I’m not a huge fan of Doctor Who, but as an outsider, I can tell you the most immediately recognisable aspects of the properties are the Daleks, the phone booth TARDIS, and the Weeping Angels. It’s interesting to me that 14 years on, the episode “Blink” is still considered one of the show’s best, and the premise of evil statues that move only when they’re not looked at remains terrifying and captivating. It’s a villain design that gets mined for all its worth in the tie-in game, The Lonely Assassins.
This game is in a weird spot in terms of its target audience. Developed in collaboration with the BBC by Kaigen Games OU, the team behind SIMULACRA, this title bears gameplay similar to the popular “Lost Phone” genre of games – small puzzle-box scenarios that are best played on smartphone (and are tolerable on the Switch’s touch screen). But while SIMULACRA and A Certain Lost Phone are memorable because the act of holding another human being’s phone is an oddly intimate interaction, The Lonely Assassins creates a layer of abstraction through its introduction of sci-fi elements.
Speaking subjectively here, I’ve found Doctor Who hard to get into because of its expansive lore and its perky energy. Compared to other science-fiction extended universes, there’s a distinctly British silliness mixed with unflinching optimism within Doctor Who’s writing style, which long-time fans find charming. This game has that energy in spades – the player is constantly receiving text messages from Petracella Osgood, who seems to assume the player is eager to go on a great adventure (and if the player responds with apathy in the early moments they get an early Game Over). All of the classic references to the show – the phone box, the Weeping Angels, the allusions to Western history – are present in the game too. I had to wonder: is this game for the core fans, or to raise awareness of the show? Because if it’s for the core fans, why explain everything to the player like they’re a child? And if it’s to raise awareness to audiences unfamiliar with the property, why insist on such perky energy that assumes the player is already excited?
Cynicism aside, the game’s “Lost Phone” puzzles work well enough – by scrolling through pictures, text messages and internet history, the player can uncover clues to the mystery of the Weeping Angels and eventually save the lives of the phone’s owner and the people closest to him. It takes a while to get there, but once the Weeping Angels do appear the game does get properly tense, and that’s one benefit of the interactivity as opposed to the linearity of the TV show. The buildup to the payoff is comprised of busywork though – scroll through photo albums, read banal emails, and remember silly details like characters’ ages and addresses. Again it works better in A Certain Lost Phone because there’s the pretense that the character is a real human being – here, it’s a fantasy character, and yet we’re still fiddling with tiny details for the hope to glimpse at a greater narrative.
The Doctor Who franchise is no stranger to multimedia, with its core narrative delivered in audio recordings, novelisations, and even museum exhibits – all in addition to the long-running television series. The show’s forays into interactive media have been mixed, the last notable attempt being a match-three-based Steam game. In the same vein, The Lonely Assassins is just a Doctor Who coat of paint over an existing game genre, where the science-fiction elements detract from the gameplay rather than adding to it. One could imagine the Weeping Angels theme might work better applied to other genres, like a Five Nights At Freddy’s-inspired game where the Angels move when players aren’t looking, or maybe a riff on Before Your Eyes where a webcam tracks the player’s blinking. The only thing the Lost Phone game has going for it, is that it allows developers to include tons of written text and voice recording as fanservice.
So that’s The Lonely Assassins – a game that heavily borrows genre trappings of other, more successful games, in order to push the Doctor Who narrative in a way that won’t be palatable to anyone except the most core of fans. It’s impressive how much effort went into developing this game, judging from the graphics assets, extensive writing, and voice acting, but it’s all in service of familiar and tedious game mechanics and a divisive story. It doesn’t reach the lofty heights of “Blink”, and like the Weeping Angels themselves, it’s an artifice best left ignored.