How Doctor Who Games Have Evolved Since 2005

As the BBC announces a brand-new VR game for Jodie Whittaker's Doctor, we revisit Doctor Who's recent dalliances with video games.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

2019 is shaping up to be another of Doctor Who‘s occasional years off, with no new TV episodes between New Year’s Day’s “Resolution” and the rumored Christmas special this December. But if you’re hungry for more Time Lord action, there are loads of Doctor Who games you could jump into right now.

With a twelfth series not set to arrive until 2020, Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor is filling the gap with appearances in VR form: she’s starring in The Runaway, which is billed as an interactive episode, and popping up in a newly announced VR game, The Edge of Time, which comes to PlayStation VR and other apps this September.

The Runaway plays like a hands-on, fourth-wall-busting minisode where Whittaker’s Doctor gets a rare run-out without being swamped by companions. The Edge of Time sounds like a far bigger proposition than this 13-minute diversion, which gives players the chance to pilot the TARDIS through a sticky situation. Whatever the future holds for Doctor Who games, VR looks to be the next of many phases in the video game evolution of the franchise.

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Unlike other globally recognizable licenses, Doctor Who has yet to get a video game adaptation that fully lives up to its potential. That’s not for lack of trying, especially since the series was revived in 2005, but then the uniqueness of the Whoniverse, and of the Doctor as a hero within it, poses certain storytelling challenges for game developers.

To paraphrase one of Steven Moffat’s more lyrical waxings, the Doctor is a character who doesn’t carry a gun, but instead has a screwdriver to fix things. The program doesn’t lend itself to gameplay where you beat up enemies and bosses. You might instead fancy a game where you play either as or against the Daleks in a Star Wars Battlefront-style action shooter.

Further Reading: What’s Next for Doctor Who?

As we’ve seen in many of the games connected to the new series (as opposed to pre-2005 efforts like Dalek Attack and Destiny of the Doctors), the character is better suited to gameplay that emphasizes collecting, exploring, and solving puzzles over combat. But while it’s come tantalizingly close on occasions, we haven’t really seen a game that takes the opportunity to tell stories that the show can’t.

From Flash games to proper console releases, the various Doctor Who games that the BBC has licensed or even developed in-house over the last 15 years or so have been quite eclectic in what they adopt from the show proper…

The official Doctor Who website games (2005 onwards)

For those of us who remember the halcyon days when the show first came back, it’s easy to feel like we were spoiled for bonus content. As part of the revamp of the official Doctor Who website,  fans got a variety of diverting Flash games that rebadged other formats for the Whoniverse.

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The first of these was 2005’s The Last Dalek, a straight-up third-person shooter adaptation of Christopher Eccleston’s first Dalek episode, allowing you to control the episode’s lone pepper-pot by WASD-ing your way through enemy soldiers and ultimately taking out the Doctor himself in a somewhat bleaker ending than the episode proper.

Following the “Attack of the Graske”interactive mini-sode, a proto-Runaway interactive episode starring David Tennant (which we wrote more about in our look back at Who‘s festive specials), every episode of the second series had a tie-in game as part of the additional online content that was updated weekly.

Further Reading: Revisiting Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who Christmas Specials

In 2015, as part of the BBC’s drive to make educational games in relation to the new coding requirements of the Key Stage 2 curriculum, the website also offered The Doctor and The Dalek, a puzzle game that incorporates the basics of coding, and The Doctor Who Game Maker, which enables users to design and share games they have created using familiar library elements.

Due to various revamps over the years, not all of the older games are still available on the official site, but many of them are obtainable in archived form using a bit of online time travel. But while the commitment to creating content for kids who enjoyed the show was often impressive, the first new console game would take a simpler form.

Top Trumps: Doctor Who (2007)

Based on the classic card game that had a resurgence of popularity in 1999, the Top Trumps Adventures video games did what they said on the tin. Utilizing the design style of 2007’s animated serial The Infinite Quest, the Doctor Who edition was released on the PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS and Wii, and Windows. It’s an inauspicious start to the new series’ console efforts, but a serviceable one for the target audience.

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Evacuation Earth and Return To Earth (2010)

With the arrival of the Matt Smith era came a far greater focus on gaming, starting with Evacuation Earth on the DS and Return to Earth on the Wii, the latter of which was marketed with a Wiimote cover themed after the sonic screwdriver. Both games included the voice talents of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and featured series 5 villains such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Silurians.

Developed by British studio Asylum Entertainment, the loosely connected puzzle-meets-platformer outings were slated by reviewers. Hewing closely to the Professor Layton handbook, Evacuation Earth was received slightly more warmly but Return to Earth‘s mix of poor graphics and frustrating gameplay went down like a lead balloon. Still, at least that Wiimote cover was cool.

Further Reading: Doctor Who’s Reinvention from Eccleston to Whittaker

The Mazes of Time (2010)

Marketed as the first Doctor Who iOS game, BBC Worldwide’s The Mazes of Time fared slightly better with fans and reviewers alike. Released through the App Store in 2010 (with an Android version following in 2011), this is a much better version of the same sort of thing that Return to Earth was aiming for.

Sharing a writer with the Nintendo games, it’s another single-player puzzle-based platformer that pits the Eleventh Doctor and Amy against Daleks, Cybermen, and Silurians, but there’s more innovation to the way in which the two characters have different capabilities for solving different puzzles. Later bonus levels included the Autons and the first video game appearance of the Weeping Angels.

The Adventure Games (2010-11)

Of course, the big story of the Great 2010 Gaming Push (as no one calls it) was Doctor Who: The Adventure Games. For anyone who feels the Telltale Games approach is the only way to do a Who game, Sumo Digital’s episodic third-person adventure series is as near as we’ve had so far.

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Initially free to download from the BBC site for Windows and Mac, The Adventure Games boasted voice performances from Smith and Gillan, scripts from TV writers Phil Ford and James Moran, and got a big marketing push when they were released in June 2010. The first episode, City of the Daleks, marked the most on-screen action that the multi-colored Paradigm Daleks have seen outside of their first appearance.

Further Reading: Why Boys and Men Need Doctor Who, Too

Playing alternately as the Doctor and Amy, you embark upon puzzle solving and stealth missions to best the baddies of each successive installment, with Blood of the Cybermen and Shadow of the Vashta Nerada following in later months. The first series ended with TARDIS, a completely shipbound episode that provided the best look at what else is inside the police box since 2005. (Lest we forget that 2013’s “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS” TV episode was still a few years away.)

Despite receiving positive feedback about the games, the commissioned second season was cut short after just one excellent episode, 2011’s The Gunpowder Plot, which coupled a Guy Fawkes story in the grand tradition of Who historicals with the only official screen portrayal of the often-talked-about war between the Sontarans and the Rutans to date. Alas, the BBC announced that they had decided to have another crack at console games instead…

The Eternity Clock (2012)

Doctor Who returned to consoles with The Eternity Clock, an action-adventure game for PlayStation 3, PS Vita, and Windows. Developed by Supermassive Games, the game features the voice talents of Smith and Alex Kingston as the Doctor and River Song, basically doing a modern version of the classic series’ Key to Time arc, restoring pieces of the titular McGuffin while battling the usual rogues’ gallery.

Following City of the Daleks, this is yet another game that has levels set in a destroyed London overrun by pepper-pots. It wouldn’t be the last either. Despite the familiar plotting, this one actually gets a lot of stuff right. However, what killed The Eternity Clock was its technical issues, including a huge array of bugs in the PS3 version.

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The game was intended as the first in a series, but the potential sequels were canceled as the BBC once again explored alternate avenues of gaming.

Further Reading: The Unanswered Questions of Doctor Who’s Capaldi Era

Doctor Who: Worlds in Time (2012-14)

As the brand’s first MMORPG, Worlds in Time gave players the chance to play as the Eleventh Doctor’s companion, collecting “time shards” and leveling up by completing familiar match-3 minigames. You also got to choose your species, (human, Silurian, Cheem, or Catkind) as well as redecorating your bedroom on the TARDIS.

Focusing primarily on the player avatar, the game features very little of the Doctor, who stays in the TARDIS while you explore and collaborate with other players. Developed by Sega and Three Rings Design, this colorful and cartoonish game was reasonably well received, but didn’t catch fire with players. It was discontinued in March 2014.

Legacy (2013-19)

Launched as part of the show’s 50th-anniversary celebrations in 2013, the freemium iOS and Android game Doctor Who: Legacy offered a branded spin on free apps like Puzzle & Dragons. The story kicked off with the Eleventh Doctor and Vastra teaming up to stop the Sontarans perverting the course of human history (that old chestnut) and wound up encompassing characters and stories from the classic series and even Big Finish Productions’ extensive spin-off canon.

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Further Reading: Doctor Who’s 50 Best Villains

Praised across the board for its generous free-to-play mode, the app continued to add new content and characters with each new episode, switching from Smith to Capaldi’s Doctor more or less when the show did. Despite its huge acclaim and popularity, developers Tiny Rebel Games have announced that they won’t be renewing their license with the BBC this year, meaning that the game will now only be available to play offline to those who have downloaded it.

LEGO Dimensions – Doctor Who World (2015)

Even with all of the ups and downs of the Doctor Who video game franchise to date, there’s really no contest as to which is the best. Given the qualities that would make a game enjoyable to Doctor Who fans, be they problem-solving and exploring or simply picking up on Easter eggs, a Traveller’s Tales LEGO game is an absolutely perfect fit.

Unquestionably offering the best value for your money of the toys-to-life level packs available, this add-on to the dizzying multimedia crossover that is Lego Dimensions comes with oodles of fan service and plenty of enjoyable gameplay. There’s the obligatory Dalek-ravaged London level to play (The Dalek Extermination of Earth) but more importantly, there’s also a hub world with an embarrassment of riches for fun-loving fans.

Further Reading: Exploring Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who Legacy

Quite aside from including all 13 Doctors at the time and their respective TARDIS interiors, the game also offers the pitched madness of side-quests where you help Captain Jack chase down a gang of dancing Ood who he’s trying to draft as entertainment for the Face of Boe’s birthday party. It’s a funny old universe that Doctor Who inhabits and no other game has ever lived up to it as well as this does.

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The sheer depth of the attention to detail in this will likely leave you clamoring for a fully-fledged (and sadly unlikely) LEGO Doctor Who game. While many of the aforementioned games have been fairly quickly produced outings, with repetitive stories and somewhat limited gameplay, this silly, random, and utterly brilliant diversion shows just how inventive things could be in ideal circumstances.

Here’s hoping that the upcoming VR game, The Edge of Time, marks another step forward in the evolution of Doctor Who games. While we wait for its release, please feel free to leave your own wishes for Doctor Who gaming in the comments below…