Octodad: Dadliest Catch and the Art of Dadliness
Videogames love dads. Whether it’s the new God of War’s less beleaguered, bearded Kratos taking a break from murdering literally everyone to care for his son (may the gods help that poor child), or The Last of Us’s Joel doing his best impression of a McCormack character as he begrudgingly slips back into the role of a father figure, the dads have officially infiltrated games. A lot of that is probably (cynically, though fairly) a result of many game developers being older and possibly fathers themselves, now looking to populate the games they make with characters that better reflect themselves (and are maybe just a little self-indulgent in that respect). Try as they might though, it seems fair to say that the videogame dad arms race has already been won, as it’s hard to imagine any game being quite as dadly as Octodad: Dadliest Catch. They even put dad in the name (twice!).
When you’re an eight-armed octopus operating in a two-arm human world, things can get a little sticky.
As one would hope from the world’s preeminent dad simulator, Octodad is exactly what it says on its dad-joke adorned tin. You play as an octopus who has, through a chain of suitably wacky events, been married to a human woman and is now father to her two children (the less known about how this works the better). What ensues from this point onward is a sequence of absurd scenes in which you do your best dad impression and attempt to keep your true aquatic nature under wraps, a prospect made much easier given Octodad operates on a sort of Hitman-esq logic where as long as you look the part, nobody suspects a thing.
Or at least that’s the idea, but when you’re an eight-armed octopus operating in a two-arm human world, things can get a little sticky. Octodad shares kin with absurd kinetic comedy games such as Surgeon Simulator and Goat Simulator, though it diverges from most of its peers by being far less obsessed with indiscriminate chaos. Indeed, though it shares a similarly unorthodox and intentionally uncooperative control scheme, Octodad’s is something on an inverse of the sort of game typically built around ridiculous physics based sandboxes, tasking you with making as little trouble as you can else your cover be blown. That’s both what makes Octodad so special, and also why it can never quite rise to its full potential.
What I love about Octodad is how much it embodies the lovable awkwardness of the best kinds of dads. Though he’s clumsy and bad at communicating and, okay, an octopus posing as a human, Octodad legitimately cares about his family and shows his love in a way rarely explored in videogames: by just being there for his family. Roll your eyes if you will, but it is refreshing to play a game about a dad actually being a dad. Not brooding the loss of his daughter or being forced into a sketchy deal to save his wife. Just being a plain old regular dad, with all the social awkwardness, bad jokes, and hobbled together homemade solutions to everyday problems one could want in a father (plus a few extra tentacles). Octodad works because it touches on something so innate to the act of being a husband and father that underneath all the mayhem and hijinks, it is unexpectedly touching and authentic. All Octodad wants is to be accepted and do good by his family, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for him all the way by the end.
Octodad has heart to spare, but unfortunately its moment to moment play is not anywhere near as endearing. As I said before, Octodad is less interested in mass chaos than a lot of similar games, but that doesn’t mean it is in any way removed from the same sort of issues that plague its peers. While it is certainly far more forgiving than something like QWOP or Surgeon Simulator, Octodad is still an intentionally clumsy game to play, and as I find with all games of its ilk there came a point rather early on when I simply wished I could play the game without having to constantly wrestle with the controls. This moment may come even earlier than in similar games because Octodad is predominately focused on things beyond making a mess of your environment (though that will happen regardless), and as a result its unwieldy controls feel more superfluous than they otherwise might. Awkwardness is undeniably core to the Octodad experience, but I feel there were perhaps better ways to express it that would have been less abundantly tedious to work around.
Octodad is the sort of game that is going to sell itself on absurdity alone. But by reducing it to just a joke, we miss what makes it so special. As humorous as it is to watch an octopus in a suit try to go grocery shopping, it’s how earnest Octodad is as a game and as a character that really stuck out to me. Tiny things like going down the kids slide at the museum (and barely fitting), or making dad jokes with your daughter, made me smile in a way I didn’t expect from a game that seems outwardly so purposely dumb. It’s unfortunate that its underlying mechanics are less endearing than the game they support, but even as I was cursing my inability to effectively climb stairs, I couldn’t help but give Octodad a break. Because, gosh darn it, he’s doing his best and we love him anyway.