Dropsy – What We Think:
Dropsy, both the titular character and the game itself, seems like a tasteless joke. Dropsy isn’t just a clown; he’s coulrophobia personified. From his wordless grunts and moans to his gap-toothed rictus grin to his make-up – the lips are an exact replica of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s “Pogo the Clown” persona – he seems designed to terrify. And all he wants to do his hug everybody.
Despite all that (not to mention the fact that developer Jay Tholen, a.ka. Tendershoot, started the project on the forums of Something Awful), Dropsy isn’t a joke. If anything, it takes the gag of the unintentionally scary clown and plays it absolutely straight. If you can get past the protagonist’s nightmarish appearance – and admittedly, that’s a big “if” for anyone scared of clowns – you’ll find Dropsy’s unflagging innocence and kindness heartwarming, rather than disturbing.
Clowning Around Town
The meat and bones of the game entail doing kind deeds for people via a fairly standard point-and-click interface. The big difference is that Dropsy can’t really understand English, so “conversations,” as such, are indicated by pictographic images. A character who is sad, for example, will express that via an image of a sad-faced person being rained upon.
Another interesting element is Dropsy’s seemingly unique ability to communicate with animals. You’ll start off with a dachshund friend and gather more animal companions along the way. You’ll need to use them to solve certain puzzles; your dog is great at digging holes, and the bird and mouse you’ll eventually encounter can both get to places Dropsy can’t reach or fit into.
Perchance to Dream
The game also features a day/night cycle. NPCs move around, disappear and reappear, so you’ll need to pay attention to the time of day to finish certain quests. This gives the game more of an open world feel without making things too complicated.
If it’s the wrong time of day, you can always take a nap, giving you the chance to explore one of Dropsy’s dreams – or one of his nightmares…
Tears of a Clown
While the game’s plot points are pretty typical for the point-and-click adventure genre, it’s the emotional aspect to them that gets you. Despite the whimsical and even psychedelic presentation of the game (scenes of Dropsy’s nightmares are pixel-art renditions of the proverbial “bad trip”), there are elements of gritty, real-world poignancy as well. A lot of the people Dropsy encounters are homeless, substance abusers and other people rejected from mainstream society.
Of course, Dropsy’s own situation is similarly poignant. He just wants friends, and – apart from the animals – most people seem to run from him, and he can’t understand why. Take away the clown make-up, and Dropsy himself is an obvious metaphor for adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities. He’s illiterate, apparently nonverbal, poor at interpreting social cues, and prone to doling out inappropriate hugs.
Whether or not this was Tholen’s original intent, the game does provoke questions about how society treats adults with disabilities, and whether or not we could be doing a better job of it. At the very least, it raises the question of whether it’s such a great idea for Dropsy’s father – himself himself a former circus performer who still sports green Bozo-style tufts on either side of his bald head – to let his grown son wander around town in full clown ensemble.
Clown Control to Major Tom
Of course, it’s not all mopey meditations on urban blight and disability rights. There’s also a lot of sheer whimsy and weirdness, from martini-mixing security robots to UFOs to hippie communes apparently founded on the principle of praying to Thor for protection from Bela Lugosi. And as you progress in the game, the quests start to get weirder and more science fiction-inspired.
The game’s art and music style helps a lot to keep the proper balance of surrealism and pathos. The pixel art graphics style keeps the more horrifying elements (including Dropsy himself) from being too distractingly realistic. And the music is perfect. Composed by Chris Schlarb, best known in the indie game world for his work on NightSky, it’s all MIDI and chiptunes, but incorporating everything from jazz to reggae to rock.
You’ll also find cassette tapes scattered around the environment. Listen to them on the various stereos you’ll encounter – they’ll also play at random during driving scenes once you acquire a vehicle – and you’ll find chiptune equivalents of obvious genres like hard rock, but also obscure stuff like industrial noise, riot grrrl and drum n’ bass.
Tune In, Clown Around, Dropsy Out
At the minimum, Dropsy is a solid adventure game for point-and-click fans. Its puzzles are challenging enough that even genre veterans might have to occasionally pause to check a walk-through, but logical enough that casual players can figure them out, too.
What makes the game so memorable, though, is its heart. The developer was already walking a tightrope just keeping the balance between schmaltz (i.e. subplots about sad animals and homeless people) and high weirdness (movie cultists, UFOs and alien artifacts). Making everything revolve around a scary-looking clown, and the odds of even finding an audience – let let alone pleasing one – seem insurmountable.
Regardless of the challenge, Tholen has succeeded admirably. Dropsy tells a memorable story, both heartfelt and bizarre, and all the more impressive for the sincerity with which it treats a seemingly obvious joke of a protagonist.
Dropsy is available via Steam and GOG.com.
Watch the trailer for Dropsy below: