Cheiron by Sarah Clelland and Elisabeth Polli [Comp05]

IFDB page: Cheiron
Final placement: 26th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first I want to tell a little story about me that I promise will be at least marginally relevant to my experience of this game. I’m in the fifth grade, and we’re taking a class field trip to some hospital, I guess so we can learn about how hospitals work. We go to a few different places, and then are shepherded to the lab. There, a medical researcher shows us a centrifuge, and explains how they use it with blood to separate out the red blood cells, platelets, and plasma. He holds up a test tube of blood (not a sight I wanted to see), swirls it, and… next thing I know I’m looking up at a bunch of concerned faces. (And some amused ones.)

I had passed out, directly in reaction to seeing that blood swirl. Lucky me, I got to do the rest of the tour in a wheelchair, with my classmates competing for who would get to push me. That’s about how I do with medical stuff. (Ironic, given that my mom had a 43-year career as a nurse.) In fact, years later — after 9/11 — I tried to give blood, and had such an extreme reaction to the process that I was asked not to come back. So it’s fair to say I am not in the audience for a game that tries its hardest — including usage of images and sounds — to simulate the experience of being a medical student. I felt woozy and icky for much of the time I made my way through Cheiron.

That said, the fundamental premise of Cheiron is quite cool! If pilots can hone their skills through flight simulator software, maybe medicos could have training simulations too. If nothing else, this game taught me some of the initial steps in a medical consultation — greeting, wash hands, ask for consent. Or at least, those are apparently to be the steps in the UK, where this game seems to have been produced.

Unfortunately, nifty though the concept may be, the implementation is problematic, though not due to lack of effort on the part of the authors. This exchange encapsulates the experience of the game pretty well:

>take pulse
Which do you mean, the jugular venous pressure, the left dorsalis pedis pulse, the right dorsalis pedis pulse, the left posterior tibial pulse, the right posterior tibial pulse, the left popliteal pulse, the right popliteal pulse, the left femoral pulse, the right femoral pulse, the left carotid pulse, the right carotid pulse, the left brachial pulse, the right brachial pulse, the left radial pulse or the right radial pulse?

Aaah! There is a lot going on here, most of it not so good. First of all, for a lay player like myself, this disambiguation question is laughable, as it reads mostly as gibberish to me. How am I supposed to make a choice between 15 different options, none of which I know what they mean? Second, does it really make sense to offer the player 15 different options at this point? Is there any world in which it would make sense to reach around the patient’s left knee rather than using, like, the wrist? This feels like an instance where the game should have just done the obvious and not made a big deal of it, unless somehow the obvious course is not available, in which case the game could either make a challenge of figuring out how to take the pulse despite an obstacle, or defaulted to the next most obvious thing.

And yet, the inclusion of all 15 of those options is a perfect emblem of how earnestly the authors approached this game. Clearly, an enormous effort was made to provide an incredible number of options for the player, which makes a lot of sense for conversations and examinations that are meant to focus in on a diagnosis. The hints for inquiring about the patient’s history list no less than 79 topics you can query, ranging from mood to pets to vomiting to rheumatic fever. It’s incredible!

Because I’m not a medical student, I ended up using Dr. Google to try to put together diagnoses based on the information the game gave me. This actually worked pretty well! I don’t really understand much about acromegaly, but given a set of lab results and a physical exam, I can put together enough clues to come up with it on a web search. Frustratingly, though, there’s no way to validate a diagnosis in this game except to look at the answers, which lists all 4 patients’ diagnoses at once. I think it would have been fine to implement fewer conversation topics in order to make room for this kind of mechanic.

All in all, this felt like a fundamentally flawed attempt at what could be a pretty interesting educational piece, though the dizzying breadth of it (at the expense of consistency and depth) demonstrated just how difficult a task the authors had set themselves. I love them for trying, though — Cheiron is a fascinating failure that feels more worthwhile than many of the weak-tea fantasy and argumentative rants I’ve played in my Comp05 list thus far.

Rating: 6.5

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