“The Doctor is trapped at the edge of time,” Ian Hambleton explains, as Den Of Geek prepares to try out a demo for Doctor Who: The Edge Of Time in the London offices of Maze Theory (the VR studio behind the game, of which Hambleton is CEO).
“You appear in this East London laundrette in the intro. And it’s the present day, so you’re able to do your washing in VR, and then the Doctor gets in touch with you, and tells you that basically she’s been trapped at the edge of time by this mysterious baddie.”
This villain has “woken up to find out that the universe hasn’t panned out as she’d hoped, so she’s released this reality virus that is changing time. And at that point, the game shifts forward to a Dalek-invaded East London. You have to break out of the laundrette.” The player escapes, presumably leaving their soggy laundry behind, and finds themselves in a junkyard.
This is the point in the story when the demo kicks off, and the player gets to take over. The unmistakable voice of Jodie Whittaker is playing in our ears through the HTC Vive headset, instructing us to look around and search for some spare parts that could help build a TARDIS-summoning device. Taking the Sonic Screwdriver from a holster on our hip, we scan the area, and quickly find a radio and a car battery that should do just the trick. As we get to grips with the controls, it’s not difficult to Sonic the pieces together and set off a signal.
There’s a brief interruption from a sinister flying saucer, which hangs ominously above the English capital. It’s worth noting that the graphics look great, and it’s very fan-pleasing to hear Whittaker in your ears while wielding the Sonic to do her Doctor’s bidding. And on the second attempt, after the flying saucer incident, the summoning device works and the TARDIS materialises before your eyes. It looks and sounds just like you’d expect it to, and for any fan of the Doctor Who TV show, the call to action is impossible to resist.
At this point, Hambleton explains later, some players like to create their own equivalent of the famous recurring “It’s bigger on the inside!” bit, walking around the compact exterior of the TARDIS before peering in at its internal wonders. But this writer’s instinct was to run straight into the iconic time machine and kick off the next stage of the adventure. We’re then treated to a full title sequence, ripped straight from the show, before the demo comes to an end.
After this exhilarating experience, we sat down for a chat with Hambleton and Russell Harding (executive producer for Maze Theory) to talk all things Doctor Who: The Edge Of Time. Here’s the transcript…
So, how did this come together in the first place?
Ian Hambleton: We’d been talking to the BBC for probably about a year, I think, and the studio is a fairly new start-up. We were formed last September. But we’d been talking to them before that, and we’d actually been down to The Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff and created a photogrammetry of the whole thing before it shut.
IH: So we’ve got a digital record. It’s an amazing asset. Of everything.
That’s great, I was gutted that it shut down.
IH: There’s a computer over there that’s got it all! And out of that, they’d come in to see another project of ours, The Vanishing Act, and they were excited by that. And we decided, we’ll build a prototype Weeping Angels demo. Then we showed them that, and they basically said ‘you’ve just nailed the atmosphere’. And that’s why they gave us the licence.
And do you have to pick a point where it fits in the canon and things like that?
IH: Yeah, we got asked this the other day. I think it fits post-the-last-series. This is almost existing between the two series [series 11 and series 12], basically.
Russell Harding: And the showrunners have always said about it being in ‘the inbetween’.
And what was it like working with Jodie Whittaker?
IH: So we did the recordings about a month ago. She’s classy, isn’t she? Apparently. We didn’t meet her. We weren’t there. But she did it in about half the time we’d put, because she’s just so in character. Amazing. And actually, in that demo, we [originally] had a fake Jodie that was someone we knew that sounded a bit like her. And it lifts it so much, just having her in it. So yeah, think she’s brilliant. In the game, she appears sort of in it as a hologram, and she gets in touch with you via various communications devices and electronics, basically.
Was it always the idea that you’re not playing as her, and that you’re playing as someone who was normal?
IH: Weirdly, we did a lot of research on Reddit before we started the project, and the two things that came up from it were: number one, everyone wants to pilot the TARDIS, which we’re gonna get people to do; and number two, everyone wants to be the Doctor’s friend, not necessarily the Doctor. So yeah, that was the…
RH: It works really well in VR, doesn’t it?
IH: Because you get to be yourself.
RH: Yeah, you kind of embody people into VR being themselves. I think it’s quite a natural trope, as well, because you fall into place being a companion quite naturally.
IH: I don’t think that would be right, basically, to be the Doctor. Being the Doctor’s friend, people seem to want to do that.
What was it like approaching the monsters? Like, the Weeping Angels bit, I’m already a bit scared…
IH: [Laughs] They’re perfect for VR, basically, because in VR you can cut and edit anything that isn’t in view. So if you turn around – we can totally change the room behind you. And it’s quite unique to VR that technique. Obviously, Weeping Angels are amazing for that: you look away and they come at you, basically. We’ve got a demo that we did, which is the original [version of this project], and that did really work.
RH: We have had a few people scream. [Laughs]
IH: The one thing I would say is, everything in VR is 20 or 30 per cent more impactful. Standing in front of a Dalek is pretty… like, seeing them there… and the humming and stuff… they’re pretty imposing. So, yeah, those two characters really do come to life in this.
RH: I think seeing things at scale is totally different, isn’t it, to watching it on a screen. Being able to be immersed in this world is pretty cool.
You often hear with the showrunners of the TV show that it is a struggle to try and make the Daleks scary and keep them scary every year. I really liked the episode this year where they had a Dalek on the back of Charlotte Ritchie’s head. But with VR, it’s like coming at them in a way that you never have before…
RH: Yeah, it does feel different. You’re very immersed.
IH: I do feel blessed by this, because the thing about VR that’s amazing is that it allows you to be taken to places that you couldn’t do in the real world. Which is one of the main attractions of taking this on. It’s like: be transported to different planets and worlds, go back in time. It’s like, at its best, VR is like a teleportation device. And I think that we’re so lucky that we can animate them and get them to do things and move around you. It must be a lot harder for the actual TV production.
Was there any struggle, trying to wrap your heads around time-travel logic or anything like that?
IH: I suppose so. Um, we’ve been guided obviously by the showrunners, who made sure that what we’re doing is right. There’s quite a nice interesting technique [that we use]. There’s this time glitch effect, so that when the reality virus is taking hold. That’s amazing to see in real time.
RH: Yeah, because it’s all around you.
IH: But also, within the gameplay, there’s a lot of different techniques. So at one point, you get to manipulate time forward to basically solve puzzles and clues. So, we also play with time as well. There hasn’t really been any, in this one, time affecting other things. But then the show doesn’t often do that, either.
How many different levels or areas are there, if you’re allowed to say?
RH: There’s sort of three worlds, that you kind of get to explore. But there’s a variety in those worlds.
IH: Plus the TARDIS, and the laundrette. The opening scene is like an intro section, and then the three worlds.
RH: Yeah, so the three worlds are deliberately chosen so they give you that variety in VR, so you get a different experience from each. So you kind of get to explore space in one… then Victorian London…
IH: And there’s a desolate spaceship that you get to fix and find. Then there’s also this Aztec, alien, Dalek-invaded world.
And what can you tell me about the gameplay styles you’ve got?
RH: There’s quiet a variety of different mechanics in there, and we really use those to enhance the story. So we’ve got things like, as you were doing, exploring and finding objects to maybe build a device that will summon things like the TARDIS. We’ve also got other areas, where you might have to explore a forest and find clues to unlock an area. So some of that’s about exploratory and discovery, a bit more cognitive.
IH: Like an escape room.
RH: Yeah. Much more like an escape room.
IH: There’s a Dalek stealth sort of…
RH: Avoid a Dalek.
RH: Avoid the Daleks, they’re bad. [Laughter]
IH: And then obviously you use the Sonic to fix things and build things. There’s a laser puzzle in there. There’s loads of cool stuff, basically.
And what can you say about recreating the TARDIS in VR?
RH: The TARDIS is amazing because we’ve absolutely modelled every nob and dial and they turn as they do on-set. We’ve been up there scanning, photographing.
IH: If it turns 45 degrees [in real life], that’s what it does [in VR]. There’s the custard cream dispenser. [Laughter] You can’t eat it, though. It’s a shame, if we could just get it to drop out… [mimes catching a custard cream that has dropped out of a VR headset]
Did you have much of a look at previous Doctor Who games at all?
RH: We were quite aware of a lot of previous ones, and a lot of us probably played a lot of previous Doctor Who games… I’ve been in the games industry a long time, and I’m quite aware that it’s come up quite a few times. Often with people trying to map classic game mechanics onto Doctor Who.
IH: We’re quite lucky, aren’t we, because VR does lend itself well to being there, fixing things, having an adventure. Whereas, I think, if you were trying to take Doctor Who and turn into a shooter – that doesn’t work. We are lucky, in a way, that this is a perfect medium for it. Whereas, it must be quite challenging to do [other sorts of games].
RH: Yeah, and the expectation of how those things work classically with gamers is probably different to a Doctor Who fan or to being true to Doctor Who. Our big thing is to make really feel like you’re in an episode. Although this is more of a feature-length movie than an episode.
IH: It should be about three hours long, in the end. But I think some people have asked us, like, sometimes when things like TV shows get remade as games they aren’t always massive successes. And, I think this is a real opportunity to change that.
And we’re also doing Peaky Blinders [as a VR game]. That’s our second title that we’re launching. We announced it a couple of months back. We sort of think VR is a perfect medium to take these [TV shows], because it’s great to be part of the Shelby family and that world, and it’s great to be in the show.
Were there any episodes of the show that you found particularly inspiring? I’m thinking in my head about Blink, that first Weeping Angels episode, and how the Doctor wasn’t actually there but he is sort of guiding them through.
IH: We knew that was a great episode. That was one of the inspirations for doing that [Weeping Angels] demo. We tried to take a lot of influence from the new series, so this is… I think what’s really interesting is that they really are rebooting the franchise with the new Doctor and there’s a new visual direction, and the production values are a lot higher in this one, and so this fits in that sort of world and canon, basically.
RH: I think it’s really hard, because everyone on the team has a different Doctor.
IH: That’s cool, though, isn’t it? Because they’ve all got an influence. We were talking today… we’re desperate to get any of the previous Doctors through [the VR demo] to see what they think.
That would be amazing!
IH: And I’ve got this idea of getting Nicholas Briggs into the Dalek. There’s a bit in the game when you get to be in a Dalek, and we’re just like, that would be amazing if we could get him to do it.
Have you got him doing the voice of the Daleks?
IH: Yeah yeah, you have to! You have to use him. He’s the official. And for authenticity, we just have to do it right.
Doctor Who: The Edge Of Time will launch in September for PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, HTC Vive and Vive Cosmos.