly. Thankfully, the developers at D’Avekki Studios did a wonderful job of allowing each main character’s story arc to breath and develop into a deep look at trauma and its consequences first, supernatural flavored story second.
The narrative credibility relied heavily on the performance of its actors - and they delivered wonderfully. I took a particular shine to Nathan’s plight of being stuck in time and Jaya - who found her former boss to be completely insufferable. However, even a serious examination of patients suffering from mental illness could stand to have a moment of lighter relief. In that regard, nothing tops the side story of Glen. Allegedly arriving by a teleporting door after stepping away to the bathroom while on a date, he told me he would arrive through one door after leaving through a completely different door with no memory of the distance between. Further questioning reveals that is all likely caused by the traumatizing loss of his father. But I solved his problem by asking if he hadn’t considered just going back through the same door he came in by. He then thanked me profusely for my idea - which had indeed not occurred to him - and leaves.
Exploring patients’ side stories will net you achievements extolling your studious and inquisitive nature. But exploring the side content also increases your exposure to your patients’ madness. Too much exposure and you’re liable to turn mad yourself. This setup puts the game at odds with itself even within the norms of Lovecraftian horror. Because on the hand it’s cheering you on for caring for your patients in a thorough manner, but then punishes you for doing so by pushing you towards a bad ending in which you are murdered. In general, Lovecraftian horror punishes protagonists for trying to understand what is happening to them. But in this case, those unknowable experiences are being related to the doctor second hand so the player has no reasonable expectation that they are putting themselves at risk.
Your madness is only hinted at by patients and your assistant noting that you don’t look well. Which, given the new workload combined with a murder investigation implied to me exhaustion rather than insanity. On the madness story path, you will encounter small supernatural interludes between each act. I had just assumed that was a natural part of the story rather than a byproduct of being overly inquisitive.
Once you realize that you yourself might be going mad, you begin to question which pieces of evidence and patient testimony are real. Take Marianna for instance, the woman who would blackout in one place and end up either on the beach or back home with someone dumbfounded as to how they arrived there. Along with other parts of her arc, I took her tale of leading people to an underwater creature beyond human comprehension to be a flight of fancy. But Jaya handed me a police report - that I assumed to be quite real - which listed her as a person of interest in a missing persons’ case. This led me to believe that there was some kernel of truth in Marianna’s story. I think it serves the theme well for the player to never know exactly what is real, at least in the first playthrough. I would love to see a director’s commentary version of this game.
Each run of the game randomizes who murdered Dr. Dekker. For me, the game did not do a credible job of leaving breadcrumbs to the killer’s identity. In my run, my assistant Jaya murdered Dr. Dekker - and me, for that matter. But I remain convinced that what evidence I had pointed to Claire - the icey widower who I was sure offed Dekker in an attempt to cover the second murder of her husband and was aiming to kill me for refusing to diagnose her as insane. Instead, the game justified Jaya as the murderer because both Dekker and I - through exposure to our patient’s madness - became too insane to control ourselves. I was willing to suspend belief on the “madness as infectious disease” concept, but the game never explored why killing Dr. Dekker and myself was a better solution than having both become patients.
With respect to the aforementioned cantankerous text parser, I did not expect a relatively new team to build a robust AI capable of handling all my questions. However, I still felt the effort fell short. The parser itself is looking for keywords that trigger a new cut scene. Often, but not always, those keywords are italicized in previously unlocked scenes that you can replay at your leisure. But if you put in two keywords at the same time, the parser throws it’s hands up and cues a scene where the patient has no clue what you’re talking about. Amusingly, that same scene is triggered if you type in the patient’s name. I can forgive that oversight but it’s emblematic of how little time the developers spent thinking of what a player might ask.
Furthering the frustration, the parser expects you dole out advice to your patients. That’s all well and good until you realize that “you should do the thing” only works if you prepend yes to the sentence and select the correct keyword. The game ameliorates this issue by providing a hint system. However, that hint is on an ever increasing timer, which just encourages you to twiddle your thumbs as you think about what keyword you missed. Or if you missed it at all. Frequently, the hint provided referred to a tidbit I already knew. But since the game doesn’t enforce linearity in its unlocks, you are often left hunting for something new when you needed something old.
Putting aside the issues with the parser and narrative reward structure being at odds with itself, I came away thinking that Dekker is worth the journey. It allowed each character and examination of the Lovecraftian mythos to breath and gave it the weight it deserved. I hope more developers continue experimenting in this hybrid FMV/Lovecraft format, even if it doesn’t completely stick the landing.
Score: 4 out 5 (Recommended)
The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker was developed by D’Avekki Studios Ltd. It is available on Steam for $8.99.