From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, a trip back to a time when it felt like multimedia could do anything. And would often give it a try, whether it was a good idea or not...
Villains love to try and get inside your head. Tender Loving Care just does it for kicks. It's a game! It's a movie! What does that mean? That it's better not to get too excited, even if it did come from the creators of Uncle Henry's Mindblowers—a game said to have only sold 176 copies worldwide, and thus in the running for least successful commercial game of all time. Oh, and they also made The 7th Guest. That was cool in its day. This erotic thriller, though? Not so much, though it would at least hate for you to think it's just dumb smut. It's very intellectual dumb smut, damn it!
Tender Loving Care is the story of a struggling couple, Michael and Allison, in the wake of their daughter's death. Allison is incapable of even acknowledging the tragedy, insisting that little Jody is in her room and quite fine thank you very much. Michael is all too aware of the reality, but helpless to actually do anything. Enter John Hurt, the actor most famous for playing the comedy barman in Privateer 2: The Darkening, haunting their now long abandoned house with the help of a little greenscreen magic.
Hurt is Dr. Turner, a strong contender for the worst shrink ever, as well as both narrator and quizmaster for the game, asking deeply personal questions about everything from whether you like being watched during sex to what a cartoon bear should do when its cub poos in its nappy. That is not a joke. That is a thing that happens. All of this is done in-character though, with the big goal being to help him find out why Michael and Allison's story ended in tragedy.
"It's as much a mystery to me as anyone else," he sighs. "Perhaps you can help..."
Well, yes, Dr. Turner, I do believe I can. A struggling couple came to you for assistance, and your immediate suggestion was what I believe is referred to in the trade as Sexy Nurse Therapy.
Specifically, a live-in nurse called Kathryn is dispatched, quickly takes a liking to Allison, may or may not have an equal sexual interest in Michael, and for one reason or another this leads to murder and mental collapse. Eventually, that is. Not soon. TLC is longer-winded than a runner who finished a marathon only to be punched right in the stomach, and most of it is spent having variants on the following conversation:
ALLISON: "Kathryn is helping me!"
MICHAEL: "Kathryn is not helping! I hate Kathryn!"
KATHRYN: "I am so helping, and I will prove it with logic."
MICHAEL: "Your logic is surprisingly sound, but I'm still not buying it."
KATHRYN: "I also have boobs."
MICHAEL: "I find myself temporarily convinced by your arguments."
ALLISON: "I'm so happy Kathryn has finally given me a reason to live again!"
MICHAEL: "GET THAT BITCH OUT OF MY HOUSE!"
DR. JOHN HURT: "Goodness, how intriguing. I had no idea. What do you think about all this?"
Rinse and repeat over multiple discs and hours of treading water.
It's also not really an adventure game as such, though there is a plot and there are choices that affect it. They're disconnected from the action though, taking the form of general comments on the characters and what you think's happening (not much, usually) and a set of "Thematic Apperception Tests", TAT for short, which take the form of endless questions that try to build a profile of your psyche as you play.
The fact that we know going in that it ends in tragedy and there is nothing you can do about that perhaps speaks a little of the creators' own state of mind at the time. Or perhaps not. What would I know? I'm not a psychological adventure game. I am however fairly sure that for most players, the mix of 'erotic thriller' and 'interactivity' meant that Tender Loving Care's attempt at an exploration of the human psyche actually became an epic quest to get the sexy nurse's bra off. Tits for TATs, if you will.
That might sound a little cynical, but no. It's about two minutes before Kathryn is pushing Michael out of her room by pointedly taking her shirt off in front of him, as well as acknowledging that while therapists don't go around in slinky nurse outfits, she's going to be wearing one because... um... this case... really... demands it. Honest. Sigmund Freud would have worn a short skirt to deal with it too.
Tender Loving Care continues to plant its flag with the option to poke around the house in a way that's similar to The 7th Guest, only without the horror elements or being randomly asked to cut up an evil cake into pieces for no apparent reason. Its biggest oddity is that despite having an actual set for the movie portions, exploration is all 3D-rendered. Even more oddly, the characters are still around, despite this being a story told via flashbacks. Going into Kathyrn's room, she's standing there on a greenscreen taking notes, and confusingly aware of your presence but not her upcoming potential death.
"Who are you?" she demands. "And what are you doing in my room? Oh. Wait a minute, I see. You're the... viewer, right? I didn't realise you could just sneak up on me like that. You never know what I might be doing... You're probably going to snoop around my room, aren't you? Guess there's nothing I can do about it. Oh well. You probably won't find anything... too incriminating, I hope."
Not. Suspicious. At All. And nor are the little details you can find when she leaves, including her conveniently unprotected diary. I'm not sure exactly how much details change based on decisions throughout the game, but I tried two radically different sets of answers to the opening questions and her opening entry didn't.
First, she complains about a taxi driver: "He waited until we were on an isolated country road and out of nowhere he said that he noticed I wasn't wearing a bra and was wondering if I had any panties on." OK. Fair enough. What's the next paragraph? Oh, it's about Michael. I wonder what her professional opinion of him is after the three or so minutes they've been aware each other exists... an encounter which, remember, she ended by forcing him out of her bedroom by starting to take her shirt off. Not necessarily the most effective tactic, but still the one she chose.
"The way he looked at me," she begins. "Watching his eyes wander over my breasts and hips filled me with an unexpected rush of excitement. Part of me wanted to encourage those eyes. But the better part had sense enough to shut the door. I have to watch myself. This case is too important... too rich an opportunity to risk losing it over an attraction for my patient's husband."
Uh-huh. Like most of this stuff, this isn't really brought up elsewhere because TLC doesn't keep track of what you've read. This means that plot elements like this, or Kathryn's marriage collapsing after she slept with Dr. John Hurt, go completely unremarked on, with the characters practically bouncing between personalities every time the director yells "Cut! That was crap, but better than the ending of 11th Hour!"
Sometimes that's OK. Michael is confused and guilty enough over, say, sleeping with Kathryn about 70 different times that it's not too surprising that he does the deed, then storms back into her room to try and kick her out of his life. Often though, scenes just don't connect that well.
Pulling things back to the psychiatry that Tender Loving Care longs to think it can do, it's time for the first proper TAT: staring at a copy of the (lovely) Hopper painting Nighthawks and being asked surreal questions about drawings and artwork that only occasionally tie directly into the story. A picture of two naked lovers for instance offering the potential name "Michael and Kathryn", along with "Mum and Dad" and "Mulder and Scully." In your dreams/fan-fic, Tender Loving Care...
Here's a couple of examples. How would you react?
Oh, and here's the first hint that this game has forgotten half the population. There are others.
If it's not obvious, this is a bizarre game. Tender Loving Care is about 60% absolute boredom, in which Michael and Kathryn discuss Allison's state of health, medication, and generally try to avoid mentioning that the daughter she thinks is in her bedroom is dead, with various levels of sniping and passive aggression. Mostly, this is a back and forth of wills, or to be more accurate, Kathryn's will and Michael's willy.
Whatever options you choose, the psychology quickly gives way to scenes of her doing things like crossing her legs in her nurse's uniform, or him heading outside and spying on her standing naked in her window. Early on, that can be substituted with her simply being in her underwear. Later, it can step up to her squishing herself against it while licking the glass with malevolent joy, followed by John Hurt asking lots of incredibly personal questions about your sex life.
But of course, Tender Loving Care is ultimately the story of a struggling couple trying to come to terms with the death of a child, the most painful experience that a parent can possibly go through, and their slow, agonising recovery. It's not simply about Michael wanting to put the O into Obamacare. That would be incredibly tacky and—
"The next TAT will be given in the bathroom," growls Dr. John Hurt. "Look for... the book."
To the TATmobile then!
Unconstrained by ridiculous questions, Kathryn sets about integrating into the family as cryptically as possible. She begins ordering Michael around in odd ways, like telling him not to mow the lawn because Jody is sleeping, and that Michael also needs to start playing along. His response, not too surprisingly, is to drive right down to Dr. John Hurt's office to ask, in a nutshell, "What the shit? Why did you send that possibly literal witch to my house?" Dr. John Hurt's is to politely, very tactfully, point out "What I did, I did without choice. In the name of peace and sanity."
"But not in the name of the Doctor!" snarls Michael.
"Well, no," agrees Dr. John Hurt. "It's 1998. I won't be doing that for another decade and a half."
And then it's back to exploration, where he proves what a medical professional he is by letting you randomly poke around in his patient files for a bit, and then doing another TAT.
Dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner, TAT MAN!
Welcome to the... no, no. I'm sure they knew what they were doing...
With Kathryn still rocking the slinky nurse act, Michael resolves to become the biggest dick in the universe. Everything Kathryn seems to achieve only annoys him, whether it's getting Allison enough out of her depressive funk to help put away the groceries (gasp!) to breathing. We find out that there's guilt at the root of this, that Jody died of having ketchup splattered onto her head during a car accident, though whether Michael or Allison was driving at the time remains a matter for a pop-up question.
The fight continues though, with Kathryn constantly pushing for Allison to get a pet for Jody, for Jody to have a TV, for Michael to learn how his mouth closes and practice it on a daily basis, and other things that are meant to be a little bit suspicious but actually seem reasonable enough. Michael is so cross, he doesn't even bother pausing for a decision point before charging back to Dr. John Hurt to accuse her of being clueless... discovering too late that she's in the room, with a new haircut, and overheard the entire accusation. Both point out that whatever Kathryn's doing seems to be working, Allison's mood changes being represented by a) smiles and b) not wearing a bra, and Michael has to reluctantly agree. And then instantly declare that it's not enough! After all, Kathryn's been in his house for, what, a whole three days and still his wife's complicated, two-year-long trauma isn't fixed.
"Would it cheer you up if we added a little lesbian subtext?" asks Kathryn.
"No!" pouts Michael. "OK, maybe. A little. But only if I don't get to see anything good!"
Meanwhile, back in the Valley Of Endless Padding...
"Why don't we dabble a bit in the realms of the psychic?" declares Dr. John Hurt, presenting a minigame in which you have to concentrate and use 'all your psychic abilities' to work out which card is hidden. When you get it wrong, possibly because psychic powers do not exist, he growls "Concentrate!" and "You're trying too hard!" Is it at least part of a more general point that actually involves psychiatry or the human brain in some actual way? Nope, because when you get it right, he declares it "Magnificent."
And then it ends. And is never brought up ever again.
Dr. John Hurt, I hereby revoke your fictional medical license.
The main reason for things like that psychic test is that weird filler at least has a chance of obscuring how little is happening in the main story. There aren't many big secrets to be revealed, and the characters are too locked-down early on to develop in interesting ways.
Tender Loving Care tries to mix things up with the addition of elements like that silly psychic test and the sound of a child crying in Jody's empty bedroom, but it's clear that there's no supernatural stuff going on whatsoever, with the possible exception of the fact that Michael's boss turns out to be evil Henry Stauf from The 7th Guest.
The most intriguing thing is its strange mix of boredom and PG-rated naughtiness, like the way it casually has Kathryn call Michael up to her room for a boring, pants-optional talk on his wife's psychological progress that's much more awkward than it is sexy.
To compensate though, the TATs finally go all the way into the utterly insane:
Kathryn's game plan is also finally revealed: to bring Jody back to life in Allison's mind, physically represented by a doll, then recreate the accident by smashing it—hoping that this time the death will stick.
"Theoretically, I think it's brilliant," declares Dr. John Hurt.
Wow. I mean... wow, seriously? That's the plan? That's... Wow. I'm no psychiatrist or anything, but that doesn't seem like a plan with flaws so much as a collection of holes connected with dumb. But then, that's what you get when your therapist spends as much time writing lesbian erotica as doing her job.
As seen in her diary though, spending the entire game screaming and shouting and showing complete contempt for Kathryn on a personal and professional level doesn't mean Michael isn't in with a shot. Depending on choices, he can be invited to 'meditate' with her, in a scene that deserves its ironic punctuation. It's meant to be sexy, and is the most graphic scene on offer.
It's hard to focus on that side of it though though, when it's staged... well, like this.
"It was only sex, everyone makes such a big deal of it," scoffs Kathryn next time you meet, explaining that the only reason she slept with Michael was to avoid being fired and thus unable to help Allison. Unfortunately for her, this is also the point that the story tends to decide she's a full on demon rather than merely a staggeringly unprofessional therapist with a taste for exhibitionism.
Michael goes from acting like the victim to actually facing off against an arch manipulator, with the tone switching to full-on thriller mode—the details varying based on decisions. One of the three main characters kills the dog, though which is left vague. A dark night later leads to murder most horrid... exactly who being up for grabs. A hammer is sometimes involved. Other times, it's an accidental tumble down the stairs that takes one of the lovers out. In one, Kathryn ends up killing Michael and turning Allison into her puppet. In another, he lands the blow. In none do things work out well, as explained at the start.
Even so, with the differences often feeling more a question of explicitness than actual content, things can get seriously weird. One of Kathryn's final gambits involves encouraging Allison to take control, initiating sex with Michael for the first time since the accident... and that's a little creepy, since it's purely to prevent him sending her away. It gets creepier when she follows it up by bursting into the room and telling him that Jody has been calling for him... then climbing into Jody's bed naked, calling him Daddy, and making him promise never to send her away. And then telling him "You smell like a woman" and cheerfully ambling naked back to her room to roll around in manipulative triumph.
But who cares about that increasingly strained plot nonsense? More questions! More TATs!
It's hard to know what to make of TLC. On the one hand, it did try something genuinely new, even if you never actually get much control over the story beyond how it ends, and how often you see Kathryn's lady parts. On the other, it's a staggeringly self-defeating game, trying to be smart and intriguing while telling a Cinemax-level story that seems painfully aware its real selling point is having an actress willing to disrobe at a moment's notice.
The rest is an absolute tangle of obvious plot twists, things revealed in notes around the house that you can't actually use (not least Kathryn admitting that she's slept with Dr. John Hurt, which would seem something worth bringing up during his regular appearances), and a perspective that constantly obscures the little control you do have. You don't tell Michael what to do, or even tell the game what you think should happen. You tell Dr. John Hurt how you feel about a range of random crap, and for the most part things just roll along on the same track until one of the scenes where they might get explicit, or it all ends. Though never soon enough.
It also seems somewhat irrelevant how you feel, since you start the game knowing that bad things happened, and everything is told in flashback. Despite you regularly bumping into Kathryn, dead at the end or not. Hmmm. Maybe she was secretly a ghost all along. That would be a twist.
The main purposes of the TATS is that once the story is over, TLC will build a personal profile of you based on your comments—a deep psychological investigation that would make astrologers mock the lack of detail. All you really need though is one of two things. Either a) You bought Tender Loving Care in the hope of an adult adventure, and were disappointed. Or b) You bought Tender Loving Care in the hope of seeing boobies, and probably weren't. If you played your cards right.
Either way, you probably ended it feeling a bit depressed, and that's clearly a win given the type of story it tried to tell.
Pity it had to be so damn dull about it.