Imagine a world with no communities, no functioning governments, and no police or military protecting you. A world where all you had was your family and your possessions, and everyone else was trying to kill the former and steal the latter.
That’s what’s portrayed in game designer Jason Rohrer’s “The Castle Doctrine,” a multiplayer game currently in alpha (that is, in early playable testing). Rohrer hopes to release it late this fall.
The conceit of the game is simple: You are the male head of a family, and all you have is a wife, two kids, an empty house, some money, and a safe. You can use the money to make it harder to get to your safe by building traps, deploying guard dogs, and the like (all of which can accidentally kill you or your family if you are not careful). You can get more money either by successfully killing burglars or by burglarizing other houses. There’s no real way to “win”; the best you can hope to do is amass a large fortune, build a well-protected perch, and hang on to it until, inevitably, you are burglarized or killed.
The game does everything it can to strip individual characters of identities. Families all have randomly generated names and there’s no way to communicate with other players. What’s left is a simply rendered, pixelated world of perpetual threat, violence, and surveillance (you can run back security camera footage of attempted break-ins at your house). Fuzzy ambient music ratchets up the foreboding, austere oddness of the whole thing.
The violence is quick and unspectacular: One second you’re upright, the next, having been felled by a pitbull or an electrified trap, you’re a small, bloody mess on the ground. Once you die, you lose all your money and your house and have to start from scratch.
The term “castle doctrine” refers to the legal concept that within your own home, you may, under some circumstances, be justified in protecting yourself and your family from intruders in ways that might not be legal elsewhere (including killing somebody). This idea is paramount to the game, since everyone in it is both a thief and a trap-setting homeowner, both a violator and an ultimate dispenser of justice and protector of the innocent.
Some of “The Castle Doctrine” comes simply from a past experience that Rohrer, a well-known indie developer who describes himself as something of a pacifist, had of living in a dangerous neighborhood in Las Cruces, N.M., with his family. Rohrer, 35, now lives in Davis, Calif.
“I considered buying a gun to protect my family against dogs at one point,” he wrote to me via e-mail. “I never ended up doing that for a variety of reasons, but we did carry a club and pepper spray. And it wasn’t just dogs — we also had occasional threats of violence from people, and we puzzled endlessly over what to do about it.
“Mixed into this is the perplexing nature of violence itself — that we’re all really the same in many ways, and doing something bad to someone else is the same on a cosmic scale as someone else doing something bad to you, but that it’s impossible to ever see it this way. The other remains the other, and the self remains the only seat of reference. This issue of ‘the other’ is tackled by a bunch of my games, and I like building systems where people are all exactly the same but somehow separated from each other.”
So “The Castle Doctrine” is partly a reflection of Rohrer’s own experiences and his questions about the nature of violence in games, and partly an attempt to explore the dynamics of theft and violation in a game setting: “On one hand, you are incentivized to violate other players, which is aesthetically a bit weird. On the other hand, though, it adds a nice complexity to being violated, because obviously the people violating you are just like you, so it creates a certain empathy where one doesn’t normally exist. You know, if your house gets robbed in real life, most of the time, you don’t say, ‘Well, I can understand where the robber was coming from, because I just robbed a house myself last week.’ ”
“The Castle Doctrine” features some very visceral, emotionally resonant content: constant violation and the perpetual threat of murder. But the designer himself isn’t making any judgments. That’s how some of the best, most morally ambiguous novels and films work, but with “The Castle Doctrine,” everything hits a bit closer to home because there’s a more immediate sense of connection to the home you build and the family you protect.
What’s impressive about “The Castle Doctrine,” even in its current, unfinished state, is how much meaning is packed into such a simple little game. There’s so much to discuss and debate, and the search for meaning is left to the player. When I first heard of it I interpreted as a caricature of hardcore libertarianism. But Rohrer is clear that he is aiming to make an aesthetic and emotional experience, not a political statement.
Ultimately it would be wrong to try to reduce this evocative, strange game to any one message. “As the saying goes,” wrote Rohrer, “if I could put it succinctly into words, I wouldn’t have had to make the damn game!”