Octodad (2011) and Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Jul/150

Octodad (2011) and Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

OctodrewSeth, I have to say, I'm disappointed in you this week.  After our video game analysis started off so well with a good initial chat and great examination of Myst last week, I thought we were going to be in for something special.  After all, how do you follow walking around a mysterious island and interacting with unusual machinery?  Well, you don't do it by making me play a video game starring a perfectly normal father.  I mean, I was pumping water through a dilapidated ship last week, and this week I'm picking up groceries?  What's next, selling lemonade?

I kid, of course, but at the heart of any good joke lies a great deal of truth and the truth is I'm delighted that you wanted to talk about Octodad in both student game and retail release formats this week.  Delighted because it's one of the few examples of its suddenly overpopulated and mostly rubbish genre, of which I don't have a specific name so I'll go with "how the hell do I control this?"  Also delighted because it'll allow us to discuss something we didn't really get to talk about too much last week, that being how to engage the player through character and control.  Finally delighted because it has quite easily the best theme song of any video game released in the last five years (and was an initial pick for my fiancée and I's "coming out" music for the reception).

But, perhaps most importantly, we'll be able to see an evolution.  Because I played through Octodad: Dadliest Catch only a few months ago and had it fresh in my mind, but the student game was new to me.  It astonished me how much a simple change in design philosophy made the experience so much better.  In the student game Octodad, you are an octopus who happens to be a father, but in Dadliest Catch you're a father who happens to be an octopus.  A slight turn of expression did a world of good, and I'm curious if that was part of your plan in suggesting the two together, or if there was some other devious reasoning afoot?

OctosethYes, indeed. I see the two Octodad games as parts of an interesting statement. The student game seems to be a shot in the dark. An experiment. They Young Horses team took wobbly, nigh-unpredictable controls to a certain extreme, and went to work making a character so charming we didn't mind. I don't know how they decided on an octopus. But the interesting point is not the species of animal they selected. It's that they prescribed a series of goals to that octopus which weren't meant for it. There have been lots of games about animals doing human-like things. But they tend to be fully anthropomorphized and skilled (See: Ratchet of the Ratchet & Clank series and many others). In other words, the standard animal fantasy is to imagine that animal as having a level of sophistication similar to humans and run with it. This is not so with Octodad. This octopus is just an octopus. Yes, he wears a suit and has learned and accepted certain trends of human life. But we get to share in a wide-eyed bewilderment with this creature as we discover what it's like to explore and manipulate a world that was not meant for him.

The tasks had to be simple enough that the game was about experimentation. Those wobbly tentacles are the center of this game, and the glue that binds them to the world design is the Suspicion Meter, which is based upon consequences of physics rather than direct input. It's the things that we are doing unintentionally that alter our metered success in this role. Without that touch, it might have been a curious physics toy and not a fully-realized game.

It's interesting that we are given unmatched inputs and outputs, as it were. This is not a game about being an octopus. This is not a game about being a human or accomplishing tasks that humans value. It's a game about an octopus trying to be human. That's the subject, anyway. Weird place to be. Putting aside the specifics of the controls, or the setting (the fatherhood narrative), what do you think this says about the core fantasy of Octodad?

Well, this SHOULD be easyCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayWith the myriad of questions you pose, I get to break out the old Marshall McLuhan chestnut of, "The medium is the message."  So what we have as a medium is a hard to control game where you play an octopus whose family accept him but is always on guard with people in the hopes he'll never be found out.  If we take just the medium as message, then it's about the alienating experience of being a new father, literally stumbling through the stuff we take for granted every day (read: cumbersome cephalopod biology) in the hopes that no one will pick up that you're just following directions (read: controller inputs) as best you can in daily life (read: chores).  Going a step further, this is why the angry chef antagonist is a good figure to have both in terms of driving the action and working with the general theme, because it's that one bit of your past which no "respectable" (or, in game terms, "human") father should have but, really, if you're just honest about it then the new family shouldn't be bothered.

This is why the tasks in Octodad versus Dadliest Catch resonated with me in different ways.  Octodad felt a bit mean-spirited, as you were performing tasks just to trick your family deliberately so you could make it to Octodad's underground lair.  There's a bit more than a bit of "man cave" vibe emanating from that, and that's a form of isolation and labeling I don't like much.  But this came with it a lot of standard video game trappings mixed in with the mundane-made-fun of Dadliest Catch.  The tasks in the home proper are fine, but you're left with little direction once you hit the basement, and when you're dodging lasers with the mouse-driven cephalopod it goes from charming to tedious - something Dadliest Catch corrects beautifully.

I'm glad you brought up the Suspicion Meter, because that's what makes Dadliest Catch work so well it becomes poignant at times.  The best example of this is the sequence in the aquarium where Octodad is trying to reassure his wife, Scarlet, that he's not distancing himself from her.  But he commits a mistake a lot of people do in relationships, thinking that a shower of gifts will distract her from the problems.  Yet each gift comes with it a risk of increased "Suspicion", and we're guiding Octodad along each of those steps while Scarlet talks to him not about the gifts but about the rift in their relationship.  It all may seem a bit silly when watching it in action, but with the wobbly controls it ends up mixing the physical unease of controlling Octodad with the emotional unease of the scenario.  Once again, we have an uncertain character trying to reassure himself and others he knows what he's doing, failing at it, but continuing all the same.  That's interesting in fiction - period - let alone Dadliest Catch.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenAgreed. I did a few additional Dadliest Catch Free Play runs of the aquarium segments where Octodad goes to find his family members. I have similar notes down on the arcade experience with the wife. It's potent because of the split between the emotional goals we might have as players and the gameplay goals we are given onscreen. Namely... I feel a desire to comfort the wife or reassure her, or explain, or whatever we might do as humans. However, we're given the goal "Give prizes to Scarlet."

That's all we can do. Because that's all Octodad has to give. He can't speak English, much less explain. He is reduced to unintelligible mumbling (or blurbing, as it may be). Many of Scarlet's concerns are about his silence, his distance. Odd or dangerous sounding events that he brushes off without a second thought. Strange contradictions. Loves the ocean. Hates the aquarium. It sounds a lot like the emotional experience being delivered is that of being misunderstood, having no natural (or accepted) place in the current society (save for that of specialized cuisine to be consumed), and no means of communication by which to close the gap in understanding

That ends up being quite poignant as a modern concern. It's fascinating that by taking ill-fit controls to an extreme we are offered a view into the life of someone who feels extremely unfit for their place in society.

Simple powerful strokesCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayWe've both talked around the controls, but with your last comment it's time for us to tackle them directly.  Myst didn't really afford us that opportunity since the controls were built in a fairly simple click interface.  But Octodad and Dadliest Catch both are unique, and Dadliest Catch improves on the Octodad idea so much it's hard to believe they're from the same team.  I struggled getting through Octodad to the end because of the mouse-based controls as I had to keep lifting and moving my mouse back to get anywhere.  They hurt my wrist and if there was some option to play with a controller I missed it.

But this brings up an interesting question, how do you decide what the "right" control scheme is?  Because thematically speaking, the controls for the original Octodad still communicate the difficulty of getting along in a human world as a thinly disguised cephalopod, but they lack a certain verisimilitude.  I know Dadliest Catch is a haven for those rage gamers who like to load YouTube videos of them getting angry at the game (and, really, that's probably a subject for its own article), but I flowed along with Octodad with a controller in Dadliest Catch.  The wrist pain from Octodad became a charming float around the yard in Dadliest Catch, and while there were certainly other factors to consider (console ports being one of them), I wonder how they fine-tuned the control scheme for both iterations of Octodad.

It even makes for a good storytelling tool on its own.  We share a fondness of the sad Scarlet sequence, but another high point for more positive reasons is Octodad's triumphant swim through the aquarium in Dadliest Catch.  Instead of the wobbly control scheme that we are then used to, we get treated to a single powerful stroke button that we just need to press and release to send Octodad spiraling through the water.  This is more than a "press button to proceed with plot" moment, but shows us how easy it is for Octodad to be a cephalopod than it is to be a hard-to-control father.  It's an interesting conversion of actual mechanics with game and theming, so I'm wondering how you tackle that?

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThat is a pretty brilliant contrast. And certainly, if there's a through line for humans in this... the true cephalopod sequence is the analog to the dream of the job we want, perhaps a dream city in which we'd like to live, or some other situation in which can show our true strength. I think that's awesome to have a segment that gives a struggling character a period of triumphant power and strength. This is a different kind of experience than many of us are used to. It's fairly common to follow an arc of increasing power, but to spent the majority of a game in a relatively disabled state (compared to our avatar's potential) remains fairly unique.

So... controls. As a PC gamer, mouse and keys are my default. I pretty much live and breathe mouse and keys. With Octodad, this is another matter entirely. Because we're adding a layer of complexity with any input device. Now we're a human controlling one or more pieces of hardware, controlling a cephalopod who is trying to do human things.

As it happens, I breezed through the student game from start to finish in perhaps a half hour the other day in prep for this talk. I had played both games before, which helps. So I understood the solutions on this play through. However, I think playing Dadliest Catch brought to light one of the real challenges of accuracy in these games, which is that of depth perception. While there are shadows in Dadliest Catch, the art style in general keeps those subtle and simple. This leads to a situation where the things we can see most clearly as players are essentially  the two dimensions of the screenspace on which we play, with the whole "into" or "out of" the screen dimension harder to gauge. Dadliest Catch has the equivalent of auto-aiming (which is a must-have bit of code for console shooters these days, and other games as well) which helps us in the realm of grabbing things. There are a lot of close-enough calculations going on there to help us out there. But navigation is still a challenge, all the way around. Particularly if the environment is working against you (e.g. escalators!)

Because of the depth perception struggle, Dadliest Catch also does a ton of camera work for you. The first game asks you to control the camera yourself. This means in addition to layers of translation between our hands and Suspicion Meter, we also have to control a disembodied, floating camera operator. It's something from which certain games can benefit, but not so here. I assume this is why the camera is revised significantly in Dadliest Catch (props to the coder(s) who did that... cameras are hard!)

For me, the rage-factor doesn't show up until the Hot Concessions segment of Dadliest Catch. I have yet to beat it. I'm not sure if it's possible to achieve with a mouse and keyboard. But It MIGHT be impossible for ME to achieve on mouse and keyboard.  The combination of the pace and the fact that I am only good at running/walking side-to-side, means that the head-on camera at the start of the chase predisposes me for failure.

Such is life. Such is games, sometimes.

Hoo boyCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayNow is the time in our conversation where I need to balance my praise.  Hot Concessions is the only part of the game which doesn't work for me at all.  There's nothing else like it in Dadliest Catch as most of the timing or slippery sections aren't as stringent or immediately penalized with failure.  But the problem with Hot Concessions is you're not really penalized with failure, but annoyance.  Instead of failing to save your family from the angry chef you just climb back to the beginning.  Miss a plank?  Go back to the beginning.  Step on one of the wobbly planks?  Go back to the beginning.  Get 95% of the way there and then the chef looks at you funny?  Go back to the beginning.

Would it have been better if it forced me to reload, or watch some unskippable cinematic of Scarlet and company burning to death?  Certainly not, but the sudden appearance of physical stakes which aren't really dealt with in lieu of the emotional stakes which are what led me to finish Hot Concessions more out of stubbornness than desire.  I was so grumpy after finally completing Hot Concessions I wasn't so much happy to see Octodad exposed to his supportive family, but just glad the experience was over.  This made the subsequent credits sequence, which has Octodad and all the game's supporting cast reunited to watch a movie of his escapades, a bit subdued in the happy department.

This is unusual, because the Hot Concessions sequence is also probably one of the most video game-y parts of Dadliest Catch.  Aside from Scarlet's sequence, the part where Octodad guides his scared daughter through the dark or does some lawn work are also great.  It seems Dadliest Catch works best when vaguely resembling a video game, but doesn't go so far as to become one of the other gimmicky hard-to-control video games out there.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenI think you're on to something important there. As a player, one of the things I'm missing in that sequence is the feeling that I've progressed as a player. I would like to believe that my skills using tentacles as bipedal legs and feet had progressed by the end, but I didn't get that with the challenges presented by Hot Concessions (at least, not with keyboard and mouse- I did watch videos of some players who manages to fly over those tables at incredible speed, but I don't know what input method they were using). There's one or two warm up for this level of frustration earlier in the game, and I think they're both escalators. But what happens with each of these is that is departs from the difficulty of being a cephalopod and enters into a sharp curve of difficulty by design. This might be what you're referring to as video gaminess. The obstacles that work best are working both in narrative and mechanics. Put another way, the good ones are plausibly trivial  for humans to accomplish.

That being said, I like the fact that the chef is going nuts. It seems appropriate for him to do something nefarious for a climactic encounter. But compare to the first game where the chef requires Octodad to prove his humanity by climbing a ladder. That fit the bill perfectly as a thing that humans obviously should be able to do, but was non-trivial for Octodad.

Ladders - my only weaknessCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayIt's funny how one of the high points of Octodad is the ladder climbing (which I barely made in time) and this is made into what most of Dadliest Catch is before devolving into typical video game shenanigans.  But, issues with the climax aside, Dadliest Catch is atypical in the best ways.  The team stumbled on one of the all-time great video game avatars in Octodad, and I loved watching his triumphant little pose as he picks up the hidden ties.  After all, what dad wouldn't like to find a nice, crisp, stylish tie just lying around?

Ok, maybe less dads than I think, but it speaks to the wealth of personality video games can create without a recognizable language.  Octodad stumbles through the world in his nice three-piece suit, a lovely blue to off-set his naturally orange complexion, and his little tentacles make for a perfect stand-in for a trim mustache.  The subtitles may only be able to guess at what he's really saying, but we just need to look at how firm or wavy his body becomes in each scenario.  Octodad's a great trial run, but Dadliest Catch, give or take a fire, quickly became one of the all-time greats.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenAbsolutely. Nice, crisp stylish ties are expensive. 10/10 would love finding one of those, every time. As for Octodad himself, he managed to say quite a bit about his disposition in life without saying anything in a language we understand. So the triumph of the design is that the wobbly, indirect mechanics led us directly to each understanding gained along the way. A quick search around the internet will yield an outpouring of Octolove in many forms, Octoreviews, Octodances, and Octo-Let'sPlays aplenty. Never have awkwardness and identity issues been so charming. While I believe Octodad is a complete statement for now, it'd be fun to see what he would have to do and say (or not say) in another decade or so. I remain curious- which is my favorite thing.

What we're gaming this week:

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayCasual observation of my gaming habits might make it seem I'm caught within the thrall of Final Fantasy all the time.  Really, it's just because I'm finishing up my Four Job Fiesta run of FFV, and because the expansion pack for FFXIV, Heavensward, came out.  I usually play MMOs as a background for other things and FFXIV has fit that bill magnificently for a long time.  I'm just about ready to start gearing up for the new raids (the one time I do pay strong attention to what I'm doing) and am in the processing of leveling up the gathering and crafting classes to the new max.  No matter what else is going on in my life, I can count on a couple of hours of gathering and crafting to set my mind at ease.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenTales of Monkey Island. Playing with my six-year-old son, we recently completed Chapter 2, and I'm enjoying this adventure on several levels. The theme is strong. My son and I love the music and beautifully designed characters. We laugh at the jokes, even if my son doesn't understand them all. And certainly, there are a few implied meanings that fall under the category of 'parental guidance'. But so far no questions have come up about those. So I think I'm safe (for now). Regarding the story, I'm enjoying the chapter structure much more than I used to think I would. One the one hand, it's weird to purchase part of a story that is known to be incomplete. One the other hand, they do a good job of cultivating a sense of accomplishment by the end of a chapter. There's a big narrative payoff, and the cliffhangers they've written are compelling and fun. As a developer, I wonder if this structure gives them more time to focus on each chapter, rather than trying to divide their attention between all the content they want to deliver at once. Seems like a smart move, as there is a ton of dialog, animation and so forth required to deliver an adventure like this- not to mention to all the writing and design work required beforehand. As for the puzzles, they have somehow managed to retain a sense of the wackiness of early adventure games without stretching the imagination too far. If one listens to the dialog, everything is pretty well hinted or implied. The challenge lies in careful observation of each of the areas available, so that when the hint drops... one is able to recall the location or device implied. And that's a fair kind of challenge that works for adults and kids. Good stuff.

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Posted by Andrew

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