Married to the sea
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one of the smartest games I’ve ever played. It’s also one of the dumbest.
The dumb part, at least, should be self-evident. This is a game centered around a bright orange octopus in a business suit trying to maintain the ridiculous illusion that he’s a normal human being. What’s more, everyone seems to be buying the ruse. Octodad has managed to marry a lovely lady and father two handsome kids—just don’t ask how.
Under your guidance, our intrepid cephalopod must accomplish a variety of seemingly simple chores, from grilling burgers to grocery shopping, all without spoiling his disguise. Trouble is, the control scheme attempts to replicate the actual difficulties an undercover octopus would face. In other words, it’s imprecise, unnatural, and very, very jiggly—so much so that you can never really master it, only reach a sort of uneasy truce.
As you might imagine, your exploits rarely go smoothly. Attempts at walking in a straight line frequently end with our hapless hero pirouetting uncontrollably into the scenery, his tentacles wrapping around anything they don’t lay waste to. Trying to pick anything up is a patient exercise in waggling from side to side until you happen come in range of the intended target—provided you haven’t smacked it halfway across the room before that. More complex tasks, like pushing a lawnmower around the backyard, quickly descend into stupid, hysterical insanity.
That’s pretty much the point. You quickly learn that overcoming the challenge and accomplishing your objectives is only half the fun; the rest is reveling in the bizarre physical comedy of it all. No game has made me laugh so much or so hard with so few explicit jokes. It’s not even a close contest.
You can get an awful lot of mileage out of that silliness, too. Dadliest Catch’s campaign may only clock in at around two hours, but that’s just the beginning. Between finding the collectible neckties, experimenting with each environment to unlock the maniacally well-hidden achievements, and trying to best the developers’ speedruns, it’ll be five to ten times that long before you run out of entertaining things to do. You can even play cooperatively with up to four friends, each one taking a different arm or leg. (Playing on roulette mode—which switches limb assignments after each objective—reduced myself and three other EGM editors to a hopeless mess of teary guffaws.)
But what really makes Octodad special is that there’s something profound lurking beneath all the dumb fun. Peel back the absurdity, and there’s a smart, cohesive, enviable piece of design work.
Modern game design has become exceptionally good at stirring up our feelings, but only within a surprisingly narrow range of experiences. The medium long ago mastered things like empowerment, discovery, and fear, so that’s what we get time and again, just in slightly different dosages. Even recent critical darling Gone Home, lauded for its narrative innovation, doesn’t do anything all that remarkable from a gameplay standpoint; it merely strips away the combat from the time-tested formula put to use in BioShock and countless other shooters.
Octodad brings something genuinely new to the table: uncompromising awkwardness. Struggle over and over to put a leg in the right spot, and you get that all-too-familiar fidgety feeling in the pit of your stomach. Knock something over, and you feel exposed—not in the fight-or-flight sense of a stealth game, but in a benign, middle school, I-wish-I-were-invisible sort of way.
And those frequent giggle fits aren’t just a response to the slapstick display unfolding before you. Were someone to produce a feature-length film about a cartoon octopus struggling to complete basic human tasks, you might chuckle a few times before the joke got old. But Octodad never stops being funny, because it’s all a byproduct of your participation. You’re the buffoon. There’s something joyfully cathartic about feeling so gawky, failing so spectacularly, and having a big, eight-legged excuse to laugh at yourself.
The talented team at Young Horses have built a universe around their floppy leading man that capitalizes on that potential masterfully. Everything feels aggressively normal—or, if not quite normal, then at least mundane. Octodad is always the most ridiculous thing in any scene he’s in, and the rest of the world only stoops to his preposterous level when it’s forced to acknowledge him. Remove the octopus in the suit, and you’re left with a believable, if slightly sillier, version of reality.
Because of this, Octodad becomes a sort of cipher for the hundreds of uncomfortable, self-conscious moments that make up our own lives. Being alone in a room full of strangers, squirming to get comfortable in your own skin. Dropping your drink in a crowded restaurant and feeling two dozen eyes burrowing into the back of your skull as you clumsily struggle to clean up the mess. Silently panicking at the realization that you’re an adult with no idea of what being an adult even means. The game succeeds because its stakes are simultaneously ludicrous and familiar. It resonates because it manages to reflect the impostor’s doubt that lurks inside us all and then defang it. When Octodad gets his happy ending, we get ours, with a kind of sitcom vicariousness. He might not be perfect, he might not even be human, but he’s trying his damnedest, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s enough for us, too.
I expect I’ll long hold up Octodad as a shining example of the wonderful, unexpected things that fearless weirdness can accomplish. Whether by accident or design, Young Horses have built something that’s thought-provoking without being pretentious, something that has a heart but never feels mawkish. It may not sport the highbrow gravitas of your Limbos or Braids, but it deserves just as much of a spot in the indie pantheon. Dadliest Catch represents one of the rare times high art and low art meet comfortably in the middle; it’s an idiot savant. In the end, I suspect that’s the better way to go.
|Developer: Young Horses • Publisher: Young Horses • ESRB: N/A • Release Date: 1.30.2014|
Smartly built, endlessly entertaining, and unexpectedly heartwarming, Dadliest Catch manages to turn an utterly ridiculous concept into one of the most surprising games in recent memory.
|The Good||Masterfully designed and uproariously funny.|
|The Bad||Comes in on the short side if you’re not a completionist.|
|The Ugly||How many priceless family heirlooms I destroyed on the way to the kitchen.|
|Octodad: Dadliest Catch is available on PC, Mac, and Linux, with a PS4 version coming later this year. Primary version reviewed was for PC.|