There is great pleasure to be had teasing out the contradictions and contrasts in what we love.
The fact that I love The Castle Doctrine, a multiplayer home-invasion game, makes me feel like A Very Bad Man – there are all sorts of ethical questions about exactly what I enjoy in it. So much so that I went off in search of other fans, simply for reassurance, and soon enough I was watching Welsh Youtuber Aavak extolling the virtues of what he cheerfully describes as “the world’s premiere wife-killing simulator.” This is of course a joke, and not one the game’s creator, Jason Rohrer, would necessarily approve of.
The Castle Doctrine is, of course, named after a set of legal principles inspired by the old English saying, “a man’s home is his castle”. These principles basically permit the use of force (up to and including deadly force) in the defence of private property. The game takes this idea to Acme-like extremes, casting you as the dungaree-clad head of a nuclear family and requiring you to build a house to protect your wife, children, and a vault containing all your cash. Protect them from what? From thousands of other players who, when you’re not online, will try to burgle your online fortress.
You can play as one of these burglars yourself, of course, but what makes The Castle Doctrine a powerful and occasionally upsetting game is that it explores the consequences of home ownership. In a big way. If you die, you’re dead. That's it. You have to start over. It doesn’t matter how big your house was, or if you were just testing some wiring, or if you didn’t mean to press that key. If a burglar enters your home and kills your wife, she’s dead forever, and the same for your children. If traps are damaged and you can’t afford to repair them, that’s that. Whether taking that step across someone’s threshold, or placing a powered trapdoor, every decision matters.
The game has not been uncontroversial in, first of all, making the player assume the role of a white family man – giving the option to play as a black character or a woman would only require a palette-swap or sprite change, after all. Here it feels a little like Rohrer’s past is catching up to him – a previous work, Passage, presented marriage as a sort of parasitic compromise. But this time around the criticism may – may – be misplaced.
Firstly, Rohrer’s stated goal is to evoke the fag end of the Reaganite 1980s, a time when his father and many others were investing heavily in expensive home-security systems, and that very concept of the nuclear family was being clenched tight. This avatar, in other words, has a reason to be a white male beyond being the default option.
More importantly, many players have come to believe that, because developers can offer players a choice of avatar, that they are therefore obliged to. Though the principle underlying this opinion is good and true, it does conflate avatars with characters – and videogames can feature either. In The Castle Doctrine, despite the abstraction and the lack of narrative progression, this pixel figure is undoubtedly intended as a character, or at the very least a caricature. And it is far from a positive one.
Gain and loss
The Castle Doctrine is about hoarding, it is about greed, and it is about what these two things together will do to a mind. The best example of this is a player with the in-game name of Charles Davis Clarke (each time you start a new character, which is frequent, the game randomly assigns you a triple-barreled name – reminiscent of how the media refers to political assassins and serial killers). This character’s house has been present since I started playing the game over a month ago.
Once upon a time, this was clearly the greatest house in The Castle Doctrine; every wall was made out of concrete, the most expensive building material, and every inch of floor space was devoted to traps. Once upon a time Charles Davis Clarke was clearly a very rich man indeed.
Now the house sits steady at a value of around $700. Almost nothing. When you enter, there are dead dogs all around – some clubbed, some crippled at the bottom of pits. Electricity can only be conducted through wooden walls, one of The Castle Doctrine’s little foibles, and the power supplies throughout the house have been dug out, turning it into a giant concrete maze of burrows and unpowered traps. Charles Davis Clarke’s vault, ever-empty, sits in the middle of a checkerboard of pits, surrounded by the bodies of deceased canines.
In its lifetime, 2,992 players have visited this house, and 643 of those died therein. Whatever was in that vault, and there’s no way of knowing now, was worth tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of burgling tools, possibly hundreds of thousands. The fact that the gutted house still stands means that Charles Davis Clarke, after this robbery, didn’t start afresh – he just stopped playing, leaving behind what was once his pride and joy as a monument to greed.
Everyone is trapped
The Castle Doctrine gives its players, again and again, miserable endings and blank slates. No fortress lasts forever. No family does, either. The power of this can be remarkable enough to make players simply give up. The mechanical theme is simple: one false step is never retrieved. But this breeds paranoia in the player, a grim knowledge of the extreme lengths others will go to and – most brilliantly – an increasing artfulness. Houses that scare off burglars with obvious traps, though they may stop you being robbed for a time, don’t pay for their own upkeep.
The goal becomes to build a digital flytrap, a house that can lure in even the most wary burglar too far before they’ve realised any mistake. It is about assessing what kind of room layout tempts in potential victims, what red flags warn people away, what will lull them toward making that single, fatal error. This is a strange skill to hone on real opponents, albeit in such a heavily abstracted form. It is clearly something that, before his day of reckoning, Charles Davis Clarke had mastered. And what makes it irresistible are the videotapes.
The Castle Doctrine lets you watch. After the event, of course, and sometimes the videos are only a few frames of a burglar stepping forwards, then back, then out – but every so often a videotape comes with a telltale "skull" mark and the bounty you received for bagging that burglar.
Watching people fall for your traps is sheer schadenfreude and, even more than that, a special reward for the many times before this – and the many times in the future – you will fail to protect your family and your vault. In playing The Castle Doctrine you must accept that eventually it will all go wrong. But watching the videos lets you sit back, and think: "Not today, punk".
The opposite is also true. The worst part of The Castle Doctrine, without a doubt, is watching the tape of how you were robbed. The recording will often include images of that particular burglar killing your wife or one of the children. Very few videogames make me squeamish, or angry, but despite the abstract nature of the visuals and the turn-based action, this is one. I posted a few Youtube videos while exploring the game – and an hour or two after posting one, a burglar entered my house with exactly the tools required to kill my wife and no more. Which he did, before stepping back-and-forth across the corpse a few hundred times.
That’s strange behaviour, isn’t it? That’s The Castle Doctrine all over. So much of current gaming discourse is centered around – and this is not a criticism – social justice, about improving the way we interact with and treat each other in these uncharted virtual frontiers. This context means that unblinkered examinations of human nature can seem archaic or even deliberately controversial; but there is little enticement toward immorality inherent in The Castle Doctrine’s mechanics. Players behave like this because they enjoy it.
That is why, far more so than the brilliantly understated pixel art, The Castle Doctrine is a disturbing game. You could argue that, because your wife will sometimes try to run out of the house with half your cash, that is incentivising players to kill her. Fair enough. But the two children don’t do this – and yet I’ve had burglars who clearly entered the house just to target them. It puts me in mind of the Misfits track Last Caress, where the point is not the literal meaning of the words, or the actions suggested, but their capacity to offend the average listener.
Early in his career Jason Rohrer crafted the self-image of an "arty" game developer – the kind of guy who spoke about the medium’s potential constantly, concentrating on big ideas like burying a game in the desert, and always trumpeting games-as-art. The medium’s onwards march has made such a stance age fast.
It’s fascinating therefore that The Castle Doctrine’s design derives power not from a mechanical gimmick or a meta-narrative, but from the actions of its players. The brutal world thus created has much artifice to it, but no morals beyond what you decide, and great unhappiness for a lot of its inhabitants. If the purpose of art is to hold a mirror to reality, this might be Rohrer’s first major work.
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