Theme Hospital – ‘Patients are asked not to die in the corridors’
By James Fenn
The disease known as ‘Bloaty Head’ is exactly as it sounds. A man with a regular body but a giant, bloated head walks into a hospital where he is greeted by a poorly trained doctor who will often possess a bad attitude coupled with a fondness for French arthouse films. The doctor proceeds to pop the patient’s head like a balloon before reinflating it to its correct size. They’re cured! After a single viewing of this bizarre spectacle, a 10 year old me was hooked and this was even before I had seen bloaty head guy in the toilet; my innocence diminishing with every strain.
Theme Hospital is a business management simulation which, as a 10 year old, tends to be a long way down your list of favourite genres. This changes once you realise that you’re managing a place where everyone has the most bizarre problems and I’m not just talking about the patients. Some of the doctors smell like cabbage, there was a stressed ex-quiz show host and I’m pretty certain a few of the staff liked tickling trout. A euphemism? To this day I don’t know.
“I’m pretty certain a few of the staff liked tickling trout. A euphemism? To this day I don’t know”
The premise of the game is to work your way through increasingly difficult hospitals, managing budgets, conducting research and, ultimately, trying to limit the volume of people dying on your premises as much as possible. This isn’t so bad in the earlier levels when your money and effort is mainly going towards the pleasant Slack Tongue guillotine machines or potions to cure the always amusing invisible men who would walk in with a bowler hat, cane and big shoes.
The difficulty ratchets up later on and, as a stressed 10 year old, I vividly remember attempting to bring the hospital together to cure a new epidemic while the lazy, Theme Park playing handyman refused to clean up the dozens of splodges of vomit everywhere. This was sufficient to send most of the patients to the pearly gates and to remind me to always think hard about my hiring practices. The next day he would inevitably demand a raise.
Moving to bigger hospitals afforded you more space, more machines and more staff which meant that you could start opening up your creative side by working out which layout would get patients in and out as fast as possible. You could create wards, autopsy machines and psychiatric rooms. This was required when someone, who for legal purposes was absolutely not Elvis, would come in asking to cure his ‘King Complex’.
“If they even had to smell a GP office they would demand a raise or become a video game developer”
It also meant that every patient constantly seemed to be freezing and thirsty despite my heating bills pushing me towards bankruptcy and every wall having a ‘Kit Kat’ drinks machine.
Keeping your staff happy, or at the very least not playing pool in the lounge constantly, was a big challenge. If they even smelt a GP’s office they would demand a raise or become a video game developer. The ensuing lack of staff would lead to patients dying surrounded by rats, vomit and banana skins and I would have to start the hospital again.
This process could get a bit galling for a 10 year old playing what I feel like was one of my first ‘adult’ games, by which I mean not a shooter or Super Mario. This was a proper game in a big PC box, played with a mouse and a keyboard. It was new to me and it was a real mental challenge to overcome what, in my mind, were adult issues.
Financing, resource and time management were alien concepts to me and, to some degree, I credit this game with helping to introduce and hone those skills. It would also act as a gateway drug to other strategy franchises such as Command & Conquer and Civilisation, which are very different but require to same skills in order to be successful.
“It was a real mental challenge to overcome what, in my mind, were adult issues”
Another skill this game introduced me to was gambling, something that would ultimately become a career. As an example, a patient would come in with ‘The Squits’ which was caused by eating pizza they found under the cooker. Once the patient had been poked and prodded 8 times we were presented with a screen which told us that the doctors were 70% sure that they knew how to cure the ailment.
You had to decide whether you wanted to give them the mystery ooze from the pharmacy, tell them to wait or just send them home. If anyone is familiar with an X-Com game then you’ll understand that 70% often actually means 3% but as a 10 year old you would just play the percentages. Usually they’d die, I’d get reprimanded and the level would continue with yet another black mark against the hospital with my mind certain that I had finally learnt my lesson (I hadn’t).
Theme Hospital could be very repetitive with the script and voices, in particular, extremely limited. Yet somehow they were always a joy to listen to. You simply can’t get bored building toilets and hearing ‘Patients are asked not to die in the corridors’ over the tannoy. It was silly in its humour but also clever and it never felt forced. The developers at Bullfrog clearly enjoyed creating this underrated cult classic and I enjoy it playing it every time.