If brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare wrote, then one can understand why Octodad struggles to be funny.
This offbeat indie game tries to stretch its central joke across the entire story; one that depicts a besuited Octopus trying to blend in with common folk. He has a family, goes shopping and mows the lawn. But he's an Octopus. He frog-marches through his home leaving a trail of displaced furniture and ornaments in his wake. He accidentally cooks his appendages on barbecues. He gets tangled into line-dividers at queues. He fears aquariums.
Such an approach can pay off in theory; Groundhog Day managed to work by repeating its shtick, but it also glimmered with character and introduced ideas that evolved the core concept. Octodad does not carry such qualities, instead it calls back the first gag and hopes this will hold the player's interest throughout.
The opening joke is quite funny, of course, and watching a buttoned-down Octopus trying to queue for tickets raises a smile. But for a game with such an eccentric concept at its heart, what's surprising is how quickly it runs out of ideas and imagination.
Octodad can't talk, of course, so subtitles explain what he's mumbling whilst giving observational wisecracks on the side. Descriptions like "nonchalant retort" and "garbled excuse" and so forth. Irrespective of how such quips ignore the time-honoured "show don't tell" principal of good writing, they're not usually funny either. They describe the obvious, the stereotypical, to the extent that Octodad's family are so clichéd that it's hard to believe they're real either. A faultless and devoted wife, a son that hates studying but loves sports, a wide-eyed daughter written with obnoxious levels of child-like wonderment.
Fortunately there is another character, a manic chef obsessed with cooking Octodad, who manages to give some life to the story. That's not to suggest that wild personalities are essential for interesting narratives, far from it, but that Octodad must rely on such tactics because its supporting characters have no depth to them.
Charm and humour, while often supplementary in modern games, were vital for Octodad to thrive. Not just because it's supposed to be funny, but also to provide some relief from the gameplay, which is dreary and frustrating throughout.
Octodad's objectives and scenarios are so lacking in ambition that one wonders whether this was supposed to be part of the joke. Certainly, the goals couldn't possibly be any more ordinary, tasking players with the likes of dressing for a wedding, some gardening, some shopping, exploring an aquarium and buying tickets.
"For a game with such an eccentric concept, it's surprising how quickly Octodad runs out of ideas"
A branching path of missions and consequences this is not. Octodad is instead a rummage-sale of miniature fetch quests (find the wedding ring, find the pizza, make a coffee) and everyday tasks (open the door, open the other door) that have no valuable connection between one another. Players tick a shopping list of goals, even literally at one point, and move on to the next level.
Not that there's much reason to switch to different surroundings. Octodad's world is plain and unadorned throughout, too often resembling a pre-last-gen era of boxed rooms lacking detail. There's a curse of homogeneity too, perhaps due to technical limitations, with players trapped inside basic and angular indoor structures.
Octodad didn't need to look so bare and clean. The game's original prototype, developed by DePaul University students back in 2010, carried rough-and-ready visuals (resplendent with bad drawings on scraps of paper), which was a comfortable fit for the humour. Dadliest Catch, by contrast, looks stale and sandblasted. It is a punk band dressed for church.
The credits lists about a dozen core staff who worked on the full game, and most indie teams of this size wouldn't go near a 3D adventure game. A project of such scope usually requires art divisions bigger than the entire Young Horses team. But because Octodad's core concept is a 3D character's awkward negotiations with a physics-based world, the Chicago based start-up studio had little choice in the matter.
That does go some way to explain why the world looks so mundane and limited, but doesn't excuse the lack of creative thinking. One segment, slightly reminiscent of the Metal Gear Solid 2's Tanker chapter (don't get excited), is the sole occasion when the player enters an unknown scenario. During this segment, the player asks questions, and the world becomes interesting.
"The gameplay is more akin to controlling Mario with broken arms and legs"
But even Octodad's best idea is hampered by a gameplay system that, to be frank, had little potential in the first place. Two buttons are assigned to Octodad's left and right 'human' legs, which will launch skyward once pressed, and must be directed with the mouse (or analogue stick) to simulate a walking motion. Naturally, movement becomes a series of semi-controlled stumbles and tumbles, which must be steered in the right direction.
Those who have cried with laughter playing QWOP shouldn't be optimistic. Octodad's challenges lack the simplicity and satisfaction of a hundred metre race; he must climb boxes of cereals, pull a reel lawn mower and play carnival games at an arcade. Unfortunately, due to the deliberately imprecise controls and paradoxical demands for precision, the gameplay is more akin to controlling Mario with broken arms and legs. Failure is constant, unsophisticated and sometimes unbearable. One segment, where Octodad must surmount an assault course, is particularly unpleasant.
Slideshow: Meet Octodad
Perhaps the thinking was that Octodad's basic missions and unadorned world were necessary to provide a balance, or some relief, to its whacky gameplay. Or, that the messy controls were too funny to edit out. Or, that people will love watching this kind of slapstick humour on YouTube let's plays. Intentional or not, the whole package as a result is a laborious, inelegant journey through an uninteresting world.
The main campaign lasts less than three hours; a significant problem considering it costs $15
It's understandable that Octodad was considered a promising game by those who sampled it in the past. A short demo will showcase its strengths and that initial gag, whilst concealing how the full game does not build on this.
Even so, this is not a cynical attempt or a cheap cash-in. Octodad is the result of a small group of young developers trying to accomplish a task that was far beyond their resources. It was cursed from the start, made worse through bad ideas, but still not a true representation of the talent and ambition of its creators. It is a poor game, but an honest attempt nonetheless, and hopefully the only time Young Horses attempts comedy but ends up with tragedy.
An honest attempt, but nevertheless a laborious and inelegant journey through an uninteresting world
- Sometimes witty
- Weak narrative
- Tedious controls
- Dull surroundings
- Uninteresting challenges