Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Octodad: The Dadliest Catch (PC) - Review

Dad of the month.

When I grew up we didn't have a VCR for the longest time, and when we finally got one I only ever owned one children's movie - The Little Mermaid (in German). Other than that there were cartoons on TV for an hour or so every evening, but the rest of the time or any place that didn't have a TV? Nothing. It's interesting then for me to ponder the sheer amount of content that is at my 5 year olds disposal, compared to what I had. And with this unlimited amount of content I also see something else that I wonder how I would've handled as a kid - the wide variety of quality of that content. Not only do we have videos of people playing video games, but also videos of people playing bad or broken video games.

More and more, watching and gaming have been closer and closer intertwined. It's become clear to me that we're now actually looking at a genre of games that seems to be designed specifically to be able to generate watchable content. By using wholly unscientific methods, my conclusion is that the main demographic of these games is the new generation of kids who are looking for "funny" content where things just go bonkers. In essence, people online have become the new whacky cartoon characters of my days and one easy way to end up in funny situations is to play a game that is designed entirely around that idea. With this we actually have a whole plethora of games that seem to be intentionally broken or badly designed to allow for the player to fail and fumble their way through.

I don't know if games like QWOP kickstarted the phenomena, but in my mind it's one of the first instances I can remember of a game that was intentionally designed to be horribly wonky to control and play. Then came a sudden rush of open world sandbox survival games that were in alpha or beta stages of development (i.e not finished and buggy as heck) and kind of stayed there because they weren't meant to be finished products. Other games were simulating life as a slice of bread or a goat.

Further than I ever got.

Then we have a game like Octodad: Dadliest Catch, which tries to walk the line a bit in-between "intentionally unplayable game" and "regular playable game". As such it was initially difficult for me to decide whether to review it as one or the other. In the game you play as Octodad, an octopus who at the beginning of the game is about to get married and apparently also already has kids. The gameplay revolves entirely around trying to navigate something as unwieldy and squiggly as a mollusc trying to do normal-people things, while also trying to not get caught out by other humans. The control-scheme is simple enough, using only the mouse you move your Octodad around, using left and right mouse buttons to control the legs. With a press of the space bar you swap to using one of your tentacles, allowing you to grab things and move them around. The challenge then of course comes from the fact that none of these limbs are easy to control. The game does punish you for flailing too much and thus arousing suspicion in bystanders, but overall I thought it was very lenient with how much you could knock things over without anyone being too bothered.

Now, have they tried to make an intentionally broken game or an actually playable game? I definitely think it's the latter. The challenge for the game designers then comes from making a game that is wonky, but makes sense within the rules of the gameworld, and not veer over into "broken game" territory where things happen arbitrarily and feel out of the players control. While the Octodad is tricky and frustrating to control, overall you get the hang of it. The tricky control is the point of the game, so you do know what you're getting yourself into when you start playing it and overall I think it stays fun throughout the relatively short runtime of the game.

Nothing stands out as overly spectacular, but maybe it's all overshadowed by the fact that you are playing as the tentacles of an octopus who is pretending to be human. Graphics, sound effects and music all do their job without being in the way nor leaving a lasting impression. You will hear a lot of squibbly, gibbly noises as you flail your way past objects and the main character comes off as quite endearing. While the wonky control-scheme is all there is to the game, it does explore that concept in a variety of ways with a light-hearted story as a frame. The game never takes itself seriously and feels very self-aware of what it is, but it also feels like it is genuinely trying to be a good gaming experience. And as such I think it mainly succeeds. The few segments that get frustrating don't last long enough to ruin the fun.

There is a co-op mode I didn't have the opportunity to try, but I assume it allows one player to control the "legs" and another to control the "arms" and I can definitely see there being a lot of fun in that. I can also see the game being nigh impossible to play like that, but again, that is the point of the game after all.

There are some issues that make things difficult in the wrong kind of way. For instance, when controlling your "leg tentacles", moving the mouse upward is supposed to both work as moving your tentacles on a 3d horizontal and vertical plane. In some places you're supposed to move your Octodad into a hole in the wall, and need to make the tentacle go up and in with the same movement. It's entirely up to the game then how it wants to interpret your input and feels too much out of control. The same becomes true when trying to climb any stairs that aren't situated in a left-right plane. In these places it's less about trying to wrestle control over the limbs and more about trying over and over until you happen to get a tentacle in the right place, and these sections are less fun. Fortunately I didn't think they happened often enough for it to become too big of an issue.

This is how I feel after a nap too.

You also have very little control over the camera, which sometimes becomes an issue when you want to see what is coming ahead or just get a better angle of whatever you're trying to do. You can tilt the camera in different directions, but this function is almost pointless as it doesn't allow you enough extra view to be of any use. I can only imagine that this design choice is to intentionally make the game more difficult, similar to the static camera angles of Resident Evil, but in this game it doesn't add tension, just frustration.

Playing it with my kid, my intention was for things to go wrong though, and I would've probably forgiven the game even if it had more failings than it ended up having. I knew that the fun we'd have with the game would come from him laughing at us flailing our way through a stage. However, while I thought it was a fun concept, most of my fun with the game came from his enjoyment. Personally, I didn't see myself wanting to play through this on my own.

And he did enjoy it. While it required too much precise motor skills and reflexes for him to be able to play it entirely on his own, there were many sections where he could just play around and have fun with the weird controls. For a 5 year old, it has to be a dream come true to be allowed to absolutely wreck a room. At first he wanted to play himself, mostly just throwing things around. Eventually, he mainly wanted to watch me play but it seemed like he had a lot of fun with the game throughout, and he said as much. Still, when the end credits were rolling (and they are interactive, here's to more interactive credits in games!) I got the feeling that this wasn't a game that would linger in his memory for very long, nor a game that he would ask to play again (unlike for instance Chuchel).

Climbing provides the most challenge.

It's not a particularly long game, it took us about five hours to complete and that is including my son just goofing around in some levels. I'd say this is a positive thing though, because that way the game doesn't outstay its welcome with what in the end isn't an idea to build a huge game around. The designers have realized this and managed to make the most of what is there to explore. The game does allow you to replay sections you've completed and there are things, more specifically ties, to collect in each area so there is some replayability if you feel like you haven't had your fill when the game is done.

I set out to find a game that would provide the kind of humour that kids seem into these days, and as such this didn't disappoint. Octodad does what it says it will do, and it doesn't take long enough to get through for you to get bored with the concept. It churns the idea thoroughly and provides with a nice variety of scenarios to test yourself in. Overall however, I find it difficult to recommend the game unless you happen to be in the same situation I was in (trying to entertain a child) or just really interested in games with intentionally frustrating controls. If you happen to fall in any of those two categories however, you'll get what you're looking for.

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