Impressions, Part 1: Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine

By Alec Meer on March 7th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

The Castle Doctrine, the upcoming game from Passage and Sleep Is Death creator Jason Rohrer, is an indie MMO about criminals invading your home, and you invading their homes. A combination of base-building and puzzle-solving, it’s also an examination of how it feels to be both victim and villain. I’ve spent some time with an early version of the game.

I killed a woman for the sake of $21.

I killed a woman.

For $21.

I killed a woman.

Much has, and will, be made of the politics which informs Passage creator Jason’s Rohrer’s lo-fi, strategic MMO about home invasion. The Sleep Is Death developer has been entirely open about his (unusual among game developers) belief in the right to bear arms and how that inspired the game, but in practice I’m not sure much of that is visible in The Castle Doctrine. It plays to me like a horror game rather than an statement game. Less From My Cold Dead Hands, more life is nasty, brutish and short.

Equally, I’m not sure saying something like “The Castle Doctrine is set in a dystopic reality where everyone is both victim and criminal, locked in a perpetual cycle of robbery and violence” is apt. The game’s more a concept, or a structure for game systems, than it is a setting. Devoid of exposition, or indeed any words other than the names and worth of in-game items and characters, it plunges its anonymised players directly into the twin objectives of defend and invade. It is cold, so cold. And yet, wordlessly, I felt the pull to protect the three randomly-named, distinguishing feature-free family members (one wife, two children) I was assigned.

My home, like every other player’s home, begins as a large, empty grey box containing only the family and our vault. It’s up to me to fill it, with traps, defences, dogs and walls, otherwise it’s an open goal. The evident vulnerability was shocking, every time I saw it – were someone to walk in, there’d be nothing stopping them from simply walking right up to and brutalising these three tiny people in this vast empty space. I had to do something about it.

I knew I had to because I knew that everyone else in the game would want to rob me. I knew that because I wanted to rob all of them. I’d love to claim I encountered some moral obstacle here, something which gave me pause for thought, stayed my hand from invading some other, unknown player’s house and stealing all they had. I’d love to claim that I silently, sternly proclaimed “no, Rohrer, I will not play the game behind this game, this test of the darkness in the human soul. I will not and do not have to do these awful things.” But I did not.

Am I evil?

I don’t think so. I think, I hope, that instead I was simply guided by the twin motivations of seeing a number in a videogame and wanting to make it larger, and observing what might be The Castle Doctrine’s key weakness in this early, low-player version – that all is transitory here. Player death is so sudden, so instant, so frequent (in my experience, which may well not be entirely accurate – more on that very shortly) and a new ‘game’ so hot on its heels that I struggled to imagine any of my victims being brought to their knees in horror by the loss of their cash. They’d probably have died soon enough and have lost it all anyway. Right?

Not necessarily, actually. I have to be speculative here, as the early, closed version of the game I’ve been looking at holds just a handful of players, few of which seem to be playing regularly. Thus, they have only basic home defence setups, with little spent, little stolen and in turn little to lose. At the time of writing, I’ve robbed everyone else who has cash blind, bar one house which is either bugged or has devised a system so fiendish as to be unbreakable. I haven’t been robbed yet, though I’ve killed myself so many times in the spirit of investigation that I don’t have many ‘earnings’ to lose anyway. In time though, with more players, I fully expect to see intricate, deadly, expert house designs which protect vast wealth built up over long periods. Were their owners to lose these hoards, they very probably would feel violated.

Even in the limited microcosm of this pre-release version, there is one violation all present and correct. That $21 – the cost of a life. For the longest time, I held out against killing any humans. While my attitude towards theft is perhaps worryingly cavalier (in and out of games – I’ll always play a rogue in RPGs, and I have an unfortunate habit of drunkenly nicking beer glasses I like the look of from pubs. Why am I admitting this here? Oh well), I’ve always struggled with killing innocents in videogames. Er, and in real life, of course. Perhaps not in openly transgressive fare like GTA and Syndicate, but you won’t catch me doing murdering townsfolk in Skyrim or Ultima, or snapping the necks of Little Sisters. I had to force myself to take a life in The Castle Doctrine, but I did so in the name of dark experimentation and because, well, I’d basically stolen all there was to steal, at least until new players entered the game or dead ones started a new character.

Families, especially the two children every player beings a game with, serve little practical purpose in The Castle Doctrine, but importantly Wives will attempt to flee their house with half its money upon sighting an intruder. This raises the game’s key dilemma: let her go, both so that she might live and so the player will be left with some cash to rebuild with, or hunt her down for the bonus money.

Having already repeatedly robbed the same poorly-protected house, each time going home with 50% of what was left, ultimately I elected to Use Crowbar On Mary in order that I might collect all the loot in one fell swoop. It was so quick. Instant. Silent. Barely even animated – just a sprite changing from standing to collapsed, with a few new, red pixels around it. I could have used a gun, but the effect would have been the same – a one-shot-use item, only that would have been ranged rather than close-up killing. I had previously used guns to take out another player’s guard dogs before they savaged me, but while I felt guilty about opting for the fatal option rather than neutralising them with drugged meat, it was nothing compared to how I felt after murdering Mary. Again, this isn’t really a game about guns. It’s a game about violation.

Today, I had been the violator, and I felt terrible. I’m reasonably, reassuringly sure I’d have felt equally terrible were it $2100, not the pitiful $21 I went home with. I don’t, however, imagine that all The Castle Doctrine’s players will feel similarly, especially once the cold war of having to build ever more intricate, ever-more expensive defences really sets in and there becomes an arguable necessity to lay red right hands on as much cash as possible. And, in the wake of suffering their own homes invaded and their spouses slain, craving vengeance against those who had done it. And so will the children surely die too, for no reason other than revenge. Well, also for the lulz, should the Internet Is Serious Business crowd decide to get involved.

Until if and when that happens, and duly makes fools of us all, I can confidently declare this a powerful, memorable game. Upsetting, yes, but not exploitative. It’s a smartly strategic game too, but I’ll talk about that tomorrow. Right now I’m focused on the knot I feel in my sickened stomach, the ache of my gritted jaw. This is a captivating horror game, with me as both victim and monster.

$21. I can’t get it out of my head. The image of that handful of slumped pixels keeps coming back to me. There’s been justified concern that The Castle Doctrine essentially relegates women to the role of walking wallets, with no purpose other than to dutifully, unprotestingly ferry money around, with no powers of decision or defence themselves. Much as the developer has defended the fixed Man-as-earner/defender, Woman as housekeeper/victim setup as as reflection of his artistic and autobiographical vision, I feel it’s an ultimately needless decision which will only bring upset to the game’s door. The pixel-people are so indistinct and anonymous that genders and gender roles might as well have been entirely randomly assigned, so I’m left even more unsure of why the developer wasn’t flexible in that regard. I wouldn’t think twice about whether I encountered a Mary or a Mike in that role, whether they wore trousers or a dress.

What’s important, in any case, is that one of the adults in the house is known, by the player and their rivals alike, to be vulnerable, and ostensibly innocent. That’s where the power is – in knowing that when I killed that person for those $21, they had not done and never would do anything to me. They could not protect themselves. They were at my mercy, and as such I had ultimate power. Power I, in this instance, chose to abuse. For $21.

Some player, whose name I will never know, will login to the game tonight, and discover what I’ve done. Maybe he or she’ll notice that their balance is at zero first, but more than likely their eye will be immediately drawn to that handful of red-tinged pixels. And they’ll wonder who, and why. They’ll watch the security tapes in which I rob their house again and again, and then, on the final occasion, walk directly to Mary, pause for nowhere near long enough, and…

$21.

In part two tomorrow, I’ll talk about how house/trap design and circumvention works in The Castle Doctrine.

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52 Comments »

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  1. deadly.by.design says:

    Would we feel just as bad if it were a husband?

    • Brun says:

      Oh god, here we go again.

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      JB says:

      I mis-clicked and instead of shooting the slavering pitbull running at me, I shot one of the kids. Then I had to run out of the door to escape said pitbull. I felt pretty bad.

    • NathanH says:

      Perhaps, perhaps not. It is deeply ingrained in my culture as a member of society in general that violence by me against women is intrinsically more reprehensible than by me against men. It is deeply ingrained in my culture as a video gamer that pretty much anything on the screen is fair game if it gives loot or experience.

      In my experience, my gaming culture wins out completely. It is plausible to me that other gamers will react differently though. With that in mind, and with the assumption that most of the players will be male, if the goal is to make killing the spouse a Dilemma, then making them female makes some sense.

      • The Random One says:

        I remember that one story about a guy who lovingly created a world in Neverwinter Nights (IIRC) for his old RPG buddies, with an intrincate forest ecosystem full of animals to prance and frolic around, and as soon as the players logged in they started killing the animals for XP.

        So yeah.

    • Strangerator says:

      Simply put, no you wouldn’t feel as bad about it. Despite cultural suppression, chivalry persists on some subconscious or DNA level, and men want to protect women when push comes to shove.

      It is well known that women are physically weaker than men because of how evolution made us, that’s not really in contention. If you are confused by this, I recommend not taking your human biology lessons from RPG character creators, but rather from physiology textbooks. The disturbing thing is the same people who want to eradicate this idea of chivalry also tend to be the same people who want to take guns away from law abiding citizens. To me, firearms help to correct some of nature’s iniquities in terms of physical disparity between say a male home-invader and a woman in her home. Maybe this is part of the game’s message, that if she were armed she’d be on equal footing at least?

  2. Kerbobotat says:

    This sounds morbidly fascinating. Is the current beta open or closed?

  3. 69stabcat says:

    I wish real money could get involved in this somehow. Maybe a two day scheduled instance that you buy into with limited robbery attempts per person per day. And it pays out at the end. I can’t imagine how intense and brutal that weekend would be. It messes up the wife mechanic though because, kill wives-> get real money is fucked up.

    • Phantoon says:

      Plurf. Smnf dug sjg.

      YOU WANT MICROTRANSACTIONS!?

      • Strangerator says:

        I think he’s talking about setting it up like a poker game, where everyone buys in at the beginning and then cashes out at the end. I’d definitely WATCH the high stakes games to see how creative people get when real money is on the line.

        • 69stabcat says:

          Yea everyone cashes out at the end with no percentage taken from the house.

          • Strangerator says:

            Yeah, at that point people would be probably trying to make sure they get the wife every time, but at that point winning real money would trump any immersiveness as people would all just play the mechanics of the game to maximize chances of winning.

            It’s much more disturbing that someone would kill for a FAKE 21 dollars. Yes Alec, SHAME ON YOU!

    • Tiax says:

      Only if they also put real wives and real children as well.

  4. Phantoon says:

    Yeesh. If it evokes such feelings, I’ll be skipping it. The mechanic sounds interesting, though.

  5. Berzee says:

    I removed a sprite for the sake of gold += 21.

    I removed a sprite.

    For gold += 21.

    I removed a sprite.

    • Berzee says:

      Now that I have read it more thoroughly I see that the money comes from another person’s balance, which means the true cost is gold -= 21 for another real human person.

      At least nobody died. =)

  6. Captain Joyless says:

    “I killed a woman for the sake of $21.

    I killed a woman.

    For $21.

    I killed a woman.”

    I’m pretty sure this is a song by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

  7. Berzee says:

    More constructively: this sounds interesting! I like most things Rohrer-style, and look forward to part two of this impression.

    The main concern for me (after Sleep is Death) is fear of wonky user interfaces.
    Any thoughts on how the UI here compares? Is it usable, or is it too clever by half again? =)

    (I never played his roguelike-thingum but that’s just because I tend not to play any/many top-down shooters, but those generally have minimal UI anyhow)

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      JB says:

      The UI is pretty simple, really. Could use a mouse scroll on the house screen (on your own house, at least). That said, I haven’t played it fullscreen, maybe the house view bit scales up.

  8. BurningPet says:

    I killed dozens in morrowind for the fun of it.

  9. dsch says:

    The dev thinks it’s a good idea to have guns in every house and made a game to illustrate this, and you’re surprised that he wouldn’t change his mind on woman=victim?

    • elfbarf says:

      What’s wrong with a woman being a victim? There’s an entire genre dedicated to shooting mans.

      • Canisa says:

        Yeah, but in that genre, they’re generally at least allowed to shoot back.

        • Geen says:

          To be fair, they’re shooting back at a person who can take hundreds of rounds and regenerate bullet wounds. They might as well have been unarmed. Hell, their melee tends to do more damage than the bullets!

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      Keirley says:

      I think you’re being really unfair here, for a lot of silly reasons, and you should feel silly as a result.

      • dsch says:

        No, I wasn’t entirely serious, but it would be helpful perhaps for you to lay out your position rather than just point and say ‘things are silly.’

  10. Premium User Badge

    Keirley says:

    This sounds really exciting. Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  11. Strangerator says:

    I’m a little confused at the decision to not separate homeowners from thieves.. is there a way to NOT be a thief in this game? It sounds like it pushes you to rob others in order to gather resources to not be robbed.

    • qrter says:

      A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?

    • Jason Rohrer says:

      To clarify, you don’t NEED to rob other people to gather resources in the game.

      Everyone who dies trying to rob your house drops their remaining tools in your vault, so those will build up over time if you design a really good house. You can sell some of them and get more money with which to make your house even better. I guess this is the Venus fly-trap approach. Even if you don’t intend to do this, it will happen while you sleep if you build a good house. Then you wake in the morning to find a vault full of stuff and a mound of security tapes to watch.

      But the temptation is still there…. that long list of potential houses to sneak into. You’ll at least want to poke in and look around, eh?

  12. Muffintop says:

    Sounds interesting, though more as some kind of puzzle game then study of morality as you make it seem. Heck, my first thought upon reading about how the wife carries cash was to find some way to use her as bait.

  13. crinkles esq. says:

    Was interested until I read the bit about women being portrayed as defenseless housewives. No thanks, caveman game developer. Women in the game may be there for a “thematic” purpose as you say, but that doesn’t make it any less of a gender bias to have them be the gender that needs protecting. It’s a shame, because otherwise the game is intriguing.

    • YeOldeSnake says:

      Okay, let’s pick one of the other 14 genders for that job then.
      The main demographic for the game (and its main characters) are males, who are more likely to care about and be motivated to protect a female spouse.
      It’s a work of fiction. I am pretty sure the developer’s thoughts were something different than “I shall add harmless housewives to my game in order to subliminally undermine the position of women in society”.
      Stop trying to involve sexism in everything.

      • crinkles esq. says:

        The main demographic for the game (and its main characters) are males

        Oh yea? You’ve done market research on this? That’s quite an assumption you’re making, as if it even matters, because surely some women will play this game. And when they start it up, the gender they identify with will be a helpless money dispensary. I’m not trying to go on some feminist rant here, but this kind of development choice reinforces a focus on the male gender in gaming which often isolates women from participating.

        And in terms of this specific game, if the game developer put women in the game in order to evoke attachment and an emotion of protection, then the developer should’ve let the player select their gender in order to instill the appropriate psychological bond with their little pixel family. But obviously the developer wasn’t thinking about how women might approach his design.

        • Reapy says:

          His game, his rules. Not all games have to cover all genders/races whatever especially with a real world cost to adding additional avatar costs. In addition, is it not then confusing when appraising a house for the ‘escapes with half the loot’ token didn’t look the same in every house.

          Really this whole article seems to be spending too much time on the theme here, do we not go off on games aren’t real every time they are blamed for causing real world violence? Why suddenly is this game super sexist because he didn’t didn’t add avatar customization?

          One person writing this, creating a game with different and interesting player interaction, that is what we should be looking at IMHO.

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            RobF says:

            “especially with a real world cost to adding additional avatar costs.”

            Out of curiosity, what would you estimate that cost to be in this case?

    • frightlever says:

      I see what you’re saying and I don’t want you to think I agree with you, but there is an irony to a slew of articles about not-objectifying women preceding this one, where women are allotted a very clear role. On the one hand as men we’re supposed to deny our base nature and pretend boobs aren’t great, on the other, make me a sammich, woman! It’s amusing. Part of the RPS meta-game.

    • mscottveach says:

      I’m confused. Are you claiming that women are equally equipped to defend themselves in the attack dog scenario? Or that they should be? Or you wish they were?

      You do realize that there is a difference between gender bias and gender differential, right? Women and men are different. It isn’t biased to recognize or represent that fact. Or at least, it isn’t biased to any sophisticated thinker.

  14. frightlever says:

    Meh. People are people. Having killed any amount of alien queens I see no need to worry about gender IN A GAME.

    “The Sleep Is Death developer has been entirely open about his (unusual among game developers) belief in the right to bear arms”

    Is it THAT unusual? I mean is it that unusual when the developer is in a country where bearing arms is fairly mainstream. I bet those COD guys are all over the right to bear arms. As a child of the 60s and 70s in Belfast I’m squarely anti-firearms in real life (having been involved in the legitimate gun trade and shot a greater variety of firearms than I was ever supposed to as an army cadet – but now that’s all over with I clearly don’t want anyone else having any fun) but if you’re brought up in a different culture I can see how the perceived, and entirely false, comfort of a warm gun might be intrinsic.

    I’m sniffy about Rohrer’s games in general but this looks interesting. I’d be approaching it as a cypher not as some hand-wringing dilemma though. I do wonder if these articles are being framed in a way to make games seem more than they are, and apparently people are prepared to buy into the idea. I play games for fun.

    I killed a woman.

    In a game.

    Then I killed her kids.

    For no good reason.

    Hey, they might have dropped golden coins.

  15. Jason Rohrer says:

    Yep, my gun views aren’t controversial in the US at all. I guess that should scare the UK folks even more.

    I don’t own any guns.

    After my pregnant wife was attacked by a vicious dog on a public street, I walked into a gun shop and considered buying a .38 special revolver loaded with rat shot (look it up) to use to slow down (not kill) dogs in the future. Pepper spray doesn’t work on them and tends to blow back in my face. Clubs require a hell of a lot of nerve in the moment (and I never got to practice, so who knows?).

    I didn’t buy a gun.

    So, a guy who considers buying a non-lethal gun, but doesn’t, after his wife is attacked has out there views? What, might I ask, do people in the UK consider after their wives are attacked? You all are acting like I have a whole closet full of assault rifles. If I’m scary as a non-gun-owner, you guys have no idea.

    Now, the gender issue.

    Are the heterosexual, non-single men here claiming that, when there’s a bump in the night at home, your female partner is sent to investigate while you stay safe in bed?

    When your pregnant wife is attacked, does she actively kick ass and defend herself? When you’re attacked, does your pregnant wife jump in to defend you?

    This has nothing to do with gender equality, and everything to do with what actually happens on the ground when something bad is happening.

    I feel like this is pretty much forced upon me, and I’m not particularly comfortable with this role. Like, why is this fair? But it’s there, and it’s real. I’m probably weaker than 80% of men (6’8″ and only 175 pounds), but I’ve got way more brute strength than my wife, and she’s pretty strong for a woman. The club that we got for dogs was too heavy for her to swing and use effectively. So, as this weak man, I’m STILL expected to protect my wife and family. That sucks, because I should really be running away at least 80% of the time if I was rational.

    Also, this is clearly a reflection of my personal experience. There are women who are way stronger than me and who wouldn’t want or need my weakling protection—I’ve just never had one as a partner.

    Also, this game takes place in 1993.

    Also, these game characters are just icons.

    • crinkles esq. says:

      Jason, first, thanks for replying here in the Den of Spiky Things. It’s certainly your prerogative as the designer to set up the narrative how you see fit. But those characters are not “just icons”, or you would have made them blobs or circles. They are representative of concepts, abstractions of human archetypes. I understand and have experienced being thrust forth by a female partner as the defender even though that’s not really on your CV — and I think that’s an interesting concept to explore in a game — but I think if that was the impetus for this game it doesn’t come through from how I’ve seen the gameplay described. (I’ve also had experiences with female partners who were quite ready to grab a kitchen knife after hearing the odd sound.)

      But to what was my main point — how women are portrayed in this game as defenseless damsels — I think that could be solved by offering a gender option for the player. If you choose man, you get the male avatar with a wife and kids to protect. If you choose woman, you get the female avatar with a husband and kids to protect. Or you could take that further and offer homosexual partner options.

      Perhaps that seems silly to you, or unnecessarily politically correct. But if a woman approaches your game, put yourself in her place. She has to play the strong, crafty, trap-laying male figure, and the character she might more readily identify with — the female avatar — has been reduced to a gender trope. And women get that defenseless-object-to-rescue trope enough in games already. Why shouldn’t females have the option to be the protector in your game as well? And as the creator of the game, don’t you want people to better identify with it and have these concepts you’re playing with resonate with them, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation?

      • mscottveach says:

        This is from weeks ago, but whatever… I get so sick of people thinking that every nuanced motivation behind a designer’s choices needs to be “represented in the game.” Jason’s explaining what motivated his choices on a forum because people want to know; just because he’s willing to do that doesn’t mean he was obligated to do that in the game.

        When are people going to stop using forcing their political ideologies on games? This assumption that game have some moral obligation to be a certain way, explore a certain thing, or to even exist at a certain level of sophistication is… unsophisticated.

        Players need to improve their ability to understand a game’s intent. There’s a reason why Ebert doesn’t review a Schwarzenegger movie with the same filter he would a Lars Von Trier flick.

    • dsch says:

      Yes, you are right. It is scary what passes for normal in the US. Also what passes for political discourse, like anecdotes disguised as information.

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      AlwaysRight says:

      I obviously don’t speak for everyone but alot of people here feel that civillians shouldn’t have access to guns AT ALL. You said you considered buying a gun as a reaction, the fact you COULD have just gone out and bought a gun as a reaction is pretty scary. Even if you ‘only’ had a non lethal gun to protect your wife from dogs, what if you missed the dog and shot an innocent person in the eye? What if your child got hold of your gun?

    • Chelicerate says:

      Nah, still sexist. Thanks for assuming I’m weak and helpless and need protecting.

  16. jamur says:

    Do you guys feel the same way with animal cruelty in Mario and Centipede games? Or feel conflicted about how the characters in Street Fighter is locked in perpetual street fighting where you can only be the puncher or the punchee. I cry everytime my unit in Age Of Empire dies, I think thats why I keeo losing. I also have been banned from playing Risk with my friends since I keep protesting the war in between turns. Rohrer, why are your characters young and able bodied? What about choice of skin colors. Also when you finally see your way and give us a choice of genders, make sure you also include a flag for cross dressing. So if I’m female cross dresser I want to be depicted similar to the current husband except for the pixel representing the crotch bulge. Or maybe include an option for pixel groin too because you never know if your user might be using a prosthetic.

    • frosty216 says:

      You’re ignorant, and you’re missing the point. Completely. They made guard DOGS. No guard lemurs, parrots, or koalas. Do the cats in the game even guard? I bet they’re just reduced to defenseless bystanders. How dare you (but, if they do attack players, then you seriously just said a cute domesticated kitty could ever actually kill someone? How dare you). They seriously took the noble canine community and stereotyped it into the only species that is vicious and aggressive enough to actually be considered a meat tearing sentry beast. As a dog, I have endured constant berating by the first person shooter community as nothing more than a kill-streak.
      I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone here that the thousands of games made in the past that have NOT been scrutinized for their portrayal of characters or providing the option of being able to play a eunuch OCD female person who works for the postal service and sometimes waitresses on Thursdays, should face judgement. Together, we can solve problems that don’t exist.

  17. jamur says:

    Have anyone else played the web based, blog-powered MMO Call of Modern Privilege: Outrage and Catharsis? I especially enjoyed the new DLC, “All the little things”.