For a while now, I’ve thought of the point and click adventure as a more-or-less static genre. We understand the design, its conventions, what it can achieve and how. And yet, while sticking close alongside those conventions, Dropsy turns the entire experience of playing an adventure game on its head. Dropsy bills itself as a ‘point-and-click hugventure’, and while at first this just seems like a silly way of presenting a fairly traditional experience, that description gets at something really unique within the game.
Most adventure games are, at their core, about using people to get what you want. Dropsy is about helping people. That core idea of trying to help people is echoed all throughout the design. Dropsy, his character impugned by the circus tent fire that killed his mother and several other townsfolk, wants to be loved – but he doesn’t help people to make them love him. He helps people because he loves them, even if they don’t love him back, even if they don’t love themselves. Playing the game, participating in that, being the medium through which a fictional character expresses unconditional love, is something new, and almost painfully heartwarming. It’s a sensation of simultaneous joy and aching sorrow, knowing that moment of connection can only exist because of the medium of desperate loneliness it occurs within
Helping people isn’t always a matter of doing what they want. Sometimes it’s showing them the things they didn’t know they wanted, or showing them how the decisions they’ve made have put them on the wrong path. Sometimes, just the opposite, not pushing them to change or solving their problems but just giving them a brief respite from their lives. Sometimes they don’t appreciate your help, and sometimes helping may require the odd bit of theft or deceit. Doing the right thing isn’t simple. Everyone’s different, is hurting in different ways, and though healing those wounds may be impossible, reminding someone they aren’t alone is something one clown can do.
The moment where you actually help someone and gain their trust enough that they will accept Dropsy’s hug is one of the most uniquely and genuinely rewarding moments I’ve experienced in a game. That reaction, the grin of embarrassment, the lean towards or away, the pat on the back or slight tense and relaxation – each character has their own unique reaction. It feels like a real moment of connection, even if it’s between cartoons. It feels intrinsically rewarding in a way that is unmatchable by the standard game design reward mechanism of bigger guns and glowier swords, and furthermore elegantly signals to the player the close of a chapter, an indication that you’ve done all you can do here, that it’s time to look elsewhere to progress the plot. Often, there’s no greater reward at all, no great game design puzzle scheme behind making a new friend: Most of the people around town who can be helped have nothing to offer you on your quest, but it’s worth helping them all the same, because that’s what you’re there for.
Dropsy’s art style is vivid and colorful, evoking crass gross-out cartoon aesthetics without ever – well, usually – being crass and gross itself. In this contrast, it manages to perfectly match the appearance of outward grotesqueness and inward childlike optimism of the game’s protagonist and the way he views and is viewed by the town. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of people dismiss it as ‘haha creepy clown joke game’ based on those connotations without ever getting to the genuine heart underneath – thematically appropriate, but economically sub-optimal. No clever artistic choice goes unpunished.
The soundtrack has a different sort of contrast, Chris Schlarb’s mellow jazzy interpretations of the themes forming a kind of tragic film noir atmosphere against which lead designer Jay Tholen’s feverish electronic versions are that much weirder and more intense. and together they set the scene for the surreal joy and despair of Dropsy’s journey.
Playing the game Dropsy gives a compelling sensation of being the character Dropsy, of expressing a personality through aesthetic and design decisions – a trait that reminds me of, oddly enough, Hotline Miami, though two games could hardly be more different in overall tone and message (although they do share a publisher, Devolver Digital). Both games have silent protagonists, though Dropsy goes even further, making the other characters speak gibberish and the text represented by an unknown cipher alphabet. It feels like being someone who doesn’t quite fit in the world he’s in, someone who words just float by but who manages to pick up a few key ideas, and yet who somehow has an incredible insight into what people want, need, and feel, who can speak to animals as easily as to humans. It feels like being someone who is at once closer to the core experiences of being human, of love and friendship and joy, but further from everything we construct on top of it, mystified by words and numbers and lies and money.
Because the world is so weird and surreal, I find myself tempted to question whether parts of it are ‘real’, especially when things get really weird. There’s no thread you can pull there, though, without unweaving the whole tapestry. Either it’s all ‘real’ or none of it is. It is what it is. It’s Dropsy – and, just like everyone else, you’ll learn to love him if only you’ll let him show you the way.