January, 2001. I fidget in the pew, unable to contain my energy as the preacher goes on and on about God and money and who is even listening and would they care if I crawled under the pew? My mother shoots me a disgruntled look as she pulls me back into my seat. “If you are good and just sit still I’ll buy you candy,” she whispers into my ear. I sit as calmly as I can for the rest of the service.
It often comes as a shock to people when I tell them I was raised Catholic. My political beliefs are staunchly liberal. I speak openly about my existential anxiety, often bordering on full-blown nihilism. I am profane. I occasionally listen to metal.
Though I am quick to tell them that I left the faith years ago, this only opens me up to more strange looks and questions. Why did I leave? What are my beliefs now? How did I end up the way I am living in the hills of Appalachia, where churches are as common as gas stations and mass offerings are built into every family’s budget? These questions, though occasionally presented with sincerity, are more often accompanied by an air of accusation. I don’t fit into the narrative of a good southern Christian or an ignorant pagan, so people begin to look for ways to put me back in those boxes. It is a tedious and pointless exercise, but it is one I have watched play out in the minds of so many friends and acquaintances. I may be comfortable with my beliefs, whatever they are, but for others, the lines seem to be more defined. There are believers and the damned, so which are you?
As I play on the jungle gym outside the church where my sister takes ballet, I overhear my mother talking on the phone. She is wondering if she should hold me back a year from something. She doesn’t know if I’m ready. I can see the anguish on her face but decide it is better not to ask what she is talking about. I decide to go play on the slide out of earshot.
Dropsy (2015) is not an explicitly Christian game, though with a little effort one could attempt to interpret it as such. Crosses and biblical parallels abound, and creator Jay Tholen is vocal about his beliefs and how they manifest in his work. I imagine, though, that to attempt to see Dropsy as just “a Christian game” may prove frustrating to Tholen. He has spoken frequently about Christian media’s tendency to insert biblical concepts into art in overbearing and unproductive ways. “We like to quantify genres and fit the gospel in them, and then sell them back out to people,” he told GameChurch in the lead up to Dropsy’s release. To read his game as bluntly Christian would be largely to miss the point, rendering it a novelty that faith oriented sites could hold up as an example of a good Christian game, but in doing so isolating it within the larger realms of pop culture.
As I have grown older I’ve begun to recognize the oddity of Christian media being segregated off from everything else. Growing up I was only ever allowed to listen to Christian radio stations and watch animated Bible stories. At the time, it was a sufferable annoyance, but now it feels patronizing and self-defeating. If the only people who consume Christian media are the already converted, to what end does it serve but to reinforce existing beliefs? The message is going nowhere, echoing around the same communities so as to give the illusion that the message is being heard.
I remember the rare instances when a song I liked as a kid would play on a pop station and I would feel intensely validated, as well as a little smug. Didn’t they know it was a Christian song? To my kid mind, it felt like I had stumbled upon the perfect propaganda, something I could get others to listen to and they would suddenly find themselves worshiping Jesus without even realizing it. It was the perfect con.
Mass is almost over and I am shaking like I’m about to go in for open heart surgery. My mother smiles at me. My grandfather has a cake waiting. I’ve received a stack of gifts. Suddenly I’m being pushed into the aisle with the other kids a year younger than me, all moving to receive their first Communion. I make it two-thirds of the way before I panic, diving into a pew to my left as I rush to get out of the line. Everything feels wrong.
Dropsy opens with a surreal dream sequence followed by a cutscene of his mother being burned alive during a circus accident. Dropsy the clown is falsely blamed for the incident, and it is easy to see why. He is truly unsettling, teeth jutting out at uncomfortable angles from the perpetual grin stretched across his deformed face. Every time I’ve shown the game to friends the response has been the same. They’re freaked out, disgusted. Sometimes they laugh.
People won’t associate with Dropsy. They push him away, yell at him, put up signs to clearly communicate that he is not welcome. Dropsy is a universal outcast, and yet he loves everybody. It is important that he is inherently off-putting, because it is often overly easy to empathize with video game protagonists. It is not fun to be hated, so we find ways to empathize with even the most terrible of characters to make our experience playing as them more tolerable. We need to be alarmed by Dropsy the way every character in the game is, so that we can then come to love him despite ourselves.
I am lying on the couch, alone at home. My brain is screaming at me and I can’t make it stop. “Fuck Satan. God is not fake. Jesus, please forgive me. Please forgive me. Please forgive me…”
My favorite scene in Dropsy is one of the first in the game. When you are first leaving the circus tent to go explore the world, you pass a squirrel running back and forth from a tree where it has stored a library’s worth of books. Out of curiosity, I tried using the game’s hug button on the squirrel, and sure enough, Dropsy bent down and enveloped the furry creature in a warm embrace. It is a sweet, simple moment, but it personifies the sort of game that is to come and the sort of person Dropsy is.
You do not receive anything from hugging the squirrel except a little smiley icon letting you know she’s your friend now. It is something you could totally skip and still complete the game. But there is a powerful joy in the simple act of giving a hug, of seeing someone smile and knowing you’ve made their day just a little bit better. Dropsy wants you to go out of your way to show kindness to people and animals (and inanimate objects). Not because you need to, but because you feel compelled to.
There is no “point” to the vast majority of objectives in Dropsy except seeing someone smile after you’ve done something nice for them. In design terms, these encounters are useless fluff, distracting from the narrative by sending you all over the map for no reason other than to give someone a hug. And to be sure, most of the quests characters send you on are truly obnoxious, giving you little knowledge as to where to go or what you need and requiring you to retrace your steps dozens of times just to see if something has now changed. It’s not great game design, and the puzzles themselves are not terribly enjoyable.
But even Dropsy’s potentially accidental convolution seems to reinforce its message. It is not always easy to help people, but if kindness was a matter of convenience it wouldn’t mean anything. By going out of your way for someone you are showing them that they matter and you care about them. It could be as effortless as giving a homeless woman some food, or as involved as reuniting a family. In Dropsy you are rarely getting anything out of the exchange regardless of complexity, but they all matter to him and they matter to you. Because as good as that stranger feels to have had someone show them a random act of kindness, it feels even better to have done something kind yourself.
I have decided to leave the church. I am not going to tell anyone. There is no point in making a scene. But I am leaving for college and it will be as easy to simply slip away from the empty words and the consumerism. From the overly enthusiastic pop songs that border on self-parody. From the discrimination and hate that is somehow allowed to pass as Christian beliefs. This is not love. This is not God. I do not know yet what I believe, but I know that whatever it is, I will not find it among people who keep screaming as if to convince each other that they actually believe what they preach.
It is difficult to talk about Dropsy without sounding cheesy and grossly sentimental. It is a game about unconditional love with a dedicated hug button, and your character never stops smiling. Dropsy is almost nauseatingly sweet, but it is also entirely genuine. Critics often like to talk about being able to see the love put into a piece of art, but with Dropsy that love is thick and tangible. It isn’t the game’s attention to detail or its cleverness that shows how much its creators poured themselves into making it, but its warmth and joy.
Dropsy is a game about making people happy, but it is also one meant to make you, the player, happy. As the world figuratively and literally burns itself to the ground, it is distressingly easy to slip into depression. Often it can feel childish to focus on small joys when you consider the enormity of the problems facing us today. But it is in times like these that finding a source of happiness is more important than ever.
Games like Dropsy remind us of the power of small actions and simple pleasures. It reminds us that art doesn’t have to be challenging or complex to be meaningful, and that positive emotions are not as worthless as the world wants you to believe. It reminds us that it is OK to feel happy when things are going bad, and that there are still people who truly want to make the world a better place for everyone. It reminds us that it is easy to hate people and a lot harder to love them, and it does so with such earnestness that it is clear the game recognizes the difficulty of what it’s asking but believes it important enough to do so all the same. Dropsy is a game that is powerfully loving in a way most media only plays at, and I cannot overstate how rare and significant that is.
I have accompanied my family to Christmas mass. It feels sacrilegious to attend a service where I don’t believe what’s being preached, but I know it matters to my parents so I don’t fuss. As I wait for the mass to start I look at the people around me and realize how many are as out of place as I am. A woman a few rows ahead of me is wearing a Krampus vest and I can’t help but laugh.
As the mass begins, I am struck by the warmth around me. So many of the people here are not going to come back next Sunday, but for this moment it doesn’t matter what their beliefs are or what their dedication may be. What matters is that they’re here because they want to be, and for the first time in my life I begin to feel the sort of comfort that so many seem to find in a religion I’ve long abandoned. Maybe, I think, maybe all that talk about loving everyone unconditionally, perhaps some people truly do believe it. I want to freeze this moment and live in it, so I can remember what it feels like to be surrounded by freaks and evangelists and sinners. To recognize the misfits and the church goers, and feel like, at least for a moment, we all belong together.