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Octodad meets Kinect: How one of the funniest games ever is finding new legs

"Loving Father. Caring Husband. Secret Octopus."

Any doubts you may have harbored about the comedic value of Octodad -- the latest project from the increasingly acclaimed DePaul Game Development program -- were almost certainly abandoned after reading the tagline above. Cold souls in need of further convincing only need spend a few minutes with the free indie title to realize its genius. Everyone else is probably dead, or born without a sense of humor, which some might argue to be worse.

Octodad doesn't rely on shortsighted bursts of wit, wordplay or other pre-programmed gags to arouse laughter. Its humor is emergent -- the very act of wobbling the cephalo-protagonist between his patronly objectives simply is funny. Rather, it was funny.

Now that the game's collegiate developers have followed through with their plan to infuse the game with Kinect support, Octodad has reached a plane of comedy few other titles have even approached.

The development team behind Octodad -- comprised of 18 students representing the school's different concentrations (such as Design and Programming) -- will debut a tech demo of the game's new Kinect functionality at GDC. Fortunately, they afforded me a chance to play the demo at their DePaul campus lab, allowing me to confidently assert that controlling an octopus pretending to be a human using only my body is an infinitely enjoyable exercise.

"The idea was originally a joke, based on another idea that was a joke that came about through the frustration of us not being able to come up with something original"- Phillip Tibitoski, programmer

Though Octodad posseses eight appendages, players really only uses two -- their arms. While in movement mode, each arm is assigned to one of Dad's tentacular-fake-man-legs, forcing the player into humiliating, Rumba-esque motions to move our hero about the environment. If a player quickly lifts a leg, the game switches to grab mode, where the player's right arm manipulates one of Octodad's writhing tendrils and the left arm is used to make said tendril clutch and release objects.

Inventing this control scheme was the most difficult step in implementing the new controls, according to DePaul undergrad and Octodad gameplay programmer Phillip Tibitoski.

"It was somewhat easier than I thought it would be on the technical side," Tibitoski said, "but then, when you start getting into the design of it, it gets a little difficult. You kind of have to pick these motions carefully, because you don't want people to come across them accidentally while they're doing other things. I think that's kind of been the biggest challenge -- that and finding a place where the game is still as frustratingly fun as we want it to be, but not so difficult that it drives players nuts."

The tech demo is set in one room of Octodad's abode, replete with toys primed for your clumsy interaction. Darts can be lacksidasically lobbed into the wall, towers of cardboard boxes can be dismantled and chucked about the room, a soccer ball can be kicked past the defense of your (unaware, humanoid) son. As shallow and brief as these activities are, each is just as "frustratingly fun" as Tibitoski and the rest of the Octodad team had hoped.

For now, checking out the demo on the GDC show floor is the only way you'll get to experience the magic of Kinect-controlled Octodad in the foreseeable future. The title's producer, DePaul grad student John Murphy, explained that the team is only trying to test the waters of the motion-based market before starting on a fully-formed commercial release.

"Basically, we want to try to prove that Octodad is a good fit for motion controls of some sort," Murphy explained, "and that's all that we wanted to show at GDC. Well, in addition to having a spot on the expo floor where people are waving their arms around and looking like idiots. That'll be fun."

Murphy added that "about half" of the game's original development team has plans to move on to join the triple-A talent pool -- but the other half hopes to incorporate into an indie company that could focus on developing a motion-based Octodad title.

"That's probably where we'd like to push [new Octodad titles] through," Tibitoski added. "We also have a lot of other interesting ideas stored away that we'd like to explore for future games."

Those are big plans for the series' humble beginnings as an extracurricular project coordinated by two of the school's advisors in the wake of the success of DePaul's last game, Devil's Tuning Fork. The two must have a pretty good idea of what they're doing -- much like its predecessor, Octodad has been selected to appear in the IGF Student Showcase, one of the highest honors college-created games can receive.

"Our team is clearly insane."- John Murphy, producer

Developing any game deserving of that honor is demanding work -- particularly when piled upon the classwork that all college students must ubiquitously suffer.

"Over the summer, we came in at least five days a week," Tibitoski explained, "and I'd say at the least, six hours; at the most, ten to twelve hours a day. During school, sometimes it was just as much, but for the most part, it was down to people to come in whenever they were available."

"With 20 people trying to convey these ideas to each other, every day, while we're wrestling with each other's schedules, there were a couple points in time where we were all going a little crazy," he added.

Of course, it was out of this very stress that the near-inconceivable concept behind Octodad was ... well, conceived.

"The idea was originally a joke, based on another idea that was a joke that came about through the frustration of us not being able to come up with something original, initially," Tibitoski explained.

"We were just in this room trying to figure out how to make these other ideas work in a way that was satisfying," Murphy added. "Then I was like, 'How about we make a game about a man piloting another man from inside his head, with awkward controls and flopping around?' And then we watched videos from Jurassic Park: Trespasser, which is an accidentally funny game that has similar, awkward arm controls and physics-based stuff. We thought there was something compelling about it."

With the "wobbly controls" idea set firmly in their minds, making the leap from a man-vessel to an octopus -- widely regarded as nature's wobbliest animal -- was simple. The invention of his role as a make-pretend father, though, required the combined brainpower of the entire team.

"When they brought the pitch to the rest of the team," Tibitoski said, "the rest of the team was like, 'Maybe he has a family; maybe he has a job; maybe he has kids.' From there, we just kind of ran with it for an hour and half, shooting out ideas of what it is he could possibly do."

"It seems like a lot of the team is just incredibly goofy," Murphy observed. "Those kind of serious, physics-based games are neat, but our team is clearly insane. We decided to do something where the team could feed off the concept and the other way around. Everyone just has this ability to shut off their brains and say completely insane stuff back and forth. Being in that room with 15 people, all joking around at once with no filter is just hilarious."

Ultimately, a clear line can be drawn between the emergent, ceaseless humor of Octodad and a roomful of colleagues and friends attempting to entertain one another for hours on end. Hopefully, a win in the IGF Awards' "Best Student Game" category would send a message to other, more mainstream entities in the gaming industry: If a simliar roundtable isn't happening while you're developing your titles, you're not doing it right.

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