He's just trying to do his best. He wants to be a good father to his kids and a loving husband to his wife. He wants to grill hamburgers and mow the lawn, to weed the garden and go to the grocery store and do all the other things ordinary dads do. But when you're a man-sized octopus masquerading as a human, things rarely go as planned.
So goes the setup for Octodad: Dadliest Catch, a game about abject clumsiness and hilarious failure. Initially created by a small group of DePaul University students, the first Octodad began as an IGF student showcase game before earning enough goodwill and, thanks to a modest but successful Kickstarter campaign, financial support that its creators were able to make a fully fledged sequel, subtitled Dadliest Catch.
Octodad is a one-joke game—well, technically two jokes—and it's remarkable just how long its developers manage to keep everything on the rails.
The first joke is a very simple narrative joke: The dude is an octopus. Somehow, he's married to a normal human lady and they have two adorable human kids. (Yep.) Octodad lives in constant fear that he will be found out, but… I mean, he is so obviously, 100% an octopus. How has no one noticed? He has eight tentacles, two of which appear to be a moustache. He is a cephalopod mollusk of the order Octopoda, he just happens to be wearing a suit.
Someone really should notice. But as Ian McKinney's kicky theme song goes…
Octoda-a-ad, nobody suspects a thing
Octoda-a-ad, he's got a good thing going
...nobody suspects a thing.
As it turns out, the joke's got legs. (Sorry.) I found myself laughing regularly from the very start of the game, and kept laughing for a good while after that. Watching poor Octodad at the supermarket, his blinking eyes perpetually filled with panic, his ropey legs accidentally straddling a stranger's shopping cart, finally wriggling free and flopping lifelessly down the aisles with a burble of consternation… Octodad is often the purest video-game slapstick. He wildly waggles a container of milk in his daughter's face, cooing and gurgling as he does so. Just like the song says, nobody suspects a thing. She takes the milk, thanks dad! Heh.
The second joke is a gameplay joke, and it's a tougher one to pull off: Octodad has awful controls, on purpose. Octodad himself is... well, he's about as difficult to control as you might imagine a land-based octopus would be. He moves like a collection of loosely-knotted rubber-bands, or maybe one of those gross sticky spider toys that my sister and I used to play with when we were kids. (You know, the ones that'd successfully crawl down the wall a single time but immediately after that would become covered in dog hair.)
Dadliest Catch works equally well (or, "well") with a mouse and keyboard or with a controller. I spent most of my time on controller, since the imprecision of the thumbsticks seems to fit with the overall clumsiness of the game. The thumbsticks (or mouse) pilot a single one of Octodad's arm tentacles in a largely counterintuitive way: One stick moves the tentacle up and down while the other stick moves it forward and backward, relative to the fixed camera. You can pick up most objects in the environment with a shoulder button and, using the thumbsticks to build momentum, awkwardly throw things around.
To walk, you'll have to hit the right and left triggers to lift Octodad's corresponding legs, then use a thumbstick to move them. This results in a graceless, floppy gait that is rarely if ever not funny to watch:
If that control scheme sounds convoluted and confusing, that's because it is—and that's the point. Like QWOP and Surgeon Simulator before it, Octodad is a proud member of a game genre that has come to be affectionately known by some as "Fumblecore." (The game even throws into its indie-reference-laden supermarket scene.)
Fumblecore games have purposefully confounding control schemes that are designed to make players fail in humorous ways rather than allowing us to achieve any sort of mastery. Though with that said, I'm sure some intrepid players will get pretty good at Octodad, and I'm looking forward to watching them play.
The gameplay joke in Dadliest Catch is that every scenario is designed so that Octodad makes as much of a ridiculous asshole out of himself as possible. It's a pretty good joke! I'm not ashamed to admit I have now laughed quite heartily at the sight of a cephalopod in sunglasses slipping on a banana peel.
Like most funny things, Octodad is great to share with friends, handing the controller around and seeing who can get through a given scenario with the lowest fiasco-count. The game is actually even better when played using the built-in co-op, which by default puts one player in charge of Octodad's tentacles while the another controls his feet. I've only played co-op with two total players, though it can be played by as many as four. Which player controls which limb is customizable, and you can even set the settings to "roulette," which randomly reassigns Octodad's limbs after you reach a new objective.
Co-op controls are immensely difficult and require a lot of communication, but the game is very funny and surprisingly rewarding when tackled this way. I'd imagine that when Dadliest Catch makes its way to PS4 (it's coming to Sony's console a bit later this year), it'll make for a great party game/dangerous drinking game.
For more of a sense of how the game works, watch our own Steve Marinconz play through the opening level. He's pretty good!
Levels like the one above are a lot of fun. Unfortunately, in the back half of its brief runtime, Dadliest Catch falls apart, sometimes pretty hard. The story dials up the drama and the joy of watching Octodad try to survive everyday scenarios with his dignity intact is replaced by frustration at trying to endure undercooked action setpieces and terrible sneaking challenges.
Update 4/22/2014: Since Dadliest Catch is coming out today on PS4, I took the opportunity to go back and play through the back half of the game after receiving assurances from the developers that it had been heavily tweaked after player feedback. I'm happy to report that, yes, the game is more polished and MUCH less frustrating now. Young Horses has completely reworked the levels that gave me a headache in the first version of the game. Two of the most grueling stealth sections now start out by giving you a separate challenge to uncover a costume, which then makes your job sneaking around much simpler. There's less of a penalty for being spotted, and the boat level has included a tricky way to bypass the deck area, as well as a new section where you swab the deck as a deckworker. The final boss is also a great deal more forgiving, at least on normal difficulty. Octodad is now even easier to recommend without qualification. Good show, Young Horses.
Version Check: This review was of the initial, un-patched PC version of the game. Today, the game is out on PS4 as well. I've played an hour or so and it's pretty much the same game as on PC, though it lacks the Steam Workshop user-generated content.
Throughout the game, Octodad must avoid making too much of a mess while people are watching, lest he tip them off to his true nature. It's good motivation to try to play "clean," and in the early goings it's forgiving enough that the game rarely feels punishing. But at several points in its latter half Dadliest Catch attempts to transform into a full-blown stealth game, with enemies that will identify Octodad almost immediately upon spotting him. It's an ill-advised move that quickly flips the game from funny to maddening.
Intentionally confounding games like Octodad need to strike a tricky balance. Their premise makes the player the butt of a joke, so they must keep things breezy enough that the player doesn't feel unfairly punished or overly frustrated. Too often in its back half, Octodad fails to maintain that balance, and it repeatedly left me feeling like the butt of a joke that had worn out its welcome.
Octodad must get the lawn mower out of a shed while his family sets up on a nearby picnic table. He opens the shed and… a dozen footballs and soccer balls pour out! Oh no! Octodad trips and falls on his face, balls bouncing and snagging under his octo-feet. He burbles in desperation and tries to claw his way to the lawnmower. Poor Octodad!
Octodad must make his way across the deck of a ship, which is being patrolled by sailors. If one of them sees him for more than a second or so, he fails and must restart. Often when he moves, the camera will do a 180 and stop showing what's in front of him, and the controls will invert relative to the new camera placement. There doesn't appear to be any clear-cut path through the sailors, and there's no way to tell who can see what until it's too late. And of course, as always, the controls are purposefully ridiculous. Ugh, Octodad!
Octodad must make his way to the ticket counter at the aquarium, but there's a crowded array of line-markers and people in his way. Oh no, he's making a mess of everything! Velvet ropes are flying to and fro! Poor Octodad!
Octodad must sneak through an air-duct, and if he's spotted by anyone in the building, he'll fail the mission. Halfway through the air-duct, the camera flips right along with the orientation of the controls. Suddenly forward is backward, so the player accidentally backs out of the air duct just as soon as he'd wormed his way into it. Ugh, Octodad!
Dadliest Catch certainly manages more funny moments than frustrating ones, but the annoying bits are so annoying that they take up more space than they should. Fortunately (and crucially), you can kick the difficulty down to easy when your patience wears thin, which basically removes all challenge from the stealth sections and lets you blow through them. It's a great option, given how annoying things can get, but I'd have preferred it if the whole game could've matched the difficulty of the opening chapters. Removing all challenge feels like overkill.
Octodad's frequent design problems were compounded for me by consistent technical issues with the pre-release PC build I played. I saw regular performance dips on one of the PCs I used (though the other one was fine), along with invisible NPCs voicing lines out of thin air, regular clipping and other graphical oddities, and one game-halting bug during the closing credits that left me in 20 minutes of purgatory, unsure whether I was supposed to be doing something or if the game had just tripped itself up. When I restarted from a checkpoint, it took me all the way back to before the boss I had just defeated.
The game's developers tell me that they've pushed a last-minute patch that fixes the endgame bug and disappearing characters, and that they hadn't heard of any other players encountering performance dips like the ones I saw. It's tough to read too much into the stability of a pre-release build like the one I played, but all the same, the issues detracted for me and seem worth mentioning.
For all the laughs and enjoyable pratfalls in the game, in the end I feel a melancholy sort of empathy for Octodad. As I get older, I find that my body betrays me in small but ever-more-noticeable ways. Everything is harder than it used to be: I fumble things that I used to carry easily; I hit my head where before I would've ducked; I carefully climb where before I would have effortlessly vaulted up. I can't help but feel for Octodad, clumsy mollusk-out-of-water that he is. As he crashes into a display stand or falls down the stairs, I'm sure he's wondering the same thing I wonder from time to time: Why can't things just be easier?
Note: This review originally ran on January 30, 2014. We've bumped it up because the game is out today on PlayStation 4.