Check out Part 1. In this post, I discuss some peripheral issues surrounding the game, including addictiveness and politics.
The Castle Doctrine has been attached to a surprising amount of controversy and I would hate for anyone to miss the game because of that.
First, the politics. In this interview, Rohrer demonstrates support for gun rights. The interviewer expresses shock and the comments section erupts into a firestorm about libertarianism and abortion. One commenter even calls Rohrer a "broken human being." What the hell, people?
I don't see the big deal about discussing such views. Now, maybe that's because I live in that backwards place called the United States. Or because several (sane) people I know own a large number of guns; hell, even my mother has a handgun.
While the game may be exploring these ideas, I don't think it's making any sort of political statement. I doubt the game's title is persuasive; if anything, it's descriptive and perhaps a bit opportunistic. Rohrer is the first to point out that The Castle Doctrine easily evokes the opposing viewpoint:
"Whenever you're testing all the stuff that you've put in your house, you're sort of the dummy going through a test track, but a vulnerable dummy who can die.... You're dealing with dangerous stuff, and the vast number of people who are bitten and killed by pitbulls are the pitbulls' owners. There's also the stuff about how you're much more likely to be shot by your own gun than to shoot somebody else and all that, which is a classic anti-gun argument."
Another concern expressed by commenters is violence. This is a nonstarter. The games industry is filled with AAA games about slaughtering hundreds of people without a second thought. The Castle Doctrine, however, deals mostly in specific violence: when you hurt someone, it has a real effect on another human being somewhere else in the world. Of course that's quite disturbing, but that's the point. Violence should be disturbing.
The final topic of controversy is gender (all player characters are men, while NPCs are either women or children) and there I am divided. There's no arguing that it would be extremely simple to implement female avatars. On the other hand, I've always thought that gamers who refused to play games with female protagonists were sexist pricks. One might argue that male only protagonists are no longer acceptable for most games simply because we need to counteract a long history of sexism in video games. I could buy that, but here are some other issues to consider:
That last one is crucial. It's no accident that the game is set in 1991. Violent crime in the United States peaked in 1991. The homicide rate then was about double what it is now. At the time, males committed about 90% of homicides and 90% of burglaries. The percentages haven't changed much. It seems disingenuous to create a world that obscures this sad fact. Besides, I'm not convinced making gender an option would be any sort of positive change. Here's Anita Sarkeesian (whose most recent work is Tropes vs Women in Video Games) discussing what she thinks qualifies as a feminist character:
"The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more than women and our fictional representations simply acting like men. Or unquestionably replicating archetypal male values such as: being emotional inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and using violence as a form of conflict resolution."
If anything, the more problematic behavior of The Castle Doctrine is that your NPC spouse is always female. The historical reasoning above doesn't apply (though the numbers are less skewed, most victims of assault and robbery are also male). The consequence is that the only adult females represented in the game are systematically objectified. The only thing your NPC wife can do is: be positioned by you or be killed (or spared) by another player.
The Castle Doctrine is addictive. When I started writing this post, "addictive" was clearly a plus (almost interchangeable with "fun"), but recent dissenting voices have made me reconsider.
Drew Dixon describes the results of his unhealthy relationship with Minecraft: sneaking into bed with his pregnant wife at 4am even though he had work in 4 hours. Unfortunately, I've experienced that same embarrassed crawl into bed because of both games.
David Sirlin frames the issue this way: some games we play because we "like" to play them and others we play because we "want" to play them, in the same way we might want a cup of coffee or a cigarette even if we don't really enjoy them. He gives Portal 2 and Diablo 3 as examples of like and want respectively:
"Diablo 3 is really all about the addiction... Diablo 3 really doubled down on "randomness." Random maps, random items. Random means new, new, new which is good for the seeking behavior that your dopamine-starved brain wants. It goes far beyond new though: we know full well that a "random rewards schedule" (look that up if you need to) is the maximally effective way to addict animals...
It's worth noting that Portal 2 is about as far from the Diablo 3 end of the spectrum as you can get though. There is no addiction involved at all. There are no external rewards at all. No leveling up, no XP. There are no random items to grind."
So what is The Castle Doctrine? Portal or Diablo? And if it's the latter, why do I find it so damn addictive?
This isn't an academic question for me. I made a small game recently and several reviewers complimented it on being addictive. Should I repent? Or should I celebrate and try to get even better at making addictive things?
I'd say The Castle Doctrine is a little bit of both. One huge problem is that your in-game fortune can change dramatically when you're not playing the game. If you're the kind of person who is often compelled to check email for no good reason, consider the parallel. At any given time of day, a thought can occur: maybe someone tried robbing my house since I last played. Maybe they died and left behind goodies. Maybe they took everything. I'll just get on real quick to check my security tapes... might as well tidy up the house for a few minutes. I'm embarrassed at how often I had that internal dialogue. Random rewards schedule? Check.
However, like Portal 2, there's no leveling or XP. No shiny collectibles except for money and getting it can be painful; there's no grinding on easy content. Rohrer even implemented a salary system that pays you for each hour you're not in game. Rewarding you for not playing the game is a commendable but risky move in a sea of games that do the opposite.
I have another completely unscientific hunch about what makes a game compelling (and potentially addictive): it has to hook into innate human needs. I think we find certain survival activities, ones that humans have been doing for a very long time, deeply satisfying. Again, I'll take Minecraft as an example. What is the game about? Hunting, gathering, farming, exploring, building, and of course crafting. However, now the feedback loop is incredibly tight: you can chop down a tree in seconds and build a shelter in minutes. That's highly addictive, for me at least.
When I was a kid, I played with blocks a lot. I built forts and towers, but my favorite was building booby traps. You see, the blocks were organized nicely on a shelf, like stacks of gold bricks. I would create a facade of nicely organized blocks, but the space behind the facade would hold the best Rube Goldberg device I could muster. If one were to push in on the wrong block, it would set off a chain reaction involving rolling cylinders and ramps and BOOM: the whole thing would explode onto the floor. Cue maniacal 5 year old laugh. I know this sounds ridiculous, but when I lost access to those blocks, I was genuinely upset.
I found my blocks again years later in Minecraft. I could still build forts and towers, but the trap possibilities were mind blowing: landmines, bottomless pits, lava chutes. Cue maniacal 25 year old laugh. There was a problem though: I was still pretending that anyone cared at all.
The Castle Doctrine removes the need for pretending. It puts you in a scenario where building and sidestepping traps is a way of life. I've been waiting a long time for this game. And in some bizarre way, it's rather fulfilling. I have to ask then: is it possible that trapping and fortifying fall in the same category as hunting and gathering? Do some of us have a trapping instinct?
Maybe. Or maybe I just watched Indiana Jones and Home Alone too much as a kid.
Continued in Part 3.