I'd like to begin this article by apologising to my mother, because this is probably the closest I'm ever going to get to having a decent, respectable career. Sorry, ma. Perhaps today's game will offer me a window into another existence, one where I didn't waste my life playing videogames - it's Ubisoft's 2009 Nintendo DS General-Practicioner-em-up Imagine: Doctor!
Imagine: Doctor: that's what I'd have to do when I'm ill if it wasn't for the NHS, so three cheers for public healthcare. Ubisoft's Imagine games are a series of around fifty-or-so simulation titles, as long as you're willing to accept the loosest possible definition of the word "simulation," primarily aimed at girls and covering such topics as babies, wedding design and fashion. I'm told that those are things young girls like their videogames to be based around, which came as some surprise to me - when I was a nipper, girls liked playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Zelda. You know, actual games. Funny how times change.
The Imagine games are probably best-known to a certain section of the gaming public thanks to the time IGN gave Imagine: Party Babyz a much higher review score than the wonderful God Hand, this providing the most concrete evidence yet for the total irrelevance of all human endeavour. If Imagine: Doctor turns out to be better than God Hand, I will eat my own hands. That seems incredibly unlikely, however. There's a decent chance that eating my own hands would be better than Imagine: Doctor.
This is the doctor that we'll be imagining throughout the game, our very thoughts and daydreams giving her agency and purpose. Her name is Katie, but you can call her Doctor Katie. Don't be mislead by her supermodel looks and cheerful demeanour - aside from a few unusual quirks, Doctor Katie is a competent and well-liked physician. She's Medically Blonde, if you will, and as Imagine: Doctor begins Doctor Katie is excited for her first day working at her very own practise. I'm excited, too. We're all excited. I can't wait to get in there and start identifying weeping sores and hacking off infected limbs.
The day gets off to an inauspicious start when, before a single patient has even walked through the door, Katie's assistant Helena manages to give herself a paper cut. Oh, Helena, I spent the whole game half-expecting you to take off your glasses and let your hair down, shocking everyone with the revelation that you really are beautiful enough to be prom queen / the popular kid's girlfriend / a semi-successful catalogue model. That never happened, though, or at least as not as far as I saw.
Because she's such a nice person, Doctor Katie restrains herself from shouting "just put a plaster on it, you dope," at Helena, and instead offers her medical expertise to help Helena with this savage wound. Don't worry, Helena, she'll just take the bill out of your wages.
Here's our first experience of hands-on doctoring, and as expected - and as I'm sure you guessed - it takes the form of an incredibly simple bit of touch-screen manipulation. Using the DS' stylus, you grab the cotton wool ball, dip it in that small bowl of taramasalata and then smear it all over the cut on Helena's... hold on, what part of Helena's body is that? I assumed that this paper cut was going to be on her finger, but that does not look like a finger. It looks far too large. Did you manage to give yourself a paper cut on the thigh, Helena? What the hell were you doing in the filing room? C'mon, Helena, get it together. Don't make me regret hiring you before we've even reached lunch on the first day of work.
That brief introduction to the absorbing world of wound disinfection is enough to solve Helena's problems, and with her out of the way Doctor Katie can see to some patients with actual medical issues. First up: a lady who has to go to the toilet a lot.
See? This is how 95% of Imagine: Doctor works: patients come in and explain their symptoms, almost always in the categories of "feeling generally unwell" and "I fell down like a big clumsy oaf and now my leg hurts." You run a few tests via incredibly basic touch-screen mini-"games" and then give them some pills, next patient, repeat.
For example, here we start by taking the patients's temperature by grabbing the thermometer and moving it slightly to the left until it's stuck under the patient's lip in a graphical display of how lips don't work. That's it, congratulations, task accomplished.
Ye Gods, according to the readings on this Fisher-Price My First Thermometer, this woman is on fire! I'm sorry, love, but I think you're beyond my help. Write down this number and then call the fire brigade for help. It's nine, nine, nine. Got that? Good. Now get out of my office before you singe my tongue depressors.
After getting the patient's temperature, Doctor Katie needs their heart rate, and there's only one way to get it - by going through possibly the most tedious task ever included in what you might generously call a videogame! The little pulse dot travels along the screen, and when it reaches the top of a beat - indicated by a red dot and a beeping noise - you tap the button to count it. This takes about thirty seconds. It's amazing how much regret about the direction your life has taken you can pack into thirty seconds. Turns out it's a lot.
Once you've suffered through this digital equivalent of disinterestedly clicking a ball-point pen in and out for a while, you're given the patient's heart rate and told to write it down. Thankfully, Imagine: Doctor's handwriting detection worked rather well, although I did have a lot of trouble getting it to register the number eight. I can't blame the game for that, though, because I write my eights with a strong leftward slant. It's just a shame that the patients heart rate seemed to end in eight every single bloody time.
This poor lady has gastroenteritis, so Doctor Katie is prescribing her some Bellyden Sir. I think I just realised that's probably supposed to be a pun on "belly dancer" and I wish I hadn't. Maybe they gave it a jokey name to distract from the fact it says "Heavy DIGESTIVE PROBLEM" right there for everyone to see, as if the patient doesn't feel bad enough already.
Once you've filled out the prescription by laboriously dragging the correct number of pills into the appropriate places on a daily chart, all that's left is to sign the prescription to make it legal. This time I signed it as though I were Doctor Katie herself, but any old scribble will be accepted by the game, so if you want to sign your prescriptions Dr. Dumbass or Josef Mengele or simply by drawing an obscene cartoon of a penis, then have at it. Not that I ever did anything so immature, of course.
Aside from illness, the other thing you'll be dealing with is physical injury. I said that Doctor Katie has some quirks, and one of them is that she apparently does not believe the evidence of her own eyes, her faith in medical science being so absolute that she will not make a judgement on an injury or infection before she takes a photograph of it and then cross-references that photograph with her Big Book of Painful Things until she finds a match. In this example, a man comes in and tells Katie he burned his leg. She then photographs the burn and finds a matching picture of a burn before proceeding. She's either extremely thorough or has zero self-confidence.
"Red Blotch"? That a medical term, is it? C'mon, Doctor Katie, get your head in the game!
Maybe a little makeover will give Katie the self-belief she needs, I thought to myself, and so I stopped by to let her chose a new lab coat. Yes, there's a (very minor) dressing-up element to this doctor simulator. I went with the classic white lab coat over the soothing sea-green blouse. It looks the most professional, after all. I can't have her in a blue lab coat, she'd look like she was there to check the gas meter or something. Hey, Ubisoft, there's a free one for you - Imagine: Gas Technician! Take meter readings, repair boilers, say you'll be there at nine a.m. but don't show up until some time around four-thirty, little girls the world over will love it.
I am not a religious man, but I definitely offered up a silent prayer that this monkey scratch was going to play out like the start of Brain Dead and soon Doctor Katie would be slicing through hordes of bloodthirsty zombies with a lawnmower. Sadly, it was not to be and Imagine: Doctor remained as resolutely dull as always. That is a huge problem with this game - if you'll permit me a moment of crudeness, it's boring as fuck. It's the same amoeba-brained set of tasks repeated over and over again, and because the patients are randomly generated it's often the same set of tasks in a row as you get a run of patients all coming in with sprained ankles as though it had suddenly become mandatory for the entire population to wear ten-inch stiletto heels at all times. I mean, I know this is a kid's game and I didn't expect to be telling people they had terminal illnesses or anything, but mixing things up a little would definitely have helped.
It's also insultingly easy. There is literally no challenge to the game, and no way to fail: I tried wiggling splinters around in patients bodies instead of pulling them out, I tried prescribing the wrong drugs, but you just keep getting another chance to try again. Even when things were impossible I still couldn't fail. Here, for example, you have to say "aahhh" into the DS's microphone to get the patient to open their mouth, and for a long time I could not get the game to register my "aahhh" thanks to the deep, manly timbre of my voice. It doesn't matter, though, because after a while Helena comes in, says "you seem tired" and does it for you. Let's keep that between us, Helena, I don't think our insurers would be pleased if they found out I was letting the receptionist perform some the examinations, no matter how tired Doctor Katie is getting.
So, what I'm saying is this: if you want a medical game that has a difficulty level higher than "it essentially plays itself" then buy a copy of the board game Operation. If you're a big fan of pointless videogame busy work that feels slightly insulting to girls, then play this. No, don't play this, even if that is what you're after, you weirdo.
Imagine: Doctor isn't all about the crushing monotony of running a medical practise, mind you. A small part of it is about the crushing monotony of maintaining personal relationships, mostly focussed around Doctor Katie's non-Doctor friend Sophie. Here's Sophie now, and she's terribly excited because she just opened her new shop! Then she immediately starts feeling ill and has to close the shop the day after she's opened it, and guess who has to get Sophie back on the road to wellness?
Doctor Muggins here, of course. Katie gives Sophie a check-up in scenes so overflowing with dramatic tension that they make The Soprano look like absolute shite, but she cannot complete the tests because she suspects Sophie may have eye problems but she doesn't have access to any optometrist's equipment. Rather than helping her friend out by directing her to an optician, Doctor Katie decides that if she's going to be a doctor then by god she's going to be all the doctors, a veritable Voltron of different medical specialities combined to create the ultimate healer. It's Sophie that suffers though all this, losing money as her shop stays closed due to her poor health, while Katie must level up enough to be allowed to use an eye-testing kit.
Yup, there's a sort-of RPG experience system in Imagine: Doctor, and each time you perform a task as simple as applying a cutesy heart-shaped plaster to a cut you gain more experience. You'd think that after placing one or two plaster on cuts you'd be familiar enough with the procedure that further repetitions would do little to further your knowledge of medical techniques, but I guess there's always something new to learn. And who are we sticking a plaster on today?
Well, now we know what happened to James Sunderland after the events of Silent Hill 2: he managed to escape the nightmarish prison of his own guilt brought to life by the town's supernatural power, he changed his name to Jason and gained a few pounds.
After many plastered affixed and thermometers jammed into mouths, Doctor Katie has become skilled enough that she can collect the eye-testing kit from Doctor Nakamura. Doctor Nakamura believes spiritual exercise is the best way to cure most health problems, so don't visit him if there's something actually medically wrong with you. Zen meditation ain't going to reattach a severed finger.
With the ability to test eyes firmly under her command, Doctor Katie can now find out what's wrong with Sophie in a thrilling minigame where you tap the letters on the sight chart until Sophie gets one wrong. Then you change the corrective lens and do it again until you have the correct prescription. Ghouls 'n' Ghosts it most certainly is not. I've always suspected that opticians aren't real doctors, and this just confirms it. All that training just to say "is it better with lens one or lens two?", I knew it had to be a scam.
But what's this? A new friend? I detect a potential love interest for Doctor Katie. No, not Sophie, the douchebag with the bad facial hair and the strange neck problem where the back of his neck is much taller than the front. You should get a doctor to take a look at that, pal. If only we knew of one...
Tony here may look like an ass, but he doesn't seem so bad. He has the good manners not to hassle Katie into looking at his injured arm while she's on her lunch break, which is nice of him. Having people forever asking you to check out their minor ailments while you're not on the clock must be the number one worst thing about being a doctor. That and all the death and misery, I mean.
"Then I had to rescue a puppy from a burning orphanage, and then I went out for a trip on my private yacht." This is some Mills and Boon level storytelling, only without the proclamations of dewy bosoms and turgid yearnings, because Imagine: Doctor is meant for children.
I'm sorry if this article has left you captivated by Imagine: Doctor's romantic possibilities, but I will never know what becomes of Katie and Tony's fledgling relationship unless there's someone even dumber than me out there who's willing to play through to the end of the game and tell the world what happens. I couldn't take much more of Imagine: Doctor and I only made it to the end of chapter three, but I'd be willing to bet that Katie and Tony end up together in the end, Katie bestrides the medical profession as an implacable colossus of medical knowledge, and Sophie's shop becomes a massive success despite being closed eighty percent of the time thus far. Actually, now that Sophie's got her contact lenses, her shop should be open, right? Let's go check it out!
Forty hearts for a plain pillow!? What a rip-off! I had to see twelve patients to get those hearts which for some reason we use as currency here in Bizarro-Town! Maybe Doctor Katie should have charged money for her service. Oh well, it confirms that Imagine: Doctor doesn't take place in the USA. I should have know after I treated all those people but never had to turn anyone away because they didn't have medical insurance. What a wonderful Socialist paradise Bizarro-Town is, where everything runs on hugs! Okay, as I'm such a good mood, I'll buy a square lamp and an astonishingly ugly clock, which Doctor Katie can use to decorate her apartment.
You know, I wish I hadn't bothered.
It was around this point I had to stop playing Imagine: Doctor. Progress was tectonically slow, and while I know that later on you can gain access to such medical marvels as allergy testing kits and an x-ray machine, the prospect of adding yet more searingly dull minigames to the roster was ironically giving me a headache.
Rarely have I played a game that has so thoroughly matched my expectations of it. I was certain going in that Imagine: Doctor was going to be be a collection of extremely weak click-n-drag minigames presented in the lowest of low-effort ways, with graphics better suited to a Poundland beauty product and music so bland I think it might be literally unmemorable, and that's exactly what it is. It is repetitive to the extreme, the non-medicine bits are somehow, against the seemingly insurmountable odds, even more boring than the rest and there's not even a sense of humour or fun about it. For example, some tasks require you to breath into the DS's microphone, but they didn't make you breath into it to warm up the stethoscope before you put it on someone's back? C'mon, you really missed a trick there, Ubisoft - it's little things like that which can give a game some sparkle.
"But it's a game for kids," some people will say. Yeah, a game for kids you don't like or who have not been good enough to have any fun in their lives. I've said it before, but kids don't want shit games any more than you do, and the target audience is no excuse for badness.
In conclusion, Imagine: Doctor is a terrible game, it is definitely not as good as God Hand and the person who left an Amazon review of it that reads "gives you and (sic) insight to what it might be like to be a real doctor" is either a liar or a fool.