In the early months of 2018, I found myself in between client projects at Whamix. This was unusual, as Whamix usually kept me pretty busy. I was unsure how to spend the handful of days between the completion of my previous project and the start of the next. With the encouragement of the CEO, Sunil Shah, I spent the time developing an experimental game that sought to investigate the potential of unique genre combinations. I began my research by looking to existing mobile games, which provided an abundance of material to draw from, but I decided early on that I was most interested in types of play that prioritized thoughtful decision making and accessibility over more action-oriented and skill-based mechanics. Playing at the confluence of visual novels, doctor sims, and classic text adventures, the project evolved into an experience I named Monster Doctor.

The Monster Doctor overworld.

In Monster Doctor, you take on the role of a doctor providing illegal care to Monsters, creatures from an alternate dimension that have arrived on Earth through human experimentation and now live among us as second-class citizens. The game is split into three chapters, each starring a different Monster. The goal of each chapter is to navigate the web of social, political, and cultural contexts of each Monster’s circumstance before deciding if and how to provide care based on what you’ve learned.

My favorite media experiences have typically been the ones that concern themselves less with answers or authenticity and more with questions and subversion. This personal preference became something of a style guide and litmus test during development. The goal of each chapter became to motivate an earnest question through bizarre and sometimes funny circumstance. To this end, I tried to avoid defining success in Monster Doctor. While there are consequences to every choice you make in the game, every Monster’s story is designed to encourage contemplation and hopefully even reflection. For this to happen in earnest, it felt necessary to foster an environment in which the player wouldn’t feel judged for or scored on their behavior. Thus, narratively or mechanically speaking, the game does not consider any choice to be “right” or “wrong”. If at any point during development I felt like the writing was becoming too didactic (a tendency of mine) or that alternative interpretations were being boxed out, I would rewrite the chapter.

The Yarn file containing all the dialogue for the Monster intake phase.

While writing Monster Doctor, I was occasionally reminded of that Tolkien quote about allegory and applicability. He argued that allegory mostly functions to preserve whatever dogged beliefs the writer may hold, while applicability serves the reader, meeting them on their own terms through shared experience. I found this proposed framework useful while developing a game, ostensibly intended for all ages, that occasionally addresses prejudice, religious intolerance, and political violence, to say nothing of a premise based on restricted access to healthcare. I don’t mean that Monster Doctor doesn’t have things to say, just that I tried to lean away from the obvious metaphors, at least as much as a game about healthcare released in 2018 can hope to, in an attempt to preserve the emphasis on the player’s experience.

The Riddle Tweak during surgery.

Developing the look of the game, I wanted something bright and approachable that wouldn’t dissolve entirely into cuteness or nostalgia. I was aiming for a familiar palette while trying to avoid environmental or character designs that telegraphed (or could be recognized as telegraphing) how the player is supposed to feel. Eyes are cutesy-big and colors are super bright, but there are some weird characters occupying the world of Monster Doctor, and their designs are not typically indicative of their personality.

An early version of the Snurflop design had external intestines and other organs that dragged on the ground behind it.

In my effort to curb the cuteness of the art style, I pushed some character designs into pretty macabre territory, at least for a family game. Some Monsters feature quasi-grotesque body modifications and one creature was initially conceived as having no mouth, having evolved to absorb nutrients from the environment by dragging its guts on the ground. I later decided that this was maybe a little extreme and updated the design, a decision that later heavily influenced the story of that Monster’s chapter in the game.

So Monster Doctor is a bright, sometimes zany, mish-mash of tone and genre. It’s a messy, little experiment with the goal of creating a space for the player to reflect for a minute, if they want to, rather than just react. In that sense, the story that unfolds in the game kind of resembles the development process of the game; Monster Doctor is more interested and interesting in the journey, not so much the destination. Dang, I think maybe Tolkien had something to say about that, too.

The epilogue scene, featuring Ro, the robot assistant.

Monster Doctor is currently in post-production. We will announce its official release in the next couple weeks.