Tender Loving Care

Developer/Publisher:  Aftermath Media
Year Released:  1998

Review by Steve Ramsey (February, 2001)
Tender Loving CareA game is not bad simply because it is the same as many others. Nor is a game good simply because it is different from all the rest. However, if variety truly is the spice of life, then being different has an inherent value, and Tender Loving Care is certainly different. How much its inherent value is worth though will very much be a matter of taste.

Its plot is seemingly straightforward. You are greeted outside a house by Doctor Turner, a psychiatrist. The house is beautiful he says, but looks can be deceiving. It is for sale, but nobody is buying "after what happened". Exactly what did happen no one knows. Dr Turner is troubled by this, because he was close to all of the players and feels he should know. He enlists your help - you have a fresh eye and an uncluttered view. Perhaps together you can reassemble the pieces of what took place.

You are asked a series of questions by Dr Turner, and you are asked to answer openly and honestly. The game proper then begins.

The manual describes the game as an interactive motion picture, which is an apt description. Unlike most other full motion video games, you do not participate directly in what is occurring on the screen. That is, you cannot send a character into a particular room, or have him or her investigate objects or places. Instead, you participate after the event, and shape the next scene in the movie.

Act 1, Scene 1
In the first scene, you are introduced to the three main characters, Michael and Allison Overton, and Katherine Randolph. Some tragedy has befallen the Overtons, and Katherine arrives to take up a position as a live in psychiatric nurse and therapist. Dr Turner has recommended Katherine to the Overtons. Right from the beginning, various tensions and intrigues are apparent.

The scene ends, and Dr Turner (played impeccably by John Hurt) once again addresses you. He asks you your opinion on some of the things you have just seen, and about any impressions you might already have formed. He might give you some opinions of his own, or pose some theories about what is going on. At times he also asks quite intimate questions about yourself.

At the completion of the questioning, you can explore the Overton's house, and on a few occasions Dr. Turner's office. You will find diaries, e-mails, and letters. You will find books on erotic art, tantric massage, witchcraft and Women Who Kill. You can tune into some interesting TV programs, or listen to talkback radio with Dr Betty. You can rifle through Dr Turner's files when given the opportunity. You can be as nosy or as discrete as you like. You may also come across the other characters, who will be aware of your presence, and they will share their feelings or thoughts with you. The exploration of the house is done through traditional point and click adventuring of a graphically rendered environment, although the character interaction is in full video.

When you have had enough exploring, you must find the hotspot that generates the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) (Dr Turner will tell you where to look). You "leave" the game and the good doctor shows you images and asks you questions, again some of them quite intimate. When he has finished, you return to the game and scene two of the movie commences. This four part cycle repeats itself, until all 16 scenes of the movie have played out, and the game is complete.

According to the manual, it is your answers to Dr Turner's questions at the end of each scene and in the TAT which determines the shape of the story and its final outcome. This is both the game's major strength, and one of its biggest weaknesses. I was intrigued by the concept that how I felt about each character (is Michael a loving husband or a guilty manipulative bastard; was Katherine an angel of mercy or a conniving temptress; is Dr Turner all he pretends to be) and their interactions and relationships (was Michael lying; is Katherine dangerous; is Allison hiding something) determined how the story progressed. I also found that my feelings for each character ebbed and flowed as the game went on, as I discovered more about them, and my responses to the questions were affected accordingly.

Tender Loving CareUnfortunately, there was no cause and effect that was immediately discernible between my answers and the action, and as I watched each scene of the movie I had to take it on faith that my answers were affecting what was happening. In other games, if I use an inventory item to open a door and then tell my character to enter, there is a simple and apparent connection between what I have done and what happens on the screen; in this game the connection is invisible, and whilst it may be far more sophisticated, I felt somewhat detached from the whole thing. You are not asked questions like "should Michael enter Katherine's room", nor can you reload a scene and answer the questions differently to see the immediate effect (the game automatically saves when you exit and picks up where you left off next time you play). Only by playing the game again can you observe any differences.

If you do play it again though, the sophistication of what has been put together becomes apparent. The changes are seamless. The technical aspects are beyond me, but there is nothing clunky or obvious about the changes, and nor is it simply a case of some scenes being deleted and others added. I played it twice, and all the major events still occurred, but there were subtle shifts in how they were played out. For example, the first time through, there was a conversation between Michael and a female co-worker that was suggestive of a past or ongoing affair. Body language and intonation played a big part in the suggestiveness. On the second occasion, the conversation still took place but all suggestions of an affair were gone.

In fact, I liked the second time through a whole lot more. As I had already created one movie, I had a reference point from which I could watch the changes in the second. I could observe how my answers might be affecting what was happening, and I could even try and drive the action down a certain path by choosing particular answers.

I also did only a little exploring. As far as I know it has little if any effect on the game (the manual says you can skip this phase entirely), and the personal diaries are the most revealing things so I concentrated on those (regrettably you can't read back through the diaries, only forward).

Director's Cut
Also, the second time through the overt sexual nature of the movie unfolding was dramatically toned down. Sex scenes were suggested, rather than played out (I must have picked the PG rather than the MA responses). This to me allowed the underlying psycho-drama to be more prominent, which at times seemed a bit overwhelmed by the steamy sexual sub-text when I played the first time. Hopefully on the third time through I can force a movie that David Lynch would be proud of. After that I might well see how "mature" it can actually be.

There is sex and some violence. How much will depend upon how you answer. The acting is superb, although the video is a bit pixilated. The exploration of the house is the least interesting aspect (certainly graphically) although some of the ambient sounds in the later part of the game are quite eerie. There are multiple endings to the game, although how many I don't know.

None of the endings I know of are particularly pleasant, and by no stretch of the imagination is this a happy little tale. It has twists and turns and a few surprises. It can be depressing, tragic, cruel and even macabre. It won't be for everyone. However the replayability is apparent from the above, and indeed it should be replayed for the reasons outlined. I suspect though that for many, their first experience and the thought of having to repeat 16 chapters will likely prevent a repeat performance.

Finally, through your answers to the TAT, Dr Turner builds a psychological profile of you. You can look at his notes as you go, and read a complete evaluation when you finish the game. If you play it enough, you just might get one you like. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2001. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 95, Pentium 60MHz, 8 MB RAM, 2x CD ROM, SVGA video card with 1 MB RAM, Direct X 3.0, 100% Soundblaster compatible sound card, 8 MB hard drive space