Eight Arms To Hold You: The Octodad Interview
Videogames have always struggled to find a human connection. Modern games try to elicit an emotional response by telling a gripping story, but they often fall flat because there isn’t any way to relate to those stories. Love the narrative of The Walking Dead all you want, but you’ll only be able to relate once the zombie apocalypse comes.
With the original Octodad as well as their newest release, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, blossoming studio Young Horses aims to find that human touch using a different approach–by using an octopus.
“The original game was really an unknown to us from beginning to release,” begins Phil Tibitoski, President and Community Manager for Young Horses studio. “We didn’t feel like we knew what we were doing, besides creating the weirdest thing we could come up with. We didn’t have many restraints on how ‘out-there’ things could be. The only things we did agree to leave out were space marines, shooting, jumping, and things that had been beaten to death in games prior.”
While its sudden appearance on the scene caught people off-guard, its eventual success was no surprise. Everything about Octodad was unbridled, from its mechanics to its humor, and it wasn’t long before Young Horses became one of the fresh-faced development teams leading the brigade onto Sony’s newest console, the PlayStation 4. They were even featured on-stage at Sony’s 2013 E3 press conference.
That kind of rapid growth can mean certain death for most small organizations. Often times, they aren’t structured to handle the increasing demands of popularity and still maintain what made them unique in the first place. In speaking with Tibitoski about that growth and the stress that comes with it, it’s obvious that a certain kinship has helped keep the sanity.
“All of the people working at our studio are from the original Octodad team that formed during our time at DePaul University,” Tibitoski says. “We’ve been in cahoots for almost three years now, and some of us have known one another even longer. It’s a nice feeling to know you can trust friends as much as we trust one another.”
A camaraderie that transcends friendship and becomes a thriving business entity is a rare commodity, especially when experiencing any modicum of success. As projects grow, how does any one individual still find satisfaction? How does a team find a way to make concrete decisions while still respecting its individuals? In Young Horses’ case, it was as easy as it’s ever been.
“My personal goal with the game was to have created our own company and shipped our own game with as little outside financial help as possible,” asserts Tibitoski. “I want nothing more than for us to become self-sustaining, and so far we’ve done everything possible in trying to achieve that.
“The team goal was essentially the same. I think one thing we’ve done right as a group is knowing what one another’s goals/expectations are and made sure at least for the most part that they all aligned with one another. We’re all on the same page, and ready to turn it at the same time.”
Now, Young Horses is primed for the spotlight as Dadliest Catch careens towards its launch. A launch–it must be added–which in short order will include a high-profile release on Sony’s PlayStation 4 home console. Keeping with the team’s modus operandi, they worked to eschew traditional hierarchies so they could design a game the way they always had–as friends.
“This is still very much our baby, in that we continue to make it as weird as we like,” Tibitoski says. “Everyone on the team had fairly equal input into the design of it. No one was removed from the creative decisions in the least. We had a Creative Director, Kevin Zuhn, who is still in that role for Dadliest Catch. He had a lot of the say in what fit or didn’t fit in the world of Octodad. However, everyone’s input was heard, evaluated, and taken seriously.”
As ingeniously entertaining as the game looks, it’s offering a lot more than just a bucket of cheap laughs. It’s a game about family.
But balancing–even representing–a family can be a tricky proposition. Who defines what a family is? Who defines what a ‘dad’ is? Dadliest Catch shows that it’s not about answering those questions; it’s not about differences in families, it’s about similarities, and feelings we’ve all shared.
“…when it comes down to it we all struggle at one time or another.”
“I don’t think it was difficult to come up with what ‘kind’ of dad Octodad is, as we have always just sort of known who Octodad is and what he would or wouldn’t do,” Tibitoski explains. “Sympathy comes naturally in that he’s struggling to do normal, everyday things that all of us also struggle with. In that regard it’s easy to relate, because when it comes down to it we all struggle at one time or another.”
Zuhn adds that Dadliest Catch used to feature more arbitrary puzzles and mechanisms, but those only obfuscated the other elements–and meaning–of the game.
“Originally the chef had a wife who became the central antagonist in Dadliest Catch,” Zuhn says, “but we didn’t have the time in-game to properly explore that relationship. The real conflict is between Octodad and Scarlet, and that deserves much more focus.”
“It’s weird because on the surface the game is this purely joy-filled experience with the sole purpose being to flop around, destroy things, and have fun while trying to do things that we usually take for granted,” Tibitoski adds. “Though underneath there’s still a lot at stake for Octodad himself.
“He may not be saving the world, but he does have his family hanging in the balance. If they find out he’s an octopus will they still love him? Will they still accept him as their dad or husband?”
The original Octodad was zany fun; it didn’t inspire a thousand thought-provoking essays about reverse octopus racism, or its depiction of plight in the modern world. For a sequel, the scope could have been expanded; Dadliest Catch could have explored who Octodad is on an existential level, or worse yet, changed the character to manufacture a conflict.
Instead, Dadliest Catch evokes an empathetic reaction without pandering, and revels in a human connection by letting players commiserate with Octodad. Tibitoski seems more than content with the fact that the game acknowledges this universal feeling.
“Octodad brings to light the fact that almost everyone has something about themselves that they want to hide or aren’t proud of sharing,” Tibitoski says. “For Octodad it’s that he isn’t human, and he’s afraid of not being accepted by his family. For someone in real life it could be a multitude of things.
“We want to let people know they aren’t alone in feeling this way. Everyone has their own insecurities no matter how confident or suave they might seem.”