[Pretentious Refuse is a weekly segment advocating excellent indie games that may be overlooked and/or otherwise dismissed as “low budget garbage” by “real” gamers.]
It’s rare to have an indie game make even a small blip on the radar of most gamers. Braid, in 2008, and this year’s Limbo and Super Meat Boy are the most recent exception to this rule, despite their decidedly un-mainstream style. For Braid this was mainly due to the surprisingly engrossing story and the excellent time travel gameplay mechanic; for Limbo, it was the striking visuals and visceral deaths; and for Super Meat Boy, it was the precise, hard-as-balls gameplay and hilarious retro homages that really made it shine.
And then you have a game like Octodad. Developed by DePaul University students, it’s a freeware adventure game that looks very outdated and lasts all of an hour if you know what you’re doing. How the hell does a game like this explode with so much press and unfiltered praise?
Take a look at the official tagline: Loving Father. Caring Husband. Secret Octopus. How do you not want to love it?
Octodad’s perhaps the wackiest game I’ve played this year. You’re the titular main character, an octopus that has made it through life so far disguised as a human being. You’ve even managed to inexplicably raise a family, marrying a beautiful wife and somehow producing two perfectly human looking offspring.
Apparently it’s too much for Octodad, as we join him in the game amidst an existential crisis. He no longer wants to be human, no doubt sick of the charade, and wishes to flee the family and get back to the sea, or where ever he was living previously. His goal (and your objective) is to craft a lifelike mannequin out of various parts scattered across the house, distract the wife, and hit the door running.
Sounds like an amazingly original premise in its own right, but there’s a key element that instantly spices up the sheer awesomeness of the experience: the control scheme for Octodad is just completely insane and frustrating, and in turn meshes with the humor and style of the game in a perfect symbiotic relationship. The mouse does all the work here; it not only controls the legs for movement, but also controls the arms for grabbing objects. To control the legs, you hold the button that corresponds to the leg and drag the mouse forward. So if you want to step forward with your left leg, you hold the left click button and drag the mouse forward, and voila, you’re walking. By alternating left and right you can get around decently enough, but thanks to the brilliant physics engine, you flail about like, well, like an octopus pretending he knows how to walk like a human. Controlling your arms is a matter of pressing the spacebar and heading into “Arms Mode”, where you use the mouse to grasp and/or knock down objects of your liking.
How the hell does that even sound fun, you ask? Okay, walking can be frustrating and janky as hell, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s absolutely hilarious. The things Octodad has to do aren’t rocket science; they’re normal chores any person could be able to do, like washing dishes or getting a toy for your daughter from the toy box. Yet Octodad absolutely struggles at all of these, and to think that his loving family considers this normal is just something straight out of a ridiculous Robot Chicken sketch or something similar.
Case in point: one of the tasks involves you clearing out the fridge in order to get a banana from your wife (to make a mustache for your lifelike mannequin, duh). Normally that means putting all the crap in your fridge in the garbage, but according to Octodad, that just means opening your cooler and knocking every single item in it to the ground, all while your wife lovingly looks on from the kitchen doorway. Soon after, she asks you to mop the floors, so you hobble your way to the mop, grasp it with the suction cups on your tentacles, and clean up the puddles by flailing your appendages in the general area of the spill as if you’re having an epileptic seizure.
Octodad is hilarious in its own right; the hand drawn cutscenes lack any sort of polish whatsoever, but ooze charm and pure, harmless hilarity. But if that’s the game’s chocolate, then the controls are surely its peanut butter. Other games usually get docked for their terrible controls, even if they’re innovative in some way, but in this case, it simply works, and works well, thanks to the accompanying story and kookiness that completely embraces the WTF-ness of the controls. When the final, ultimate task of a game is to climb a ladder, you know you have something special on your hands.
Octodad is available now for free here.