Picking up a soda for the big game? Maybe for a big party? Only Gerveson's has a Soda City big enough to handle all your biggest events.
Octodad stares up at 'Soda City', a bizarre art instalment-cum-shopping experience dominating one aisle of Gerveson’s Supermarket. Its centrepiece is an Empire State Building of soda boxes, stacked like a flimsy set of stairs. A small RC plane circles the top. Strapped to its underside, a carbonated bomb, is a bottle of Mango Soda. Octodad wants that soda. Needs that soda. His son won't let him hear the end of it if he doesn't get that soda. He must climb Soda City.
One problem: Octodad doesn't have bones. Or joints. Or motor skills in general, really. He’s an octopus trying to pass as a human. Climbing Soda City, a fickle structure prone to falling apart at the slightest exertion, is a recipe for disaster.
Soda City is one of the most diabolical puzzles in Octodad: Dadliest Catch, a glossy cartoon redo of, or sequel to the infamous 2011 IGF Student Showcase award-winner. It’s diabolical because it's one of the hardest parts to navigate in a game that finds its difficulty in the act of navigation. You can control Octodad's arm or his legs, but never both at the same time. When controlling his legs, you must click and drag the corresponding mouse button, or, if on a gamepad, hold the corresponding trigger while moving the left analogue stick; when controlling his arm, the left mouse button/left analogue stick controls the x and z axes, while the right mouse button/right analogue stick controls the y axis.
It's a nefarious control scheme exacerbated by the physics of being a bipedal octopus. Octodad’s centre of gravity is around his bulbous head, which means that his entire body flails wildly every time you destabilise it. Taking a few steps forward? Octodad's head rolls around in his suit, his body following it around. Climbing a ladder? Good luck getting a solid footing as Octodad’s head forces his leg in the opposite direction. Moving Octodad across a narrow beam? You'll have to handle his head bobbing left and right like a metronome, constantly threatening to topple him.
It would be reductive to describe Dadliest Catch as ‘difficult’ and leave it at that, though. That’s because this design exists for slapstick comedy. Rather than leaning heavily on scripted sequences to tell jokes, as in ‘comedy games’ like Portal 2 or Borderlands, the vast majority of jokes here are made by the player, the result of the their attempts to manage the intersection of the various mechanics (the controls, the physics, the environmental puzzles). You write the skits, failing to stop Octodad from knocking down a domino-line of columns at his wedding, nudging Octodad down a kiddie slide, forcing Octodad through tiny shelves in a supermarket freezer. Discovering that I could use Octodad’s legs to throw him across the aquarium’s ‘funducational’ obstacle course is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in a game, and it had nothing to do with the dialogue, voice-acting or removal of player autonomy. It was just clever, intuitive design.
That’s not to say Dadliest Catch is light on narrative and presentation. Its art style calls to mind old Hanna-Barbera cartoons and Pixar’s The Incredibles, while its script is full of goofy one-liners and delightful comic irony. It’s also surprisingly loaded with pathos for a Saturday morning cartoon of a game; Octodad is a Chaplin-esque figure, a big-hearted romantic with a versatile physical presence and wonderfully expressive eyes, and it’s not hard to share his anxieties about his identity, his worries about being discovered, his fear of losing everything.
It helps that, like a cephalopodan Modern Times, Octodad is often forced into absurd danger by forces beyond his control - his wife’s ill-defined investigative journalism draws him to the aquarium that sets the scene for the second half of the game, and the game’s chief antagonist is a murderous (and rather Orientalist) sushi chef whose reasons for pursuing Octodad are never fully explained.
Dadliest Catch does have some unfortunate issues for a game whose appeal hinges on its difficult-to-control octopus father successfully navigating locations in three dimensions. Clipping bugs are common enough to be noticeable, walls and recycling bins catching the tips of Octodad’s legs and refusing to release them. There’s also the occasional fixed-camera problem typical of any three-dimensional puzzle-platformer – see the changing angles on either side of Soda City, or the angle change in Hot Concessions that’s "Meat Circus" levels of frustrating.
But despite these quibbles, Octodad still has to climb Soda City. He’ll knock the carefully-constructed soda box staircase to the ground; he’ll fall due to poor footholds and his own wobbly body; he’ll wrap his legs around the bars at the top like a sloth and reach out, a mollusc Adam stretching for the holy touch of the Mango Soda. And yeah, it'll have taken twenty minutes, and yeah, it’ll have been frustrating at points. But it’ll also have been hilarious, because Octodad’s an octopus in a suit knocking everything to the ground and looking goofy while trying to emulate human movement.
Dadliest Catch is diabolical, beautiful, ingenious. It’s clowning as game, and no two jokes are the same because you’re the one making them.