It’s officially summer, and for me that means staying indoors to avoid sweat and sunburn. I treated myself to some video games at the Steam Summer Sale, and on a lark I got Octodad: Dadliest Catch (for a whopping $4). The premise of the game is that you are an octopus posing as a human.
Yes, that’s what I said.
I’m a little late to the party since the game came out in January (and to Playstation Network in April) but allow me to tell you, from my humble feminist perspective, why this game is amazing. (Avast, here there be spoilers.)
1. Violence is not the objective; it’s considered a failure.
You don’t defeat your enemies by killing them. The main antagonist is a chef who wants to expose Octodad, but the conflicts are resolved by foiling his plans, escaping, or through talking it out and forgiving him.
But it’s not just dealing with enemies that makes this game nonviolent. The controls (moving each leg individually, and grabbing things with one arm) are delightfully silly, so there is inevitably some flailing. A lot of the fun is actually derived from the slapstick comedy of knocking things over and tripping on banana peels. It’s even possible to hit and bump into people, which could potentially be exploited by awful people with awful humor. But the game punishes that behavior.
At one point in the game, I was leading the daughter, Stacy, through the aquarium, and the textures glitched a little so I was stuck in a corner with her standing on top of me. I tried to wiggle the controls and get free, and I ended up bopping her on the head with my octopus arm. I ended up doing that too many times, and I failed the level because I hurt my daughter.
2. Non-traditional family
All of the (human) family members are white, and on the surface it seems pretty heteronormative: a husband and wife with two children in a suburban house. But it’s slightly more complicated.
The mom, Scarlet, is an investigative journalist, and since it’s never stated that Octodad has a job, it’s implied that she’s the breadwinner and dad stays home with the kids. During breakfast she chats happily about exposing corruption and going out on assignment. Most of Octodad’s objectives are parenting and household tasks, like bringing your daughter some milk, or playing games with your son. There’s also some passing dialogue (albeit in gibberish octopus burbles) where you answer your daughter’s question about where babies come from.
It’s also worth noting that Octodad is technically an undocumented immigrant. During a flashback level, you learn about how he washed up on a ship and stowed away to pose as a human. He can’t hire a Social security card replacement service or have a birth certificate, because he’s literally an octopus. Much of his anxiety about visiting the aquarium stems from the fear that marine biologists will discover him and put him in a tank, and a good deal of strategy goes into avoiding their scrutiny. While the game is very, very silly, players are generally invested in not wanting Octodad to be separated from his family, so the issue is treated with some seriousness.
The game also deals with some themes of “coming out,” and finding acceptance from loved ones. It isn’t made clear whether his family knows he’s an octopus or not until the end, when the chef confronts them with the truth. His wife is relieved– saying she had been imagining far worse explanations for his strange behavior. His daughter claims to have known the whole time.
Throughout the game I found myself wondering how a woman and an octopus could have children. And in the very last scene, the game breaks the fourth wall to address that issue when the son, Tommy, asks that exact question. But Scarlet and Octodad just laugh it off. Suddenly it hit me: it’s kind of a plot hole, but it’s also none of my business. Just like anyone else’s gender presentation or reproductive choices.
3. Possible metaphors for anxiety, invisible illness, adulthood, impostor syndrome and more!
The idea that everyone could discover I am a secret octopus is strangely relate-able. I feel that way when I go to have my taxes done, or at job interviews, or frankly, whenever I get credited for my writing. As an introvert who gets intense anxiety over mundane phone calls to the bank, or accidentally being touched by strangers on the street, the struggle to appear normal in everyday situations is a very satisfying objective for a game — mainly because it’s fun and validating to see those tasks treated as difficult.
Your first task in the game, for example, is to get ready for your wedding day. You get dressed and walk down the aisle (awesome gender role reversal, by the way, as your wife is already waiting for you at the altar) and the floor is littered with banana peels. People start to look at you and mutter, and the more you goof up this normal task of walking in a straight line, the more they stare and whisper. At least in the game (as opposed to real life) you can do it over and over again until you get it right– not like all of those times in real life I’ve said “You too!” when people wished me happy birthday, or gotten off of an elevator on the wrong floor.
The game was originally crowd-funded, proving that many people are hungry for the developers’ (Young Horses) vision of “innovative, intelligent, and charming entertainment that can be enjoyed by both children and adults.” Maybe somebody should tell that to Ubisoft. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bonus achievements to unlock.
(photos accompanying this review are © Young Horses Inc.)