Whilst heavy-hitting games such as Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain, and Super Mario Maker have been released to critical acclaim recently, I’d like to look at something a little different that harkens back to a time of the old puzzle-solving point and click adventure, in a similar vein to the old Monkey Island and ‘Sam and Max’ games…but with a twist.
To be honest, I only heard of Dropsy on the day of release even though it began its life on Kickstarter just under 2 years ago, and after hearing the premise through an excellent sing-a-long launch video, and understanding the motivations of developer Jay Tholen, this became an instant buy for me, and following my time with the game I came away both pleasantly surprised and wanting more.
The story itself begins in a slightly mundane fashion whereby Dropsy the clown and his family are performing in the circus tent, and seconds later a fire erupts and everything goes up in flames. A few people perish in the fire, including who we presume to be Dropsy’s mother. Time passes and the game starts with Dropsy awaking in the remains of the dilapidated bigtop circus tent and now living in squalor with someone we presume to be his father (who appears to be sick and getting worse). As you travel around the town with your trusty circus dog, it’s plain to see that people around the town are not only generally depressed, but are untrusting of Dropsy (probably due to blaming him and the circus for the fire incident), who really just wants to make people happy despite how he probably should be feeling.
There is a jarring aspect of the protagonist being a creepy and terrifyingly grotesque looking clown that may be difficult for some to overlook, however when you come to realise the childish innocence exhibited by Dropsy and the fact that all he wants to do is spread happiness and joy to the miserable residents of a town through hugging, you will quickly be sucked into an engrossing tale of a character that brings positivity through an underlying dark streak of sadness and some mind-bendingly disturbing scenes.
Essentially, Dropsy has a heart of gold, and his mission is to make everyone happy and regain the trust of the townspeople one hug at a time. The way this is achieved is mainly through resolving the underlying issues that are causing unhappiness among the residents, with the resulting outcome (be it through the pairing of random items or some trading) a happy resolution and an accepting hug. Each hug made also earns the player an interesting kind of achievement; Firstly a jingle showing that a hug has been successfully made, and secondly, a record of this as a childishly scrawled image of the ‘hugged’ character above Dropsy’s bed.
A non-traditional point and click adventure
The style of the game is gorgeously retro, with graphics and animation reminiscent of the first Sam and Max point and click adventure game, but the way it is delivered here is both very intuitive and clever. Firstly, there is no apparent dialogue in the game, which makes it instantly accessible to all. Everything is presented as thought-bubbles around NPC’s heads to show an image of how they are feeling, along with images of a clue to some kind of contextual need.
Clues are also presented in the actions given off in certain situations by the townsfolk, such as an overly aggressive officer in town that causes Dropsy to flinch by any slight interaction. There is also a day and night mechanic, which changes in-game scenes significantly and interactions such as an angry costume shop owner who hates Dropsy and forbids him from entering his shop by day, but can be found mourning his dead wife at a graveyard during the night which acts as the only point you’re able to interact with him.
Speaking of the mechanics, the game is controlled either with a mouse or directly on the touch screen, and your mouse click will either look, or pick-up/interact with an item. Any items picked up are saved in your inventory, and can be used to interact with other people or objects. There is also a button that is specifically for hugging, so in a situation where the general mouse click/touch may exhibit a shrug from Dropsy, it is always worth trying the ‘hug’ button to see what happens, as you’ll come to realise, there are quite a few inanimate objects you can ‘earn’ hugs from!
Your doggie companion in the game will also help solve puzzles, either by triggering events in hard to reach areas, digging up items, or earning his own type of achievement (which is marking his territory on mostly inanimate objects!). As you progress through the game, your party will grow with 2 additional animal characters that are integral to solving puzzles and progressing the story, and can be controlled independently on certain screens. Yep, Dropsy can talk to the animals, too!
It is worth noting that the game has no set order in the way you complete objectives or make people happy, however you will be able to tell when you are actually progressing the main story as key sequences will play to open up other areas ‘clouded off’ on the world map, and each significant section of progress is ‘marked’ by a Dropsy ‘nightmare’ sequence, which is very disturbing but gives clues not only to how Dropsy is feeling inside, but also the situation with the circus fire, his family, and those that were affected.
The music throughout the game is also an eclectic mix of various styles, ranging from metal to reggae/ska, but with effects to really fit the mood, and in certain situations exhibit a retro feel. Sometimes the music in certain areas is reworked to fit the mood of that scene, and is intentionally distorted either to reflect the horror of a nightmare sequence for example, or within some other unsavoury sections of the game such as breaking into a building at night with your little animal friends at some point!
The clever way in which the game expresses itself without any dialogue leaves it open to interpretation, and is also creating many theories on the ‘lore’ of the characters/situations, and varying discussions of it on both the Steam community forums, and also a sub-reddit of the game. Since there aren’t any dialogue or character associations, it’s funny also noticing the names that are given on forums to describe the people within the game, such as CEO, Church Lady, Junkyard King, mutant rat etc.
Interestingly, it has been discovered that the various alien looking writing within the game world is actually directly translatable to English, and someone has created a cipher of this online if people care to delve into what things mean when they play through it. It is theorised that the reason that there is no specific dialogue in-game is because you interpret what everything means from Dropsy’s simplistic point of view, as whilst playing, many of the situations are obvious enough for you to understand what is going on (even if Dropsy doesn’t!).
If there are any issues I’ve found, it’s that because everything is icon/image driven, sometimes it is easy to misinterpret what icons represent when trying to solve puzzles. So you may see an icon that looks like drugs, but it actually represents money, or when an icon of a tyre actually looks like a doughnut; you end up spending a lot of the time wandering aimlessly looking for items that may not exist, or be completely lost on a situation. This has culminated into discussion online on how to solve various situations, and even the developers themselves have been on hand to help out. As an adventure fan I would say this doesn’t detract much from the overall experience, as most of it is very straight forward, which is a testament to how well the icon system has been designed, but for most others it would probably be the main source of any frustration.
You can tell that the developers of Dropsy have poured a lot of love into Dropsy, and also in the telling of their story, which is superbly crafted, and brings a fresh twist on a near forgotten genre in gaming. These days, it is fashionable for games to be continually dark and gritty, or lack the substance of a truly interesting tale with varying themes, however Dropsy pulls it off with stark contrasts of joyful whimsy in the face of depressingly dark and disturbing environments, while remaining positive and evocative in the process.
This game will keep you invested throughout, and grip onto your emotions as you grow to care about Dropsy and his animal friends. You can get through the game in about 4-5 hours, and completionists will want to trawl back through and ‘hug out’ everything they can. This game is a gem that will have you thinking about it long after the adventure is over, and is something sorely missed in the adventure gaming genre. Heartily recommended!
Available now on Steam for PC, Mac OSX and Linux at only £6.29 or £13.49 for the ‘Warm Damp Hug Edition’ which a digital sounds track, EP and ‘book of secrets’. It is also coming soon to Android and IOS devices.