Don’t Mind the Normalcy

Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.

In stealth games, there is a strange sense of vulnerability that permeates everything. Every footstep, every clattering piece of metal, human voice, squeak of rat, or mechanical whir of an overhead camera swiveling represents the too-real chance for discovery, capture, and death. The ratcheting tension that sets behind the shoulders makes the ears and eyes paranoid, snuffing out any light and slinking into any shadow that looks safe enough to disappear into. However, no matter how safe the cover is, the feeling of uncertain vulnerability never completely dissipates.

While not identical, Octodad manages to embody the same kind of exposed vulnerability, despite largely lacking the aforementioned stealth elements. There is some concern over line of sight, but for the most part, the titular father-figure is free to bumble into walls, knock over lamps, and generally behave like a completely normal human and most definitely not a cephalopod in a blue suit. Most interestingly, though, is that the charade never fully drops. From cutscene to completion, not once do any of the NPCs question the completely normal human in the blue suit on his decidedly strange semblance of locomotion. Despite the main difficulty of the game hinging on just how fumbling and awkward the father figure, no one ever seems all that interested in him being anything other than a normal, run-of-the-mill, suburban, nuclear-family father. He grills on weekends, reads his paper before work, and only breaks the china once or twice a week. Perfectly normal.

Most tellingly though, outside of the trappings of the game, neither do the players. Several cosplay pictures of Octodad come with the comment of “Why did you take a picture of this random guy at the con?” Any attempt at speaking outside of the shared theater, the amazing belief that the man in a blue suit is the most normal of guys is met with confusion or outright offense at the lack of understanding. As far as the internet is concerned, there is no octopus father – just a particularly iconic-looking normal guy, who somehow gets photographed a lot by strangers for no apparent reason.

To a degree, it’s understandable. The joke, on the surface, isn’t hard to understand by anyone who’s familiar with the game. Octodad is just a normal guy, so don’t break the illusion no matter what. And players don’t, ever. As far as the online world is concerned, there is something inherently abnormal in considering any other possibility, in the same way that suspending disbelief for dramatic tension and making good or evil moral choices in games is second nature. No one will endeavor to stop and rationalize the decision that the woman they’re robbing or town they’re destroying are just a happenstance sequence of zeroes and ones, they’ll just behave in ways that come naturally. So too, with Octodad. Given that no one questions the normal guy, why would we?

This is, of course, coming from the same group of players that clamored for Goat Simulator. Originally designed as a joke for an internal game jam, Goat Simulator was a few hours’ effort from Sanctum developer Coffee Stain Studios put on YouTube. Within days, the glitch-laden video had gotten millions of views, and endless requests for the game to see a full release, despite the numerous physics errors and glitches. Perhaps, even, because of them. All at once, thousands of gamers decided that Goat Simulator was a game that needed to happen. So it did, in all of its buggy, awkward, gangly amusement. Somehow, a game about abusing physics engines, breaking cars and windows, exploding gas stations, and licking protestors, became a cult sensation (described like that, how could it not?). It went on to sell over a million copies, outselling Coffee Stain’s other more serious titles.

There is a shared camaraderie in games like these, though. The players who’ve experienced the glitchy, oddball insanity of Goat Simulator, or even just viewed the well-viewed trailer that made the game into a real product, understands to a degree just why the unadulterated oddity works. Watching a ragdoll goat pinwheel through the air to the soundtrack of bleats and the receding sound of life from below is oddly satisfying. Having it culminate in the goat’s tongue landing, and the rest of the goat phasing through reality and falling into slightly-textured nothingness before snapping back into reality good as new can find joy in that. It’s a shared experience, a communally found ground that people can share.

Octodad is built on a similar platform. The community is built around the same idea, a completely normal guy doing completely normal things, and certainly not an octopus in a suit. Any casual observation at the screenshots can discern, with relatively little sensory input, that the characters in the game genuinely have neither any notion nor any interest that the player character is an octopus. Combine that with the in-game mechanics that emphasize not getting caught, and the in-game delusion becomes a real-world one, a sort of shared delusion. As far as the gaming community is concerned, normal guy, normal walk, not a cephalopod. It’s an easy reference to get in on, and as such, it’s a reference that gets widely populated as more people get in on it. Tumblr can’t even, IGN scores it 10/10, and Octodad is just a normal guy in a suit.

Games like these really wouldn’t work outside of their absurdities, though.

Goat Simulator actually advertises that aside from game breaking glitches, no discovered or known errors will be removed from the game. The errors, the mistakes, the goofy physics implosions and sound cataclysms aren’t bugs, they’re features. The sheer absurdity of Goat Simulator got its start on YouTube (and continues to have life through Let’s Plays) because of its errors. Likewise, Octodad is a game that’s intentionally obtuse. The controls are awkward, doing too much interacting with a map will inevitably guarantee a catastrophe of fallen objects, knocked over furniture, and one very normal looking guy in the corner above suspicion. However, its charm, its excellence, and its community rally behind the narrative, behind the theater; they outright and steadfastly refuse to look behind the curtain. Without these things, the games wouldn’t be jubilant and buoyant and fun. They’d be awkward, weird, and pointless.

Perhaps there’s magic in that, though. The ability to put away the disbelief, sit behind a controller, and enjoy the fact that a goat is actually a ragdoll windmill, a suit is appropriate cover for an octopus, and that it’s okay for games to sometimes be so silly, so bizarre, so abstract that the joke is that there is no joke. Which is where games should be. Just because something can be high art doesn’t mean it has to be, and sometimes its okay for games to be goofy, silly, and require an amount of ridiculous audience participation.

But don’t take it from me, listen to this completely normal guy wearing a tuxedo.

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Taylor Hidalgo Avatar

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