From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, you know how much people complain when publishers just port a console game to the PC? This is what happens when it comes from the iPhone.
Who could possibly complain about a videogame inspired by Dexter Morgan, the Bay Harbor Butcher? (Remembers Series 6.) Oh, right. Dexter. Well, he doesn't get a vote, and Harry's Code doesn't stretch to videogame developers, so here we are—the interactive debut of everyone's favourite TV serial killer. Unless you prefer Hannibal, of course. That'll be one hell of a Cooking Mama sequel.
Provided you don't know about Dexter's iPhone origins, the technology here is pretty impressive. Not many games from the 1970s managed to look this good. One second. What's that? 2010? Oh. Well, never mind. It features Michael C. Hall as Dexter, which is a good start, along with the actors behind Batista and Doakes (though most of the rest of the cast is voiced by cheaper actors), it kicks off with the opening theme tune rather than just some bloopy-bleepy facsimile, and it looks… Yeaaaaaaah.
“My name is Dexter Morgan. And it's going to happen soon…” begins Dexter, as we join him in the middle of a hunt. His Dark Passenger has targeted a choir teacher called Mike Donovan, and tracked him to a strange dimension where textures are simple and models more so. Dexter parks about 50 meters from the end of the universe, where the land just hits the sky and surrenders, and gets started.
This being an iPhone game at heart, control is mostly through giant icons that appear whenever he gets close to objects. First up, a shovel. He takes the shovel, and is rewarded with a “TASK COMPLETE” icon that really should be as satisfying to his inner soul as a justified execution but apparently isn't, and is then followed by a Track And Field minigame to dig up a young boy's corpse. Not inappropriate at all.
And nor is running around to find a couple more, in what feels like the creepiest MMO quest ever, to finally confirm his guilt. Apparently catching a guy burying one corpse is merely circumstantial evidence. Three is proof. Thus spake Harry. Which, in fairness, is one of the least stupid things he told Dexter while alive, including suggesting he should work out his impulses on Santa Claus in the hope of getting him down to at most one brutal murder a year.
His adoptive mother's surprise trip to Lapland did not go well for the Morgan family.
Anyway, with Mike Donovan now destined to end up on Dexter's table, it's time for the exciting 'fix the holes in the plastic wrap' mini-game, which earn “Mask” points, followed by the even more exciting Obviously There Was Going To Be A Stealth Section stealth section. This one reveals Donovan to be a crazy person, who keeps stopping and shouting “Is someone there!” in the middle of an empty street, whether Dexter is making any noise or not.
Also, despite the lack of witnesses, getting seen means instant failure. After all, it's not like Dexter could subdue a middle-aged choir teacher without some kind of scheme involving his car and conveniently left-behind keys—or to be more exact, the developers made that cut-scene and decided everyone would watch it. Also, Dexter is now Tyrion Lannister.
Well, he looks taller on screen.
And now, the moment everyone's been waiting for: Dexter subduing his victims. Again, it's a minigame, in which you have to force Donovan to confess to his crimes… despite having conclusively proven them to Dexter's satisfaction. “Each choice will affect your Mask and Dark Passenger,” explains the introduction, though not the part about how anyone who will know how well it went who won't subsequently be carved up into pieces and thrown over the side of Dexter's boat. Does Dexter make people fill out a satisfaction survey before ending them? I don't remember that in the TV show. Isn't a big part of… y'know… the point of him killing people that he just gets to be himself for a little while?
Well, no matter. It's a short conversation that mostly boils down to “You have to understand.” “I do understand, but I have standards”, as you'd expect. Where Dexter typically delivers the coup de grâce at this point though, here, killing consists of… you guessed it… a minigame.
Here's where it gets weird. To avoid trouble, there's no 'Use Sharp Pointy Thing On Heart' option; the kill happens off-screen. Instead, there's a minigame about joining points on the screen with slashes, each one met with a shout of pain. So, to make this less brutal for the audience, Dexter's MO has been changed from one quick finishing move to… torturing his victims with knife wounds until their bodies give up?
I query this design decision. I query this decision a lot.
With the job done though, Dexter returns to a version of his apartment apparently built in the 3D Construction Kit, haunted by a ghost that magically opens doors when he gets near—possibly of Jaime Murray's hopes of simultaneously having a career and a shirt on at any one moment. He glances at his blood slides, takes a phonecall from a crazy woman who seems to think she's his sister Debra but clearly isn't, and briefly glances through his record. One of his victims, a black widow, apparently murdered a man named 'Norman Gork'. Despite this favour though, and the difficulty of saying the words “Norman Gork” in a gravelly, dark way, Dexter decided she was naughty enough for his table.
This is the kind of information spin-off games were designed to impart.
In this case, literally so. By a designer.
The next case sees Dexter head to see Faux-Debra at a murder site, where his boss LaGuerta is waiting. “Your sister wants to talk to you in room 106. About what, I have no idea,” she informs Dexter. At a guess, the clue involves the word “forensics”. Just a guess. The real mystery though is where she is. Certainly there's no sign of her over in the room, only—
Oh. Wait. That's Debra Sorry, the face and the body and the voice were a bit of a distraction. Anyway, it's another conversation, in which Dexter has to choose the 'sound normal sound normal sound normal' options, while Not-Debra twitches around like she's high on something with a better street value than life. Anyway, this killing is just the Ice Truck Killer from the first series, so not something to investigate now. It does allow for more conversations though, and the realisation that while Dexter earns both 'Mask' and 'Dark Passenger' points, the game bends over backwards to decide things are creepy.
“Not a drop of blood in the body or anywhere on the scene. Nada,” says Actually Batista. “He's not a vampire,” Dexter can reply, and “This is unique. And very clean.” Even so, the conversation ended up clocking 9 Dark Passenger points. This is vaguely worrying. Does not getting the serial killer undertones mean something, or is the game just so tetchy about moral undertones that later on, Dexter will eat a hamburger and switch alignment to Chaotic Evil? It's hard to say.
Anyway, that case is so Series 1. Leaving with just a casual shout of “It's probably my brother, but try not to find out that bit!”, it's time to hit Miami Metro. Here, gruff cop Doakes is waiting to introduce a brand new minigame: confrontation. This involves moving the mouse away from a target to make Dexter keep his cool and prevent him saying “Wow, are you going to regret this in Series 2…”
Obviously, it's important not to come across as in any way weird or creepy.
While in Miami Metro, it's possible to do Dexter's job and pick up some bonus Definitely Not A Serial Killer Nope points by conducting fingerprint and DNA analysis, and in a vaguely cool one, blood spatter analysis. Here, you pick a weapon and try to match a couple of existing splatters with a carefully targeted stroke. It's vaguely amusing, and I just earned 30 Dark Passenger points for saying that, didn't I? Darn. I'll have you know, I get no fun out of my murders whatsoever. It's entirely because great Elatibarubaroum demands them in exchange for not destroying the world. It's a service, really.
Luckily, all of this stuff is optional, with no negative points whatsoever for agreeing to help Doakes with his latest case and then going to go see Dexter's girlfriend Rita instead. “When it comes to sex, the actual act, I'm not interested,” he growls. And when you see Rita, that's not too surprising. She's like a bobblehead in a cardigan, bouncing and bouncing and—
Cue a conversation that makes it pretty clear that while Michael C. Hall was paid well enough to lend his voice to this, the cheque was nowhere near enough for any actual 'acting'. As elsewhere here, he talks with all the drive and passion of a Vulcan sex therapist, before agreeing to take Rita to a crab restaurant for an equally gruff romantic dinner. Obviously, minigame! And here's a real head-tilter. This is how Dexter: The Game wants Dexter: The Serial Killer to pretend to be Dexter: The Boyfriend…
“Dexter, you just personally smashed a hundred crabs into green splats.”
“I love you. I feel so safe around you.”
And yes, you get Mask points for it.
Then it gets even weirder. Having killed more crabs than a pharmacy-bought insecticide, Dexter glances round to see a crime scene has spontaneously appeared. He ambles over to help, because why not – answer, being on a date – and Rita is oddly laid back about that. It's another Ice Truck Killer one of course, so just decoration. Dexter then takes Rita home, at which point she announces that “It's late. I should go.” Huh. Okay. And people wonder why she never managed to see through him.
At this point, the game pretty much settles into a routine. Dexter gets two targets, captured and dealt with in much the same way as the first, before opening his refrigerator to find a 'present' from the Ice Truck Killer. At this point, the game unceremoniously ends, to be continued in a new episode that did come out for iOS, but never made it to PC. It's not exactly hard to guess why.
To give Dexter: The Game credit, as an iPhone adventure, it's not utterly terrible. It at least tries to capture the mood of the series with its voices and official music and following Dexter through his usual capture pattern and trying to hide out. It's just unfortunate that the minigames are terrible, and it doesn't have the guts to follow through with the actual kills—or more likely, nobody reckoned their chances of having a 'murder a man wrapped in clingfilm' minigame past Apple, even if they were bad.
I haven't played the second game, but it looks slightly more technologically ambitious with its driving and so on. It also looks about as much fun as a root canal performed by a circus clown with a stomach full of jumping beans, and the reviews back that up. Maybe this was why Dexter was ultimately so unimpressed with the idea of a game about him. He'd played it. And if that sounds like it's breaking the fourth wall, bear in mind that if you watch the TV in the first one, it plays an advert for his show (along with a couple of others). I'm pretty sure the Code Of Harry doesn't cover 'become a worldwide sensation, moron'.
Had the episodic plan gone ahead, at this pace the whole series would have concluded some time in 2374 with Dexter played by Voicebot 3000. Still, it's not like anyone buying this wouldn't know the story, and it's good that most of the time is spent on new cases rather than just rehashing the Ice Truck Killer investigation. This may not be a particularly great way to live Dexter's life, but at least it feels like they tried. Well, actually, no. On second thoughts, if we're going for 'least', we may as well hit right rock bottom. At least it was better than House M.D.
“No one is immune from Dr. House's biting zingers!” indeed. Sigh.