The Dalek Invasion of Sheffield (an epic post)

Me with an Eternal Dalek

Warning, warning. Fannish stuff to follow, in depth. I got to go to the launch of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, thanks to the wonderful Culture Vultures – the much shorter article I wrote for them is here – and had a lovely day out in Sheffield.

doctor who,daleks

The day started with three of the official new series Daleks (yellow – Eternal, red – Drone and white – Supreme) and one unofficial one (black, homemade by a bloke in I think Wakefield) terrorising the front of Sheffield railway station.

Supreme, Eternal and Drone Daleks

doctor who,daleksSome lovely ladies from the BBC were also handing out postcards, pens and posters.

Nick Briggs was hiding behind a little tent with his Moog ring modulator and microphone, doing what practically amounted to Dalek stand-up for a couple of hours (picking on members of the crowd, taking the proverbial out of the community support officers) as people ran up and had their photos taken with the Daleks, tickled their plungers at the insistence of the Radio Sheffield DJ hosting the event, and chased the cheeky pepperpots as they scooted around in the sunshine. “We have replaced all the footballs in Sheffield with Dalek drones controlled by radio signals direct from our home planet – and now… Sheffield Wednesday are doomed!”

Nick Briggs, voice of the DaleksNicholas Briggs, voice of the Daleks

Nick Briggs' Moog ring modulator, source of Dalek voiceMoog ring modulator, lots of coffee

Sadly Matt Smith and Karen Gillan were trapped out in LA, due to the restrictions on flights caused by the Icelandic volcano, but we did get at least one reasonably accurate cosplay Eleventh Doctor and no less than TWO cold-looking cosplay Amy Ponds. Commitment to the cause. But no ginger hair, real or wig, on the Amys I saw. More Dalek photos here: Daleks In Sheffield.


Those of us who were going to the launch were directed towards a big green double decker bus, ticked off a list and handed laminates as we got onto the bus. Bottom deck, alas, the top was full of jammy kids who’d got the day off school to write about the event for BBC School Report. Our laminates each featured one of the new classes of Dalek – Eternal (yellow, this was me), Drone (red), Scientist (orange), Strategist (blue). No Supremes, alas, with or without Diana Ross. This was to divide us into groups for the rest of the day, so they could fit us all in to some of the smaller spaces at Sumo Digital, the developers, where the launch was held. We were also given confidentiality forms to sign, though thankfully restrictions were minimal. I sat with my new friends, Matthew Reynolds from Digital Spy and Mark Johnson from Spong. Matthew was a fellow Eternal and Mark a Strategist.

When we arrived, we went into the main room, where there was a table laden with tea, coffee, cans of pop, fruit, biscuits, chocolate biscuits… No time was wasted in hanging around, however, as we got a few quick intro speeches, then we were told the plan for the day. This I will go through in the order my group experienced. Each group would get to play the game for about 45 minutes (split into two rooms, with a PC each, so no sharing), attend a Q&A with various people involved in the project, be given a tour of each stage in the development of the games, watch the next episode of Doctor Who early and see a seven minute segment of Doctor Who Confidential that concerned the games. With a break for lunch in the middle. Whew!

Starting with the game, then, as my group did. Bear in mind, only the first game, ‘City Of The Daleks’, is at a playable stage right now, and it is still in alpha testing, not beta testing or final code. They warned us a) it was subject to change, particularly the difficulty level and b) there might be bugs. The initial screen is not dissimilar to a DVD menu – you choose which “Episode” (game) you want to play, whether you want to start with Act One, Two or Three (sections of the game), continuing your previous game or from the Start (if you select this, it warns you will wipe out previous progress if you have played before). If you begin at the beginning of ‘City Of The Daleks’, as I did, Amy and the Doctor run into the TARDIS, which is pretty cute to watch. The pair have a series-style bantery conversation about The Beatles, where Amy claims “There’s no such thing as a sexy drummer”, the Doctor reels off a list of cool things about the Sixties (ah, cultural references for all the family) and bam! They step out into London in 1963. Except it all looks a bit wrong – this is recognisably Trafalgar Square, but it’s deserted and everything’s broken.

There are fires, cracks, holes, and debris everywhere. It IS 1963, insists the Doctor, but something has disrupted time. In the debris on the ground is a newspaper…Daleks! But this is “impossible”, he says, they’ve never been able to disrupt time like this before. The Doctor needs to fix it, but before he can go any further, a young woman appears. And does a runner down a manhole. Argh! This is where the game proper starts, as the Doctor you have to follow her and find out what’s happening. But it’s not that easy, the surface is treacherous and many routes are blocked. Plus, there’s a red Dalek right there… Move the mouse and you turn the Doctor around and can look at the whole area. Hold the right mouse button down and you can move forwards. Amy will give you hints if you face her and click the left button to “talk”. You can also pick up collectables and find out facts about objects, history etc. If you press the middle button of the mouse (there is a keyboard alternative for those without a middle button), you can view and use items from the inventory – you get the sonic screwdriver to get you started, but as in the programme proper, it can’t get you in and out of everything. There are deadlock seals, there are restrictions and an internal logic so there is a consistency about what it can and cannot do and in what circumstances.

When you reach something you need to get over, sadly you cannot press a button to jump (fun as a boingy Mario Doctor would be). Instead, you stand in front of it facing straight on and click, and the Doctor will smoothly climb or jump up or down for you and pull himself into place. It’s a very natural-looking movement. The Doctor and Amy both walk like their real life counterparts. They have the same gestures and tics. It’s very well observed. Especially as both actors have such distinctive movements. There are some restrictions on how advanced the graphics can be, given that the games are developed for entry level computers from 3 or 4 years ago in order to increase accessibility beyond gamers and those with the latest tech, but the characters look a lot better in action than in the screenshots released so far.

The actors’ voices sound natural, possibly slightly heightened for audio, but generally it is as like an episode of the series as possible. The music is by Murray Gold, the lighting is designed to look like the show’s lighting (heightened realism, with extra colours), and the cutscenes (like in-game movies, basically non-interactive segments that contain dialogue, information etc outside the gameplay itself) are written, directed and played like they would be in live action as part of the TV show.  You are the Doctor (and sometimes Amy) the rest of the time, there’s no larger-than-life pointing at the screen and asking for your help like in ‘Attack of the Graske’, it’s fairly immersive for all ages. I found my adrenaline pumping quite often. I was being filmed, by I think Doctor Who Confidential, as I repeatedly died on-screen. Apparently they found my reactions amusing. It’s very addictive, even when you die. A lot.

In what I am informed by the more regular gamers is stealth gameplay, you have to avoid the Daleks by sneaking past them while they are not looking. With a bit of creative licence, you can see where they are looking as a green “scanner beam” moves around the ground with their gaze. As many of the intended players will not be experienced in this kind of gameplay, the strong visual cue makes it more playable than if you had to watch the eyestalk movements very closely and hide at the same time. There are walls, sandbags etc to hide behind, but you do have to run out at some point, not all hiding places are safe and timing is all.

When you’re not running around, hiding from Daleks, using the sonic or interacting with other characters (there are multiple choices of questions you can ask in some situations, as well as just getting hints from Amy), there are short puzzle games, increasing in difficulty as time goes on, that you need to complete to proceed. Thankfully, the puzzles are more cerebral than reliant on fine motor control (I’m dyspraxic and have cerebral palsy), controller mashing or arcane knowledge. Think Professor Layton. I got the hang of rewiring a fuse, for example, quite quickly, but removing a Dalek component took real thought and lots of “deaths”. There are no timers on the puzzles or levels, and from what I can gather no limit on lives. Otherwise non-gamers and those at the younger and older end of the spectrum might just give up in frustration. The idea is that three generations of a family can play together, with different members of the group chipping in, so it aims to appeal to hardcore gamers, kids, parents, grandparents all at once, using different elements and styles of gameplay. Oh, and the games count as canon.

For those not embroiled in fandom and its terminology – canon (if there is such a thing in Who, Paul Cornell says not and UNIT dating gives everyone trouble) means these stories officially count as part of the overall Doctor Who timeline, events can be referred to in future and while not playing will not spoil enjoyment of the main show, those who do choose to join in will notice extra detail in the programme. The game designers were consulted when, for example, the new TARDIS set was created, and the final design of parts of the programme incorporated elements required for the games. Each episode of the game is intended to take about two hours to complete and have as much “story” as a normal 45 minute episode of the TV series, with the gameplay taking place in the places where the TV editing would make cuts – it does the detail, and every bit of the action, where the show on television has to keep leaping on.

As a non-gamer testing a near-final version of the game, I was a bit rubbish and had to be helped out on several occasions by Anwen Aspden from BBC Wales Interactive in order to see more of the game in the time available, otherwise I’d never have got on to Act Two. Anwen was brilliant at steering me through without laughing at me too much, and is obviously passionate about the games. Unlike the games journalists, I never got as far as the titular City of the Daleks, Kaalann. I did look over and see how stunning it looked on screen, mind, as well as enjoying the matte paintings of the city when on the tour later. Phil Ford said in the Q&A that he took some pleasure in naming said city, as it hadn’t been named before. Nick Briggs leapt in before I could to mutter that it DID have a name – Dalek City. Of course. This goes right back to the first Dalek story, ‘The Daleks’, in 1963. Both names are rubbish, I’d rather call it “Alan”.

I also got to enjoy some bugs of my very own – apparently the ones I discovered only I have managed to trigger so far. The Doctor got himself underneath a taxi, that wasn’t supposed to happen, and it looked at one point like Amy had fallen down a hole and only her head and neck were above ground. Sadly not features of the finished game. Unless they decide that my experiences were better than the intended version.

All too soon, we were hauled back out into the main space for our group’s crack at the Q&A. The panel were: Charles Cecil (consultant, adventure games bigwig, created the Broken Sword series), Barnaby Edwards (Chief Dalek Operator in the series, several voices in the games), Nicholas Briggs (voice of the Daleks in both series and games, plus other parts in the games), Ian Tweedale (got the game commissioned, Interactive Editor at BBC Wales), Sean Willard (creative director at Sumo), Phil Ford (writer of the first three games/episodes, head writer on The Sarah Jane Adventures, co-wrote the Tenth Doctor special episode ‘The Waters Of Mars’ with Russell T Davies, also wrote the spin-off animation ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Something Borrowed’ for Torchwood series 2).

Here is the audio for the Q&A (MP3):
Download link from 4shared

I will try to get a transcript up soon, it’s just a lengthy process as it’s 40 or so minutes long. Lots of interesting stuff in there about interactive fiction, gameplay, other games being developed by BBC Worldwide (the commercial arm of the Beeb) for the Wii and DS etc.

After that there were some individual interviews – I’d asked all my game-relevant questions and thought it best not to e.g. grab Phil to squee about Jo Grant turning up in The Sarah Jane Adventures when he was so busy, or to ask Nick about Big Finish or the future of the Cybermen. Then lunch, and on to…

The Tour! Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to take any photos or video on the tour of the studios. Completely understandable, as there was a lot of sensitive information around. I wanted to nick the photocopies of sketched storyboards, mind. I’ve included pictures where available from the official BBC Doctor Who website. We were split further into mini groups, which meant I ended up as the only adult in a group of young teens, and my group was shown around by a legend in his own right, Pat Phelan.

The most exciting bit for me, bearing in mind I know a bit about computer animation and I was in a group of kids, so everything we were told was simplified more than if I’d stayed with the other group of mostly games journalists, was the very first bit. We spoke to the concept artist and  a level artist. The concept artist showed us Skaro! And he found out while we were there that the BBC liked his art so much, they weren’t just going to use it in-game, but from now on that’s officially what Skaro looks like in the show (in the same vein as the matte paintings of Gallifrey in ‘Gridlock’ informing what was also shown in ‘The End of Time’).

Skaro! Or more specifically, Kaalann in Skaro.

He also showed us attempts at half-human, half-Cybermen creatures and, whisper it, because they weren’t supposed to tell us but he accidentally said the word and anyway I recognised them even when redesigned, mats of a Cyber nature (old school fans will understand this). Shhhh! Don’t tell the Beeb I know! I’m guessing they will turn up in the Cybermen episodes of the show, even if it’s not until next series. My hardcore fan heart raced when I saw them. However, there was a whole page full of different designs and he wouldn’t tell me which one was the final, approved version. My other favourite bit of art was the Librarian Dalek, which consisted of a huge, bronze-coloured version of the new organic-looking Dalek eye.

The Librarian Dalek

Frankly, I could have taken all of it home and put it on the wall. The ice world for the Cybermen in the next episode of the game is beautiful.

We went through all the other stages, including character design (lots of photos and video were taken of the Doctor and Amy, so they could be Rotoscoped, then sculpted in the software and given a “painted” skin), animation, level design, putting the elements into the game engine and so on. All interesting stuff. I enjoyed watching the “sandbox” part of the tour – the programmer here creates loads of different fake environments to run the characters through, so he can see how they behave when colliding with objects, running over different surfaces and through small gaps etc, so they can make adjustments. Also the final stage of the tour, where lead designer Will showed us how he takes all the feedback from testing and all the elements of the game and basically makes it playable, making adjustments of positioning, hints and difficulty and so on and so forth.

After the tour, we were taken into a conference room with comfortable chairs and a big screen to watch the newest episode of the show, ‘The Time Of The Angels’ a few days before it hit the nation’s TV screens. I loved the episode, and River Song again (though I don’t intend reviewing it here), but the kids in my group were not gripped at all. They stuck to doodling and filling in their feedback forms. Enjoying a day off school more than Doctor Who fandom, really. When the episode finished, we saw a seven-minute segment of that episode’s Doctor Who Confidential, where we were shown more footage of Matt Smith being photographed and videoed for reference for his in-game character. Lots of funny walks, head-slapping, falls and air guitar. I’m sure that man is made out of Plasticine and pipe cleaners. Also we see Matt and Karen mocking each other’s movements, the former calling the latter a “gangly fox”, and informative bits from the rest of the game team.

Then it was over, sob! Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you more news about the game in future. Thanks to Premier PR, The Culture Vulture, the BBC and Sumo Digital for making it happen. The first episode of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games, ‘City Of The Daleks’, will be available for free download for PC and Mac from the BBC website on 5th June. The downloads will be about 250MB each and use a similar downloading process to that used by the BBC iPlayer – which is so popular amongst Who fans that the first two episodes of the new series of Doctor Who on television have been downloaded over 1.5million times each.