Modern video game controls are the result of decades of development. Traditionally, we want them to be efficient, responsive and tactile, translating our reflexes intuitively into onscreen action. But all artistic conventions are bound to be challenged sooner or later, and the emerging genre colloquially known as “fumblecore” is challenging this one. It started with the conceptually simple but practically impossible 100m-hurdler QWOP and had a breakthrough with the patient-mutilating Surgeon Simulator 2013. Fumblecore games interplay clumsy controls with derpy physics to replace frustration with comedy. It's more fun to fail amusingly than to win through gritted teeth.
But at at what point do QWOP-style controls cease to be comical and become the frustrating chore at which they thumb their noses? Halfway through Octodad: Dadliest Catch. That is the point.
I can’t stress enough how endearing the character of Octodad is. The unlikely and stupendous scenario of an octopus living incognito in a human world is an absolute delight. He’s an iconic, lovable character who even has his own theme tune. How rare is it for games to feature proper original songs?
Octodad is presented in-game with charming, uncanned character animation and a great burbling octopus voice, and the world he inhabits is a humorous and colourful one. The goofy comedy mostly works, teetering on the fence between funny and tiresome like so many dad jokes. If you love fish puns, this is the game for you. But it’s also got real heart: Octodad genuinely loves his family and is desperate not to disappoint or alienate them with his secret. (Insert your desired metaphor here.) The central joke is a damned funny one, made even better by its honest emotional undercurrent.
Threatening to blow the lid off the charade is Fujimoto, an ever-so-slightly racist caricature of a sushi chef bent on two things: octopus murder and making references to “The War”. This rivalry wants to join the pantheon of adversaries like Tweety and Sylvester, Tom and Jerry; but it doesn’t quite get there.
Octodad’s control scheme is appropriately bizarre. Left-click raises the left leg; right-click raises the right. The mouse moves the currently-selected limb around. Press space to swap into arm control. Click to grab. And so on. It’s driven entirely by the mouse (or controller) and feels every bit the boneless exercise it is. At first, and frequently thereafter, Octodad flails about like a newborn deer, but it is possible to learn fine control. Taking rapid, tiny steps as Octodad is both useful and hilarious. Ed Wood wishes he had an octopus as limber as this one.
As in the first Octodad, the overall goal in Dadliest Catch is to pass as a normal human being. You half expect Octodad to whistle nonchalantly every thirty seconds. Complicating matters is the fact that everything that isn’t bolted to the ground is an interactive physics object. It’s impossible not to wreak havoc with your wiggly arms. Even better, the game world is packed with obstacles to facilitate the chaos. Octodad makes slipping on a banana peel funny again.
The first half of Dadliest Catch nails its design brief. The in-game objectives are just simple household tasks: making coffee, mowing the yard, going grocery shopping. In these segments the wobbly gameplay shines, turning something as simple as grilling a burger into a Herculean feat of coordination. Importantly, the early game maintains its challenge without being punishing. Octodad’s secret will be exposed if he acts too weird within sight of others, but it’s hard to lose these levels. Instead, the challenge lies in manipulating Octodad’s tentacles to do your bidding. It offers a profound insight into the plight of covert cephalopods. Modern life is hard for them.
Nothing’s quite so hard as the family trip to the aquarium. Octodad soldiers on despite his abiding fear of being spotted by ocean experts, squishing his way up the down escalators like a champ. The aquarium boasts some diverting minigames, including a Dance Dance Revolution floor where Octodad can unleash his inner Tony Manero. You can even learn actual, factual information about marine life!
Unfortunately, it’s here that the gameplay turns south. Fujimoto appears, the aquarium fills with eagle-eyed marine biologists, and the entire dynamic of the game changes towards stealth. But true stealth missions don’t gel with this game's unique gameplay. It’s as if our hero was dropped into a standard shooter level and told to fend for himself. These sequences forget what makes core Octodad gameplay fun. The joy comes from asking the player to do everyday tasks with bendy, sticky limbs; when doing things that are difficult even with ordinary controls, the gameplay goes from amusingly awkward to infuriatingly difficult. It’s funny when Octodad knocks things over in an escalating pratfall explosion. It’s not so funny when, in one particularly poorly-designed sequence, he falls off a boat for the umpteenth time trying to avoid the gaze of sailors that he can’t see because of a fixed camera and unpredictable controls.
The AAA design influence reaches its nadir in the final boss fight, a tedious trial-and-error mess that sees more dead octopi than the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not fair just to say this battle is hard. That’s the point of boss fights. The problem is that it’s a fight much like you’d find in any ordinary game, and isn’t designed for octopus mechanics. In your fruitless struggle to accomplish the repetitive tasks asked of you in this confrontation, you’ll end up cursing Octodad just as much as Fujimoto as he gets cut down again and again by the chef’s unlimited, instant-death throwing cleavers. There’s a line between challenging gameplay and poor design, and Fujimoto’s bossy legs straddle it.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch’s back half wouldn’t be so disappointing if the front wasn’t so wacky and enjoyable. The titular octopus has the potential to gain as iconic a status in indie gaming as Meat Boy or Minecraft Steve - he just needs a consistently great game to achieve it. He needs a game that plays to the idiosyncrasy and charm inherent in the character. Dadliest Catch may be bigger and more accomplished than the original Octodad, but some of the purity of the gameplay has been lost.