At a time when games are blooming outward in a thousand bizarre, creative directions, it takes a unique approach to grab one’s attention. That’s what I found when I stumbled upon “Octodad: Dadliest Catch,” a PC game by Young Horses.
The game is a sequel to a free title I haven’t played. And while I could never fully get into its gameplay, the concept behind it sparks provocative thoughts about fatherhood, identity, and what it means to “fake it until you make it.”
In “Octodad: Dadliest Catch,” you play a suburban father who happens to be an octopus. The running gag is that no one has caught on to the fact that you are a tentacled sea creature, and part of the story (to the extent that there is one) deals with your attempts to conceal your cephalopodic identity. At an aquarium with signs boasting of the fact that “Our biologists know a fish when they see one,” for example, you have to stay out of the line of site of the marine biologists loitering about.
The most prominent and potentially polarizing feature of “Octodad” is its intentionally messy control scheme. Octodad uses two tentacles for walking (a word that should probably be in quotes given his lack of facility for basic ambulation) and another one to reach out and grab stuff. You hit the spacebar to switch between walking mode and grabbing/dropping/throwing mode. Because all of Octodad’s motions are so herky jerky, even getting him to do a basic thing like walking from one side of a room to another becomes a slapstick catastrophe as he smashes into objects and sends them flying (the game’s preface takes place at Octodad’s wedding, where I “whoops”ed my way into what would have been, in the real world, tens of thousands of dollars worth of property damage).
Though frustration is sort of the point here and adds to the enjoyment of watching Octodad hurtle across the screen, sometimes I thought Young Horse made things unnecessarily difficult. It’s one thing for basic actions to be challenging, but it’s another when the tasks the player is asked to complete, like picking one apple out of a pile of them, lead to frustrating mega-fine-motor mouse maneuvering.
So overall, I wasn’t enthralled with the gameplay, even though there were plenty of laughs, many of them coming from the text translating Octodad’s incomprehensible verbalizations (like the one we see after Octodad’s wife suggests he shave his moustache: “a terrified squeaking burble of anticipated pain”). The tasks quickly got repetitive: grab this and bring it here, find this other thing and take it somewhere else. It often felt like there wasn’t quite enough there to keep me invested in playing.
Still, the game provides some pretty irresistible fodder for interpretation. Fatherhood is a frequent subject of mass-media examination, of course, and the bumbling sitcom dad is a staple. Octodad is a version of this — good-natured but perpetually put-upon by his wife and kids. Since I’m not a dad myself, I sent some YouTube video of the game and its trailer to Andy Hinds, an online buddy and “Daddy blogger” who has written about parenting both for his blog, Beta Dad, and for outlets like Slate and the Atlantic, to get his thoughts.
Hinds speculated via e-mail that Octodad “may be a metaphor for the secret identities that all of us fathers have [that can] cause us embarrassment and shame. Inside our boring dad shells lurk creatures that are alien, slimy, and difficult to control.”
“On the other hand,” he wrote, “it might be just a bit of random absurdity meant to play into our anxieties about appearing ‘normal’ when all of the tasks that seem so easy for everyone else get overwhelming to us. It reminded me of trying to fold laundry while very drunk. Choosing a dad as the character for this game speaks to the trope of the man who muddles through, saying ‘I got this’ and using his (perhaps unjustified) confidence to propel him through challenges that he has no prior experience with.”
Well said. When trying to get Octodad through a trip to the supermarket without breaking everything, I felt like I was working through a task that was very difficult and involved all sorts of cumbersome negotiation, but that everyone around me seemed to be having an easier time with. It sounds like that’s not too far off from the experience of many human dads.