The Castle Doctrine

[intro] A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to make it into the limited (to 100 people) pre-alpha test of The Castle Doctrine, the new game by Jason Rohrer. If you don’t know Rohrer, he’s the mind behind Passage and Sleep is Death, two of my favourite art games, and Chain World, one of the most impressive examples of conceptual game design I’ve ever seen.

The Castle Doctrine is a turn-based MMO about burglary and home invasions. Bear with me, here. [/intro]

First Impressions

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] started off with my family and a vault in an empty house, with a princely $2,000 to spend on home improvements. With some playing around, I realised that I could place walls, wiring and various security appliances around the house. There were some teething problems, since there aren’t really any instructions, but it seemed clear to me that I would want to make my place as difficult to burgle as possible. I put the vault in the middle of the house and built a doorless room around it. Dusted off my hands and grinned smugly. That should be that. Like to see them cut through that one.

All that hard work done and I decide to go see what other people have tried, so I hit “Done” and get a strange screen:

Prove That Your House Is Fair

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“Prove that your house is fair:”…eh, how? Then I realised what was going on. This was a simulation and I had to show that the challenge I set up was winnable. I had to rob my own house. I couldn’t, of course, my house was extremely, prejudicially unfair. That was the whole point. I was also unable to skip or escape out of the screen. Hitting ESC just brought up the pause menu (more on that later). I realised that the Suicide button was the only way out and hit it.

[box style=”note”]UPDATE Jason Rohrer has pointed out that in a situation like mine above, you can actually just walk out the front door and go back to editing the house without being penalised.[/box]

I arrived back into the Build Your House screen, but I was back to square one; I had $2,000, and nothing in my house except my presumably loving family and a vault. This was going to be tougher than I’d thought.

After a LOT more tinkering, I figured I had a pretty good trap set up, an elaborate series of circuits would trigger in sequence, seeming to trap the burglar in a corridor tantalisingly close to the vault, but then with some careful backtracking, they could get past the electrified floors and grab the loot. I hit Done and began my dummy run. I accidentally got electrocuted and died, losing all of my work. What a fucking dummy.

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When you hit ESC you bring up the pause menu – anything you type into that goes to the server, which Rorher can read through, a brilliant idea for feedback. I made several notes about how annoyed I was that a simple accident could kill me in a simulation of robbing my own house. It didn’t seem to make sense, so I went back to the game and tried setting up something similar again.

I tested it and accidentally died. Again. Fucking again. I made some more notes. I set up the house again. I died in my own Home Alone-like palace of pain. Right, that’s it, I thought. I’m going to bed.

I hit ESC to get to the menu so I could quit, but the image of the defenceless family and vault with $2,000 in it, in a big empty house somehow resonated with me. I didn’t want to leave them defenceless. I wanted to come back to something, anything at all.

Right, just one more pass, I said, just one more quick little setup and then I can rest easier knowing that someone else will pay the ultimate price for daring to cross my threshold. Having created my funhouse at least fifteen times by that stage I had gotten pretty good at it, and I was proud of my handiwork. Instead of quitting, I thought I’d have a look at what else was going on. I mean, it’s an MMO, right?

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Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 01.38.52
Rob Lowe – great in Parks & Rec

Hmmmm. Three people died, huh? Well, I couldn’t resist. I double-clicked and got the now-familiar screen I got when playing the burglar, only this time of course the place looked totally different, since it was built by someone else. What’ve I got to lose, right?

[rev_slider invasion]

Turns out this asshole had pitbulls. Two of them. So I died. And lost everything. All of the work I had done. FFS. I started again. I had no choice at this point. I robbed two houses successfully, armed with drugged meat and a gun. I got a serious nest-egg going! I was killed. I started over. A couple of times.

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Wifey, the two kids and your life's savings.

It’s a very interesting game; full of good ideas, both conceptual and mechanical. I like the art style. I don’t know how finished it is, whether the gang of pre-alpha testers I’m a member of is expected to help make the game more fun or just more stable. As it stands, I think that not being able to tweak the design of your house without risking death is a big mistake (more on that in a future post). I know it got its hooks into me, but I was genuinely annoyed by it – it kept slowing me down, regulating my speed and fun.

I like that all of the players are anonymous, it makes it something of a hybrid, both MMO and single-player. You don’t chat with anybody or fight them in real time, you just assault one another’s homes. The only realtime element is the “Leaderboard” – the list of unattended houses.

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[headsubline subline=”The Castle Doctrine has some lovely little touches…”]>The Little Things[/headsubline]

  • Your family always faces towards you – I think it creates a sense of responsibility.
  • The method of ensuring every house is solvable by making you solve it before you leave is very elegant.
  • When you drug the dogs, you still have to go around them, or you’ll wake them up, so you have to be careful where you drop them.
  • Dogs and cats trigger pressure plates, so they can be incorporated into a trap system.
  • Your wife carries half of the money in the house, so as a burglar, you have to option to kill her or let her go.
  • When a family member has been killed, the remaining members don’t run when an intruder enters. It feels like they have nothing left to run for.
  • Chihuahuas are provided as stand-ins for pitbulls.
  • Houses can be rigged so they can only be broken into once. IF you’re clever.
  • Players are given randomised, anonymous names.
  • No chat system.
  • You can search for people who robbed you by name to find and burgle their houses.

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3 Replies to “The Castle Doctrine”

  1. Looks really interesting! I love the concept and openness of the design. Also, your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  2. Just to clarify:

    When testing your own house, you can always Leave out the front door and tweak the design. So, if you realize that your traps are not solvable, you don’t have to die! You just Leave, go back to editing your house, and then try testing it again later, after you fix it.

    1. Thanks for reading, and clarifying – I actually JUST discovered that myself. I’ll make a note of it above, sorry about that. I have found it difficult to test out traps, though. There are workarounds, like leaving an obvious, clear escape, testing, using the escape and then patching it up before leaving the house, but it doesn’t feel ideal.

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