Free for All: The Castle Doctrine takes griefing and grieving to a new level

The Castle Doctrine screenshot

The Castle Doctrine, the new pseudo-MMO by indie star Jason Rohrer, asks players to fill the shoes of a paranoid home owner who needs to protect his wife, kids, and home at almost any cost. Even the title of the game is based on a law that states that a person has the right to use force to defend personal space or abode, which should help you understand what Rohrer is trying to create. If you look at his official blog, you'll find out that his family was the victim of a dog attack while living in a New Mexico neighborhood. His experiences led to the creation of this art project.

In the game, players build up home defenses but also try to break into neighbor's houses, dodging menacing dogs and traps. Imagine a game that plays a bit like tower defense with permadeath: If you are unsuccessful in breaking in to a house, you have to start over with a brand-new home and family. Of course, the title has brewed plenty of controversy, especially considering that you can play only as a man and that the highest in-game payout comes when you murder someone else's wife. The game is a man-on-man murder simulation where the woman and children are all property.

The Castle Doctrine screenshot

Of course, Rohrer has made the case that, as in previous titles, The Castle Doctrine is a personal art game, one that is supposed to allow the player to walk around in his tiny digital shoes. It's similar to an independent movie with a specific leading man who goes through a specific experience, but many argue that the open, connected nature of the game automatically takes away from the specificity of the premise. Players cannot chat or message each other in the game, and there is no interaction on the massive scale that we've grown to love in most MMOs, but the game does shine a light on how players interact in any multiplayer game. We've all been the victim of griefing or other players' poor behavior before, but does the griefing-based gameplay of The Castle Doctrine detract from the explanation of being the victim of real-life crime?

There are several ways to look at a game like The Castle Doctrine. Personally, I see it as yet another indie game that gets much more attention than it deserves. Games like The Castle Doctrine garner mainstream website coverage from sites that hardly poke a nose into the massive world of indie games. You'd be hard-pressed to find a major website (other than this one, of course!) that covers indie MMOs, unless they come out in a small storm of controversy like The Castle Doctrine has. In other words, the hype is generally larger than the game.

It's also obvious how much of the game and its backstory could be taken the "wrong" way. I have as much of an issue with the creator's real-life shock at seeing people who openly carried firearms and at large dogs chained in neighborhood yards as I did with the fact that he was literally placing a price on digital loved ones. The whole project feels like the result of a bad high school field trip to the rougher area of town or like watching an episode of Beyond Scared Straight. Rightfully, many players have taken issue with the fact that the only way to play the game is as a man who is protecting his "property," as though no one else other than a man can know how it feels to be the protector or the one who is responsible for a family. While I can see how the creator is trying to tell a very specific story through what is very basic gameplay, his success in the gaming world should have taught him about how multiplayer games can differ from a single-player experience.

It's easy to take Rohrer's recent experiences with living how millions and millions of poorer Americans already live every day as an easy explanation of why he created such a title. He was scared after what happened to him, felt violated as any of us would, and made a game that tries to explore those feelings. Where it falls flat for me is in its attempt to explore these feelings by using such common gameplay elements like griefing, tower defense, basic "8-bit" graphics, blood, and death. I have felt more fear when playing a game like Die2Nite (a real gem of an indie game that will never get the same attention that The Castle Doctrine has) and have thought more about real crime and its impacts while playing through certain quests in specific MMOs.

"If we look at The Castle Doctrine as what it is, a simple art game that is meant to tell a very specific story about one man's brush with life in a rougher area of town, it makes sense."

If we look at The Castle Doctrine as what it is, a simple art game that is meant to tell a very specific story about one man's brush with life in a rougher area of town, it makes sense. As we play the game we might think about how horrible it might be to use such violent behavior in order to protect our own family. We might consider how this violence affects people every day, people who live in much worse situations that we do. But if we look at The Castle Doctrine as an indie game with MMO-ish designs, we will probably be far less satisfied. It is not intriguing beyond its initial concepts and does not shock as much as it bores.

I would much rather have played a game that literally tells the story of what happened to Rohrer, perhaps in a choose-your-own-adventure style that forces players to make different, tough decisions. The fact that players have no choice in who they are or what they are doing limits the game's impact. The specific elements force us out of the role of protective father and into the role of number-crunching gamer.

The Castle Doctrine does not deserve so much controversy. I feel for Rohrer and his family. Crime is never fun, and it's never like it is in the movies. But why take such a fascinating, deep, and serious subject and explore it in such a limited fashion?

The takeaway is that an intriguing concept for an art project does not automatically translate to good gameplay.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!