Young Horses, Inc

It may not look like it, but Octodad may be one of the sadder, more thought-provoking games at PAX

It may not look like it, but Octodad may be one of the sadder, more thought-provoking games at PAX

Imposter syndrome is the feeling of being a fake. It makes people feel that they didn’t earn of the success or good things in their life, and others are going to find out about this fraud. It’s a mixture of crippling self-doubt with the idea that nothing you have was earned, and it was all just a matter of luck. That’s how I felt when playing Octodad, the upcoming game where you’re an octopus trying to pass for a man, and you’re forced to hide your identity while trying to create a happy home environment for your human wife and kids.

“Our goal was to make things that are very mundane, like cleaning up and putting things away, and tucking your kids in, and making that a challenge,” Philip Tibitoski, the CEO of Young Horses, Inc. told me. “You’re a character with no bone structure.”

Well, shit. There goes my deep analysis.

A character with an existing history

The original version of Octodad was created when the team were students. It was released for free, and the game’s goofy theme and odd control scheme gained some underground buzz and a dedicated fan base. Some members of the Octodad team went off to join “big name” companies, while the rest stayed to work on adding more meat to the concept, polishing it up, and releasing it as a commercial game.

The idea of an octopus pretending to be a human being, complete with a wife and children, is odd. The game plays up that oddity by asking you to do simple things. You wake up and turn off your alarm. You make coffee. There is yard work to do. You also have a next door neighbor who knows you are an octopus and tries to kill you. Standard suburban stuff.

You control Octodad with your mouse, and it’s not easy. Your left mouse button is his left leg-like tentacle, the right mouse button is his right tentacle. You click a button, drag the leg forward, and then do the same for the next. With some practice you can walk quickly, but you’ll always feel awkward and scared of knocking things over as your tentacles flop around. “The game we’re most often compared to is QWOP,” Tibitoski said. Octodad isn’t quite so challenging, but the similarities are certainly there.

You take control of Octodad’s arm-tentacles by clicking the middle mouse button to toggle arm controls, and then holding the left mouse button to move the tentacle on the horizontal axis, or you can move around the vertical axis with the right mouse button. Once you get used to the controls you can use your floppy tentacles to manipulate the game’s objects in 3D space, but if you do so inexpertly you’ll be knocking over plates, slapping others in the head, and in general making a scene out of yourself. The more you mess up, the more people will suspect the fact that you’re not a happy, loving man, but in fact an octopus. It’s terrifying.

Nobody suspects a thing

“We learned, from the first game, about implied fear,” Majdi Badri, one of the game’s designers, said. There is a sequence where you have to keep the spiders from reaching your child, and players often end the sequence with a high level of suspicion due to missing a few spiders.

Once the spiders have been defeated, there is no way to raise any more suspicion, but players found themselves tip-toeing out of their child’s room anyway. When you’re this awkward, every situation is intimidating and scary. You’re desperate not to do the wrong thing in order to avoid suspicion.

The control system may be high-concept, and the creation of controls that give the player the sense of awkwardness while still allowing them to be precise is one of the greatest achievements of the team, but the real strength of the game is the fact that Octodad is relatable. Is there anyone out there who has been in a situation where they were in constant fear of doing or saying the wrong thing? Or in a situation where they felt like they were out of place and didn’t want attention called to that fact? Young Horses has created a game where a ladder can be a legitimate boss battle, and the stakes feel immense. That’s not easy.

You can download the original for free to try the controls for yourself, and I really do think they’re something special. This latest version should be arriving in 2013, and you can vote for the game now on Steam Greenlight if you want to help the team’s chances of being sold on Valve’s service. I think you should.

Octodad is what happens when you gamify social anxiety, and cushion the blow with one of the more sympathetic heroes in the industry. Some people may be trying to save the world, but Octodad just wants to be happy with his family. It’s not so much to ask, and being a cephalopod may not be much of a dark secret, but the character is a receptacle for anything you’re trying to hide. The game is both fun and funny, but that only gets you halfway. Whether it’s imposter syndrome, social anxiety, hiding something, or just feeling like sometimes you give something your best and it’s not enough… Octodad taps into a deep primal fear of being something that’s “other” and trying to hide it. When you combine innovative controls, pleasant aesthetics, with a universal sense of fear you end up with a great game. I can’t wait to play the whole thing.