Find anyone who’s played management sim Theme Hospital and they’re bound to have a favourite quote from the game’s sardonic tannoy announcer. It could be the matter-of-fact delivery of something so bizarre as “Doctor required in Inflator Room” or the dark humour of a line such as “Patients are asked not to die in the corridors”. Perhaps they gave themselves a bit of illegitimate help a few too many times and have the disbelieving cry of “Warning: a cheat is running the hospital” burned into their memories.
Whatever the choice, the lines are only so ingrained into our brains because of how significant Theme Hospital was to such a large amount of people. The late ‘90s classic emerged during a golden era of management sims, where everything from theme parks to underground monster dungeons offered hours upon hours of entertaining busywork.
Bullfrog was the name that connected many of the greats, combining British wit with well-designed strategy games to repeated success. It’s why, over 20 years after the original release of Theme Hospital, many of the same creators are back to make its spiritual successor, Two Point Hosptial.
“It was of the games I played when I was younger, as did most people who like simulations,” says Chris Nott, lead animator at the game’s developer Two Point Studios. “It’s one of the staples and it’s one of the most fondly remembered of those types of games, which I think is helping us no end because two of the guys who started Two Point Studios [worked on Theme Hospital].”
A new studio
That’s Gary Carr and Mark Webley – and the pair has assembled a team featuring many other industry veterans who have a background in sim, management and strategy games. It seemed to make sense, then, that their first release together would draw from their shared past. Even still, the idea of reviving that style of game in the modern day, especially with a title that so closely resembles a beloved classic, must’ve felt risky.
“I think it’s… cyclical…gaming,” argues Chris. “Two years ago you couldn’t move for zombie games, everything was a zombie game. Whatever it was. Cooking? Zombies. It doesn’t matter it has to be zombies. I think over the last couple of years strategy games have started to have a resurgence and they’ve started to become more popular again.”
Jumping into Two Point Hospital today, it’s hard to imagine that the genre ever went through a period of decline. The new game feels immediately familiar, with those first actions of placing your reception desk, building a GP’s office and hiring staff for both hitting like a you’ve just been given a shot of nostalgia direct to the heart. And then it expands from there remaining familiar, but yet, also fresh.
For anyone who’s played Theme Hospital, though, Two Point Hospital is an easy sell. Here’s the game you loved 20 years ago, but spruced up and modernised with a few neat ideas thrown in for good measure. Yet, for the audience who missed the original, what’s going to attract them to the game? Aside from the feeling of “curating what is almost like your little ant farm”, the game’s art director, Mark Smart, has some ideas.
“I think we hope that initially they’ll just get hooked by it. It’s that emergent gameplay as you go along. You’re waiting to see the surprise of what comes next – because there are surprises. What’s the next crazy illness we’re going to get through the door?”
Those pun-infused illnesses were some of the most memorable moments from Theme Hospital too – everything from Slack Tongue to 3rd Degree Sideburns and Chronic Nosehair always raised a chuckle. Naturally, Two Point Hospital is living up to the previous game’s reputation for comedy with its own set of silly diseases, among other things that infuse the game with humour. It’s something you’d expect from a team that’s also worked on the likes of Fable.
Laugh it off
As Mark explains: “Humour is important because hospitals, by their very nature, are quite dry and scary places. Not a lot of people want to visit them, really, it’s because they have to, so we wanted to inject that humour into it. We’ve wrapped it up in humour but deep down it’s quite a difficult and challenging management sim.”
And it’s important that there is that flip side where Two Point Hospital can also be played as a serious management sim. The game is rich with detail if you hone in on the skills of your staff members, or focus on the way you construct your hospital. It even goes all the way to some of the game’s tougher challenges, where you might have to make a difficult choice between spending your cash on curing patients or giving your staff the training they need to do their jobs effectively.
Still, it’s not all strenious, as Two Point Hospital has also been designed as a game you can play casually. If you simply want to jump in and reminisce about the original Theme Hospital then that’s perfectly fine too. It can be just as fulfilling designing and running a three star hospital as it is to simply find yourself realising that a spiritual successor to such a treasured title can exist.
“I think it was just the coming together of the studio, really, and the fact that it felt like the right time,” says Mark of the game’s creation. “We were surprised that people had been asking for something like this for quite a long time and it was a surprise that nobody had done it before. It just felt like the right people coming together at the right time.”