The Castle Doctrine – What We Think
Two years in the making, The Castle Doctrine is the latest interactive conversation-starter from Passage developer Jason Rohrer. It shares its name with a legal ideology that encourages men to front implied violence with real violence in the case of home invasion.
That’s pretty much what the game is about – decorate a house with walls, traps, and pit bulls to protect your wife and two toddlers and then you gear up to raid other men’s possessions while murdering their wives and children. Given the charged subject matter, The Castle Doctrine has generated a backlash that ranges from supportive to outright antagonistic.
Get Them Before They Get You
Thankfully, the game is worthy of the controversy, in the sense that nothing about the design is accidental. The Castle Doctrine draws on a loaded philosophy rooted in paranoia, entitlement, and fear, so the fact that so many people have had such powerful reactions indicates that the game is operating more or less as intended.
That’s also why I’m going to offer an unequivocal recommendation. You shouldn’t let me tell you what to think. Play the game and form your own opinion. The Castle Doctrine deliberately invites analysis and is rich enough to reward whatever thought you’re willing put into it.
Just know that it won’t necessarily be a pleasurable experience.
The War at Home
The Castle Doctrine is punishingly complex, particularly in the early going. There’s no official tutorial (yet). You’re playing against everybody on the server, they’ll all have a considerable head start in terms of resources and information, and every mistake results in instant and permanent death that sets you back to zero.
It makes The Castle Doctrine extremely unwelcoming, emphasizing the ‘error’ in trial and error. It’s not immediately evident what a voltage-activated switch does or why you would want one, and since you are your own guinea pig – you have to be able to raid your own house without using any tools – the only way to find out is to subject yourself to your own traps. I lost count of the number of times I died in my house before ever setting foot in another.
The game just isn’t well-balanced, though it is broken in a relatively novel way. No individual has an inherent advantage. Every house can be cracked with the proper tools. If you’ve got enough money, you’re essentially Batman with a home invasion utility belt and an endless supply of blowtorches and crowbars.
To Steal Money, You Must Spend Money?
The trouble is that there’s not all that much noteworthy interaction with other players: The most effective houses typically employ some variation of the ‘magic dance,’ in which unseen pets trigger unseen traps, which is infuriating because there’s no way to solve the dance based on the information presented. Burglary seldom requires any skill, only the ability to spend money to get out of sticky situations.
The imbalance is deliberate, but it’s still the game’s most significant nuts-and-bolts mechanical flaw. The design frequently errs on the side of inaccessible. Many players simply won’t have the patience to stick with it for more than a few rounds, and while the game is still in open alpha/beta, Rohrer has indicated that the difficulty curve is likely to remain unchanged.
Take a Break, Then Re-Enter
Yet as frustrating as it is, I don’t think conventionally understood ‘best’ design practices would communicate the game’s themes as effectively; if most action games are about male power fantasies, then The Castle Doctrine is about impotence. It’s the anti-Viagra, a game that wants you to be aware of your own shortcomings within a domestic environment.
To that end, the home construction system is superlative, making it the hook that draws players deeper into the game. Safeguarding your house is like building an elaborate Rube Goldberg device out of barbed wire and Lego, offering a degree of modularity that resembles the sadistic offspring of Home Alone and Minecraft.
The Castle Doctrine is consequently a game for tinkerers. In the same way that someone might peruse the web looking for fondue recipes before entering the kitchen, The Castle Doctrine more or less demands that you engage with instructions outside of the game, whether it’s through the wiki, the forums, or YouTube.
Did I Lock The Back Door?
That’s Rohrer’s greatest trick – since construction is so engaging, you could easily get lost in the nuances of interior design and spend hours crafting intricate mazes and puzzles. The game wants you to think that your effort and ingenuity will allow you to outsmart the other players despite knowing full well that it’s impossible.
The game lulls you into a false sense of security where you forget that everything can disappear at a moment’s notice. In contrast to traditional MMOs, where longer hours translate directly to more status and loot, in The Castle Doctrine more playtime does not make you more secure, it only makes you more anxious, because you’re risking more of yourself every time you leave the house.
The game therefore asks you to trade a real-world resource – time – for virtual currency, and then seeks to make you painfully aware of how fleeting success can be. You might feel safe – perhaps even entitled – due to the time you’ve spent on renovations, but the reality is that you remain vulnerable at all times.
Provide versus Protect
The Castle Doctrine utilizes your ephemeral virility to inflict acts of crushing violation. When you lose a family member, you’re not mourning the loss of dear Belinda. You’re feeling the sting of countless ultimately futile hours. Death is the game’s way of telling you that you weren’t good enough, that despite all the time you spent building walls you will always be inadequate as a protector.
And while The Castle Doctrine is a game about men robbing other men, I think that message is relevant regardless of your preferred identity. Time is one of the few gender-neutral resources, insofar as no one likes having his or her time wasted. The anxieties at the game’s core could apply to any cohabiting relationship.
That’s not to dismiss the valid concerns that other writers have expressed. Rohrer’s insistence on traditional gender roles might needlessly alienate people from an already unwelcoming game, especially one that wouldn’t have lost its potency had it allowed a player to choose a family that best reflects his or her own reality.
Having said that, The Castle Doctrine is as interested in broader cultural dynamics as it is in the personal psychologies of familial responsibility, and gender is one of the many axes along which status gets distributed. Incidents like the Trayvon Martin shooting demonstrate that the threat of harm to property and person persists as a justification for violence in North America, and I’d argue that that at least makes masculinity relevant in an politicized game like The Castle Doctrine.
The Castle Doctrine examines the fallout from that me-against-the-Joneses ambition that incentivizes people to regard property as the tangible metric of earthly merit. In the process, it demonstrates how self-destructive such attitudes can be in practice.
The players with the most money – and hence the best tools – are able to victimize poorer players with impunity, creating a vicious class hierarchy within the online community. Newcomers are relegated to the bad part of town, while the established elite bunker down to fend off the upstarts looking to break into the ivory tower.
Using The Glass Ceiling as a Magnifying Glass
The stratification offers an intriguing parallel to the real world; the powerful prey on the weak because they can and the weak prey on each other because it requires less startup capital than riskier, more lucrative challenges. What’s sick, is that if you want to play, you have to opt into a system that places you at a disadvantage in direct opposition to other people. If you’re not willing to hustle, you constantly feel the full weight of that pyramid structure.
Should you endeavor to climb, you’re only giving more of yourself to an arbitrary system, and that’s what makes the game so compelling and so depressing. Inequality as a multiplayer design aesthetic isn’t fun for the people at the bottom, so it calls our own motivations and desires into question when we choose to play the game.
So no, The Castle Doctrine is not a normative endorsement of its namesake. It’s closer to a satire that implies that any form of entitlement – financial, gendered, or otherwise – is an impermanent and inherently meaningless measure of self worth. I didn’t enjoy playing it (it’s also subject to change because it’s not yet finished), but in this, his latest title, Rohrer utilizes interactivity to offer a bold critique of social norms and for that, I can appreciate it.
Should you disagree, you’re more than welcome to offer your own interpretation.