Dropsy: Last Words and Lack Thereof

The story in Dropsy develops a split tone as it progresses. On the one hand, the clown is off having fanciful adventures with his animal friends, bringing happiness to every stranger he meets. But at the same time, his friend’s health just continues to deteriorate, and there isn’t much he can do about it. A miracle cure stolen from the laboratory of a wealthy corporation just ends up not doing anything, and possibly making things worse. For a time, it seemed possible that the game would actually let him die. It would certainly fit the work’s themes. Several of the NPCs you help are suffering from similar loss. The very first mission was to visit a grave. Ending the same way would be a neat little bit of design.

But that’s not the direction the author chose. Instead, he introduces a villain: the head of the aforementioned wealthy corporation.

Struggling against villainy is kind of against the ethos of the game so far, and so that isn’t what you do. This villain is a deceiver, and the clown is easily deceived. He approaches you with a deal: “I’ll take care of your friend, give him state-of-the-art medical care, if you come work for me. I’m setting up a circus of my own — a bigger, better one than the one you used to work for, and I’d really love for you to be our star attraction.” (I’m paraphrasing. Like everyone else in the game, he speaks entirely in images.) To the player, this is offer is immediately recognizable as mephistophelean. The mere fact that there’s no obvious downside is a clear indication that the downside is something he’s not telling us about.

I won’t go into detail about the ending, but I’ll note that it confirms some suspicions about the clown. Past a certain point, you’re basically guided through a linear series of rooms, with the “save game” functionality disabled so you can’t accidentally overwrite your last opportunity to complete side-quests. (And good thing, too. There are still a few citizens that I haven’t figured out how to make happy.) Most of these rooms are ones which you’ve seen before, but with some additional context that ties together things that didn’t seem important previously. As someone who comes from a text adventure background, I’m well aware of the things that text can do more easily than graphics, but it strikes me that the narrative techniques on display here, of environmental details that fade into the background when you don’t have the context to understand them but assume greater importance later, are a form of storytelling more easily done in graphics than in text, where it’s nearly impossible to show the reader something without drawing their attention to it.

But then, maybe I’m just obtuse. There are definitely things in this game that I didn’t understand when I was supposed to. Like what the hug icon was. Replaying the beginning a little, I found that the game attempted to tutorialize it by making you use it on the clown’s friend, but this wasn’t enough for me. Also, there were several puzzles where I didn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish (beyond just solving a puzzle for puzzle-solving’s sake) until afterward. On the story side, one thing I learned from the late-game revelations is that the character I’ve been calling the “friend” in fact raised the clown from when he was a little clown baby. Was I supposed to have been reading their relationship as father-son all along?

Then there’s the matter of the fire. This is part of the backstory established in the intro cutscene. The reason the clown is a free agent through most of the game is that there was a terrible fire in his circus, which killed several people. We see the fire start, and the clown’s dismayed and horrified reaction. Then, in the game, we find out that the clown was blamed for the fire, and demonized for it in the press. This is part of the reason he has to work so hard to get people to trust him. My assumption from the beginning, based partly on what I saw in the intro and partly on thematic resonance with Hypnospace Outlaw, is that he was blamed unfairly. But a dream sequence suggests that he feels real guilt over what happened. Was he in fact in some way responsible? I don’t believe for a minute that he set the fire deliberately, but it’s quite plausible that he could have started it through accident or negligence. The game, as far as I can tell, doesn’t provide a definitive answer. But I’m not sure if it’s being deliberately ambiguous or just failing to communicate clearly without words.

One last thing I’ll note: the name of the clown. The clown is named Dropsy, probably because of his distressingly swollen and squishy appearance. But I’ve been taking meticulous care not to refer to him by that name, because it didn’t seem to be established anywhere in the game — sure, it’s the game’s title, but what does that show? I remember once overhearing some people in an arcade arguing about whether the title of the classic Sega coin-op game Shinobi referred to the player character or the end boss. (In a sense they were both right: “shinobi” is just a synonym for “ninja”. But this was not common knowledge at the time.) But it turns out that the clown’s name is established in the descriptions of the Steam achievements, for example, “Furry Friend: Dropsy rescues a new friend from peril” or “Clownographer: Dropsy explores the whole entire world.” Now, I personally like to treat adventure games in particular as self-contained, and reject out-of-band information, at least while playing, because once you seek additional information online, you open yourself to puzzle spoilers. Do achievement descriptions count as out-of-band? I suppose they’re in the same nature as a printed manual: not part of the game per se, but canon nonetheless.

But now that I’ve finished the game (at least in the sense of reaching the ending, if not in the more important sense of befriending absolutely everyone in the world), I’ve looked at the guides a little, and learned that what I had dismissed as “meaningless squiggles” is actually a substitution cipher. So maybe the ambiguities and lacunae I’ve noted would be resolved for the meticulous player. It’s a little strange to me that I didn’t even think of trying to translate them myself, especially coming straight off Heaven’s Vault. Certainly I eagerly solved the ciphers in Fez and Gloomhaven. I suppose the difference is that those games seemed more challenge-oriented. When you come across runes there, it’s just another thing for you to overcome. Whereas in Dropsy, as I’ve noted, it seemed more like a way to establish your illiteracy. That makes the player’s attempts at deciphering it seem inappropriately out of character. It does explain why several scenes let you zoom into closeups of what I had taken to be unreadable text, but I had taken that to be a gag similar to what it does with telephones: when you try to press their buttons, your handless stubs of arms just mash random groups of buttons uselessly.

Dropsy: Hugs and Aliens

Now, I still haven’t finished Dropsy, so I could turn out to be wrong about this, but: It seems like most of the puzzles around befriending people are in the nature of optional side-quests. Advancing the story does require gaining cooperation from certain people, I think, but for the most part, you’re expected to simply want hugs for their own sake. Although if that’s not enough, the game does provide one other motivator for completists: there’s a record of everyone you’ve hugged, in the form of crayon drawings on a wall of the clown’s bedroom. This gives it a definite “Gotta hug ’em all!” aspect.

It also reminds me a little of The Witcher and its sexual conquest cards that drew so much attention. I was contemplating making that comparison into the basis for an entire blog post, exploring the question of what the difference is, but on reflection, it’s hardly even a question worth asking.

There are a few drawings already on the wall at the start of the game, of those that the clown has already had ample opportunity to hug: the clown’s green-haired colleague, their deceased friend, the dog. Yes, animals count. So does any sufficiently-huggable inanimate object, such as a statue or a tree. There’s one drawing that kind of puzzles me, though: it shows what looks like some kind of squidlike alien. 1UPDATE: It turns out to actually be a rather impressionistic depiction of a security robot from the corporate HQ lobby. Now, there is definitely an alien presence in the game. Off in the desert, there’s a guy in a camper-converted-into-a-storefront trying to sell merchandise related to his personal alien encounter, while a beefy man in black hovers nearby. Elsewhere, in a mysterious cave, I can catch a few glimpses of the very same tentacled being as in the camper man’s pictures, lurking but not particularly trying to hide its presence. The thing is, though, I haven’t hugged the alien, or any other aliens — unless it’s an alien shapeshifter. Maybe I could figure out who’s secretly an alien by process of elimination: it would be the one person who I’ve hugged who isn’t in any of my drawings. But that would have a strange implication: that the clown, who’s presumably the one making the drawings (although goodness knows when he finds the opportunity) saw the shapeshifter’s true form while I, the player, saw only its disguise. So more likely it’s just a bug.

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1. UPDATE: It turns out to actually be a rather impressionistic depiction of a security robot from the corporate HQ lobby.

Dropsy: Dog and Mouse

I’ve mentioned that Dropsy features a dog, which follows the clown around. Yes, you can pet it. You can also switch control to it, if you need to do something that the dog can do but the clown cannot, such as digging up some dirt or fitting through a doggie door. But it also functions as a hint device. The dog frequently leaves your side to go sniff something, and in so doing, draws attention to some of the game’s more difficult-to-notice clickables.

In my last post, I mentioned being stuck trying to deal with a man in a chicken costume. I’ve gotten through that part, and it’s all thanks to the dog. First, I noticed that the dog wasn’t just sniffing at this man, but enthusiastically barking at him. I had heard this barking before, but I didn’t notice it until I started paying more attention to the dog’s behavior in general. I was pretty sure that the chicken man was the key to my current mission, so hearing the dog bark made me realize that it was barking at him because he was important at that moment. This inspired me to take a walk through all the other rooms to see if there was anything else that the dog thought was important. And… there wasn’t. Which, as in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, was crucial to figuring things out! Knowing that there wasn’t anything directly relevant anywhere else, I focused my attention on the chicken man, and realized that I had been misinterpreting an ambiguous speech icon — I thought he had just been saying “I don’t like you”, but the clown icon wasn’t the one everyone else used to express similar sentiments. What he was really saying was specifically “Don’t hug me.”

Anyway, I’m significantly further along now. The clown’s partner has fallen ill, and lies on his cot, inert and miserable. Obtaining health care in the screwed-up corporatized system of this game is a big task for such a simple clown. But at the same time, I’ve befriended a mouse. Like the dog, the mouse follows me around and can be controlled directly to sneak through little holes. I have to say, the emphasis in this game is shifting more and more toward traditional adventurey mechanical puzzles instead of figure-out-what-will-make-people-happy puzzles. Obtaining the mouse required fiddling with a crane in a junkyard, and the puzzles requiring the mouse have mostly been about circumventing security systems. There are still a number of sad people who need cheering up, but they seem to be off the critical path.

Before I got the mouse, there was an empty slot for its icon in the verb menu, a silhouette of a mouse’s head right next to the icon for controlling the dog. There’s still one more empty slot next to that. I wonder what it is? A bird, maybe? That would solve some problems I have with objects too high to reach.

Dropsy: Missions and Exploration

Not much progress in Dropsy today. I managed to befriend a couple more people, but I’m very stuck on my current mission.

Yeah, there are missions. I hadn’t mentioned that. They’re given to you by a green-haired friend/coworker of the clown who sleeps in the same circus tent. The first mission, which I barely understood, was to deliver a gift to a grave. The second is to recover a tire that the coworker had taken off his motorcycle, but which was stolen by a bird. That’s where I’m stuck. The bird is easy to find, but it’s fierce, and drives off any clowns that approach its nest. I’m pretty sure the solution involves enlisting the aid of a guy in a chicken costume in the town, but he doesn’t like the clown and I have no idea how to change that.

Now, the reason that it’s easy to find the bird is that your current mission is marked with an icon on the world map. Another icon indicates your current location. Other locations you’ve visited are marked with simple dots, which really makes it look like you should be able to click on them for fast travel, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Unexplored regions are shrouded by clouds. At the point I’m at, this just means places beyond locked gates or similar impasses, because obviously the first thing you do when you’re stuck is conduct a thorough exploration.

And even without solving any puzzles, it’s a fairly large and explorable environment, with a lot to see and do. Checking it all out is definitely what the game wants you to do. But to a certain extent, it feels like this clown just wandered off down a random road while his friend is waiting for that tire. It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d do in any adventure game, but it’s also in character.

Dropsy

My appetite for indie point-and-click adventures is not yet sated. Dropsy is a cartoony and low-res 2015 game by Jay Tholen, the less-familiar-to-me co-designer of Hypnospace Outlaw, in which you play as a clown. Not just a circus performer who takes off the greasepaint at the end of the performance, but a being that’s a clown around the clock, and has queasily non-human traits, like a rubbery flexibility and a never-changing gap-toothed rictus and an apparent complete lack of hands. Unpleasant enough to look at that I put off playing the game for four years. The sort of clown, then, that scares children — which is tragic, because, we learn, all he wants is hugs.

It’s worth noting how we learn this: from the UI. Most actions in the game are performed with a single click of a contextual cursor: look at, pick up, talk to, etc. A menu of icons lets you pick just a few other actions, such as picking an inventory item or switching control to your dog. One of these icons is the hug icon. It took me a while to figure out what it did, because it doesn’t work on most inanimate objects, but once you apply it successfully to a person you haven’t hugged before, you get a little fanfare and a special victory graphic. (The dog gets something similar for each fire hydrant it pees on. This game is not above that sort of humor.) So hugging is one of the game’s basic actions, and you’re rewarded for doing it. That means it fulfills the same role in the game as shooting in a typical action game. I have no idea how this game was thought up, but it seems like “hugs replace shooting as the main mechanic” is a prompt that could have produced it.

Not everyone is in the mood to be hugged when you first meet them, and attempting to hug someone prematurely will provoke negative reactions. The general solution to this seems to be simple acts of kindness. Ye gods this is a good-natured game. I’m starting to think that Tholen is the main source of the positive vibes I picked up from Hypnospace.

The thing that really impresses me from a design perspective, though, is that it’s all done completely wordlessly. The only legible word in the entire game seems to be the title. That’s unusual for the point-and-click adventure genre. The only other examples I can think of are the Amanita Design games like Samorost and Machinarium, which are set in strange and alien worlds, and use the lack of a common language to emphasize their unfamiliarity. Dropsy, exaggerated and cartoonish though it is, has a more mundane setting, centered around an ordinary American-looking city with a jazzy soundtrack, and the regions around it. But the absence of verbal communication still has an alienating effect. Characters speak in word balloons containing images, which are sometimes hard to understand — but this seems appropriate, because the clown seems like someone who would have difficulty understanding people. Text on things like signposts is replaced with a system of meaningless squiggles, suggesting that the clown is illiterate, on top of his other challenges.

It all makes him more childlike, his awkwardness in the world a matter for sympathy rather than fear or derision. Considering how horrifying he seemed on first impression, that’s a pretty powerful shift. It strikes me that the player character’s relationship to the player goes through more or less the same transformation as his relationship to most of the other characters in the game.

Hypnospace Outlaw

I was a Kickstarter backer for Hypnospace Outlaw, intrigued by the premise of an alternate 1990s internet simulation. And I’m glad I caught it, because it’s both one of the funniest and one of the best-designed works of interactive fiction I’ve played in some time. It’s a mockery and celebration of a bygone era, when the entire web was a glorious mess of enthusiastic amateurism, lo-res and badly-constructed by people deeply invested in dorkishness and petty nonsense, but for that very reason extremely personal and revealing in ways lacking in today’s more slickly-invented internet personas.

Not that Hypnospace lacks invented personas. There’s a strong current of make-believe, of people using Hypnospace as a playhouse. One user page, for example, has a bunch of “potions”, with descriptions of their effects, and gives the reader permission to take whatever they need. The potions are just images. I remember doing similar stuff back in the day, setting up a “hotel” in my college VAX-11/780 account’s directory structure, opening up write permission and inviting other people to create “rooms” with text files. That was a machine accessed through text-only terminals, but the desire for imaginary spaces runs deep. People will push the limits of whatever is possible. Hypnospace Outlaw recognizes this.

But people will also give up halfway, and HO recognizes that as well. Some of the heartiest laughs come from coming across pages where some kid just typed a bunch of failed attempts at exiting edit mode, or figured out how to change the text on the default homepage’s buttons but didn’t figure out how to make them do anything. It’s not even cruel laughter at their incompetence, really, so much as the shock of recognition. We’re not used to seeing things so blatantly half-assed in a published game, even if it is diegetically half-assed. But without it, the game would be a lie. The web of the 90s was always barely half-constructed, full of placeholders, at least as much promise as actuality. The largely-unjustified belief in that promise was crucial to the zeitgeist.

It’s odd that the game gets the feel so right, given that it was co-written by Xalavier Nelson, who isn’t old enough to remember the 90s (as he enjoys reminding people on Twitter). Nelson is the author of Screw You, Bear Dad, a game that I didn’t like much. In particular, I had harsh words for its use of “interface screw” — interfering with the player’s ability to read the text. HO indulges in interface screw as well, but at least it’s justified in-world there. If you download software from a sketchy source, it’s going to do bad things to your computer. That’s so obvious that it actually held me back from progressing in the plot for a while. There are some online hygiene habits that are so ingrained that I was reluctant to violate them in the game, even though it was clear that I was meant to have the full 90s internet experience, good and bad.

But even the malware, scams, and blatant commercialism, by being so transparent, come off as endearingly goofy — and all the moreso when they seem to be trying to take themselves seriously. There’s a whole subculture called “coolpunk” that’s centered around doing remixes of a single commercial jingle, and even though they’re presumably doing it in a spirit of irony, they’re so earnest about their irony! The original of the jingle was written by a musician called the Chowder Man, whose other works (including several other commercial jingles) can be found throughout the game, and he’s basically the king of overwrought, earnest, 90s-tinged goofiness. The Chowder Man is definitely a Hypnospace celebrity, but it’s not clear to me if he’s supposed to be an actual celebrity outside of Hypnospace. It hardly matters. Hypnospace can have its own celebrities that no one outside Hypnospace has heard of. It’s just more make-believe, right?

Like the Web, the game is broad and explorable, with offshoots and deep rabbit-holes. But it does have a main plot, with a lot of guidance about where to go and what to do in the beginning, opening up to web-search sleuthing as you become more familiar with how Hypnospace works. It impels you through this plot by giving you a job enforcing Hypnospace’s terms of service. Wait, the 90s web has terms of service? But of course Hypnospace isn’t quite our web. It’s more like a melange of AOL, Compuserve, and Geocities, and it definitely has a specific company in charge — which is the source of most of the story’s tension. The company behind Hypnospace doesn’t have the same priorities as its users. Your job as enforcer means you root out harassment and abuse, but also copyright violations, making fair-users justifiably angry at you. Surprisingly, though, this isn’t simply a matter of evil greedy corporation vs freedom-loving cyberpunks. The people behind Hypnospace are convincingly humanized, with their own personal home pages about their quirky interests that differ from those of the regular users only in that they have fewer spelling errors. If they’re making stupid decisions that alienate their users, its because they’re in over their heads. They’re a little startup in a field without a lot of historical precedent to lean on, and they genuinely don’t know what they’re doing, just like everyone else on Hypnospace.

In fact, there’s a sub-plot where the users effectively re-make the same stupid decisions as the company. At some point before the game starts, the company decided to reorganize their “zone” structure a little by combining five geek-fandom communities into one zone. The members of those communities were incensed, imputed nefarious motives to the reorg, and abandoned the combined zone to found their own “Freelands”. Which is… a combined zone, just like the one they left. Ah, but this one is under the control of the users! Well, one user. Who immediately sets himself up as a petty martinet, issuing notices to Freelands pages that don’t conform to his vision. It’s easy to see in this not just a satire of the 90s internet in particular, but a critique of power dynamics in online communities in general, both ancient and modern.

The one thing that the Freelands adds is one of those make-believe elements: instead of the standard Hypnospace zone menu, it’s set up as a multi-page map of an imaginary space, with people’s home pages embedded in it as towers and castles. This idea is later appropriated by the Hypnospace company as part of their slick new “Hypnospace 2000” initiative and presented as if they invented it. Hypnospace 2000 is frankly menacing, a visible attempt at eliminating everything vibrant about Hypnospace in order to make the whole thing more palatable to their corporate partners. It’s a small moment, but it’s the first point in that whole sub-story that made me really feel like the Freelanders really had a point, that they were being abused by the system and weren’t just overreacting to nothing. And this isn’t the only time this happens, that something is first presented as ridiculous but later turns out to have more to it. I’ll say more at the end of this post, when I get into spoilers for the ending.

But first, I have some comments on the UI and gameplay. Hypnospace is called “hypnospace” because part of the premise is that you access it via a special cyberspace headband while asleep. The internet is thus literally a shared dream, although the introductory video paints it as a productivity feature that lets you keep working 24/7 — a brilliant metaphor for the two-sided nature of wired life. And yet, even though it’s a dream, it uses the desktop metaphor. It’s a very thoroughly-implemented desktop, too. Although most of the game is played in the in-game browser, there are moments when you need various other apps — to listen to a sound file, say, or to crack an encrypted document. And these can be run from your in-game desktop, which can be customized with various desktop images that you can download from the fake internet. Desktop stickers are also a thing. You can get stickers from various sources and affix them to your desktop. And it all seems fairly pointless, because you hardly ever see your desktop. At least, I personally spent the majority of every session with Hypnospace Explorer open and maximized, and when I needed a different app, I usually used an app switcher in the main menu bar. I kind of wonder if this is deliberate, a sly bit of commentary on the wasted emphasis on desktop customizations in OS releases.

Some particular bits of the customization, such as the voice used by the optional in-game voice assistant, are put into a fake BIOS screen, which seems fittingly retro, although it occurs to me to wonder why it does. It’s not like BIOS screens have gone away. My primary game-playing machine gives a prompt to enter a BIOS menu when it boots. Ah, but how often does it boot? Mostly it just comes out of sleep mode. So I suppose I was seeing BIOS prompts a lot more in 1999 than I do now.

The game is split into multiple chapters, with time skips between them. On each skip, some pages will change while others stay the same (particularly the abandoned ones). At first, I was worried that there was no way back, and that I was going to miss content, but the final chapter has a clever way around that: it skips forward long enough that there’s a Hypnospace archival project going on, from which you can view pages from any chapter. And here’s where we get into spoilers for the ending.

I recall seeing some retweets from the developers along the lines of “Dammit, I didn’t expect this game to make me cry.” I can’t say I was moved to actual tears by the ending — possibly because I had that much warning — but I did, despite the warning, find it unexpectedly moving. It’s sort of a reverse of history: first comes the farce, then the tragedy. In an earlier chapter, people get worried about a made-up medical condition called “beef-brain” supposedly caused by excessive Hypnospace use, and a hacker collective takes advantage of their gullibility by selling them placebo images to “protect” their pages. But then an incident leaves six people dead, and Hypnospace is shuttered for years until the archival project comes along. The final chapter, then, sees you using the archives to conduct a long-overdue investigation of that incident to find out how much the Hypnospace company knew about the risks their users were facing. And at the very end, it does something brilliant. Only at that moment, after devoting your efforts to this investigation for some time, do you learn the names of the six people who died. And they’re all people you know. People who had become familiar to you through their Hypnospace presence, who you had laughed at or sympathized with or gotten annoyed at in the previous chapters.

It’s a beautiful moment because of what it shows: that this game cares about people. That’s been its attitude all along, but it’s really noticeable when it conjures characters out of a statistic. This is a good-hearted game that doesn’t need its minor characters to be flawless, or even good people, in order to be sympathetic and not deserve what happened to them. And I thank the developers for that.