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The Castle Doctrine Review: Home Invasion at its Worst

Platform: PC
Developer: Jason Rohrer
Publisher: Jason Rohrer
Release Date: 1/29/14

 

The Castle Doctrine wants to teach me a lesson. It wants to challenge my views, force me into uncomfortable roles, and give me cause to reconsider my every move. It wants to be evocative and deep. It wants to change me.

But, like a dark poem written by a pretentious high schooler,all it does is confuse me, leaving me directionless as I attempt to make sense of its awkward and bare bones design instead of considering its heavy subtext.

The game begins in a blank grey space containing your wife, two children, a vault containing $2000, and only one directive: create a home that will protect the vault and allow for your family to safely escape in the event of a home invasion. To construct this home, you’re given all manner of building materials and equipment, including walls, trap doors, switches, pits, and even guard dogs.

This is where things start to go bad very, very quickly. Saying the game merely hands you the tools with no explanation is almost an understatement. You’re all but dropped in, with no idea whatsoever about how things function or any strategies that should be employed. Consulting an online wiki was the only way I was even initially able to understand how this game should be played, and really the only way to improve your home and protect it from future invaders is to go into other created homes and borrow their ideas and strategies.

But herein lies the biggest problem: in order to complete your home and upload it to the server for the opportunity to scope out the homes of others, you first have to go through the house in a “self test” to prove that the puzzle is solvable without the use of any tools. This is a fair way to assure that decent level design is being employed and to prevent impossibly difficult homes from being created, but any accidental failure in this self test results in a complete and total refresh that kills you, wipes everything clean, and forces you to start all over again in the same blank grey room. All that time you spent working on your home, finely tuning everything contained within to ensure that your murder puzzle was as top notch as possible? Gone. Every last wall, dog, and electric floor grate. It’s game over in the most gut-wrenching way possible.

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What is to be learned from this? Why would one be so brutally punished for a seemingly small mistake? Am I to be ashamed, to snap my fingers in disappointment and merely start over again with a smile on my face? No. This isn’t just a consequence that results because of my actions; it’s punishment for doing nothing wrong, and its repercussions ultimately make this game a grueling task to endure.

Once you have successfully uploaded your home to the server as an open invitation for players to attempt to crack, you’ll then have the options of either watching the security tapes in your home to see players attempt to crack your murder puzzle or don a black mask and attempt to go after the vault of a fellow sadist.

Watching as people attempt to solve your puzzle can be entertaining in its own right, and there’s definitely some satisfaction to be gleaned when seeing players give up in frustration and leave your home for an easier experience. Constant changes and tweaks can be made to try and challenge people further, and it’s always rewarding to see your malicious design manifest itself in true form. But you don’t watch any of this play out in real time. Instead, it all happens off-screen and the success or failure is merely recorded so you can watch the playback later. Therefore, if you’re not one to try and hone your home invasion skills and would rather monitor your own fortress, you’ll find yourself uneventfully staring at screens for dreadfully long pauses. Very few people would ever say they enjoy doing nothing in a video game, and when I had moments to break and check my Twitter feed in between scanning security tapes, I became very aware of how egregiously out of the experience I had been taken.

Attempting to rob another person’s home is problematic for the same reason as conducting the self-test, as death in one of these homes results in completely wiping everything you’ve created and forcing you to start all over again from the beginning. It’s because of this knowledge that working your way through a home feels less like a puzzle and more of a tiresome exercise in anxiety, leaving you gingerly pacing the halls like a child balking at the idea of jumping into a cold swimming pool. You’ll test a few things and feel everything out, but rarely commit to really solving anything without ever exploring it several times over. The risk is so high that it deters players from actively engaging the game the way a puzzle should be solved, thus leaving you in an experience that is painfully challenging with very little satisfaction involved.

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The Castle Doctrine also has an awkward insistence on forcing you to care about your pixelated family that feels like it should be hard-hitting, but only ever feels like more odd incomplete thoughts in a game that never pulls itself together. All three of your family members are given randomly-generated names, and there’s nothing to stop intruders from going after and clubbing your wife to death to steal some of the money she carries on her person should they feel a bit of bloodlust on that fateful day.

Finding her body on the floor in a pool of blood should be disturbing. It should resonate with me, horrify me, and be troubling to my very core. I should feel a sense of loss and failure. But I don’t. All I feel is annoyance that her corpse now blocks the way of one of the children, forcing me to make yet another modification to my home so they can all escape, which then triggers another one of those tedious self-tests that must be conducted if I want to play the game with others again. Giving characters a name doesn’t mean that I will suddenly see them as humans and feel attached to them. There is certainly something to be learned from the effects of permadeath of characters in a game such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but the key difference between the deaths of those characters and the deaths of these is that I actually spent time with and grew to appreciate the characters in XCOM, thus making their deaths a troubled consequence that came as a direct result of my actions. The people in The Castle Doctrine are merely little colored blocks that only factor into the greater puzzle I’m meant to construct. I’m never given any deeper reason to care about them, and this only feels like an awkward exploit of my emotions toward family.

The Castle Doctrine wants to teach me something here. I can really almost see the game straining, nudging me painfully in the ribs with its sharp elbows as it bludgeons me over the head with its strange and muddled themes. But they’re lost on deaf ears. Because in order for me to learn anything, I need to care about it in the first place, or at least feel compelled to want to protect what I own in preservation of some reward. But there is no reward to be earned. There is no end game, no payoff, no satisfying loop that keeps me coming back for more. I’m only deterred, annoyed by the tedious and vapid nature of a game that quite literally insults me by punishing me in favor of its seemingly forced themes. The Castle Doctrine wants to teach me a lesson, but the only thing I’ve learned is that I have no desire to play this game ever again.



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