The Castle Doctrine Review

One man's home is another man's hell

by

I've read developer Jason Rohrer's account of the events that inspired his game, The Castle Doctrine, many times, in many places, leading up to its release. His family lived in a bad neighborhood. A dog attacked his wife during a family bike ride. He bought a club to beat away any other dogs that might threaten them in the future (a club that he'd later offer as a reward for an in-game contest). It's begun to sound like a mantra, imbued with greater significance through the act of repetition. Rohrer sought to probe the conflicted feelings that haunted him about the event--about his role as de facto protector of his family and his home. The Castle Doctrine is the game born of that narrative, and named after the principle of law that a resident is free to use deadly force on intruders.

That's a touchy proposition. Emotions swirl around the doctrine. It's bound to systems of economic and racial disparity, to prejudices and fears that are inherently irrational. Yet The Castle Doctrine nimbly leaps that moat, and assumes a scenario in which a break-in is inevitable. You're given $2000, a vault to hide it in, and a pixelated nuclear family that looks on, expectantly, for you to construct a fortress. And you'd better do so, because a server's worth of other players will get a chance to invade the minute you step out the front door. They'll be coming for the cash you've left in your vault, and the only things standing in their way will be the walls, traps, and pit bulls that you've placed in between.

Mistakes were made.

You may also mask your face and play the more directly villainous role yourself. Upon leaving your own home you're presented with a list of everyone else's abode, top-down from rich to poor. After you've tediously scrolled your way through to a house that looks viable, you're just a click away from their doorsteps. When attacking, you face a darker, more imposing version of the same sort of plot you've been given, usually made unrecognizable by its owner's unique renovations. Stepping into a home is a matter of pressing the corresponding arrow key to move to an adjacent space on the grid. Surviving the owner's labyrinth is another matter entirely.

Walls tend to get short shrift in video games, which see them only as physical barriers to be scaled or bypassed with X-ray vision. But walls can also partition information. The Castle Doctrine uses them thusly, and to great effect. They reduce the field of view, shrouding invaders in dark, cramped hallways, and hiding the contents of rooms. Walls funnel prospective robbers like a cattle run, away from critical sections of your dwelling and into the deathtraps you've laid elsewhere. Should an invader get cooked on your electrified floors, or mauled by one of your pit bulls, you claim a bounty and any items they had on their person. The incentive then, is not to repel invaders, but to draw them deeper--to play off their confidence or curiosity and lure them into putting their own heads in the noose.

Show him what he's won behind Door #2: more angry pit bulls!

Information is the grand advantage that the defender has over the attacker in The Castle Doctrine, and savvy players put that advantage to diabolical use. While the game requires you to prove that you can bypass your own defenses without tools prior to opening your home to invasion, foreknowledge of your own traps makes this a formality. A winning strategy quickly reveals itself: force would-be burglars into a guessing game with impossible odds. Tuck your vault in the back of one of a few dozen identical hallways, and a guaranteed death behind the rest. Every home worth the effort of a break-in has some version of this gambit within its walls, with an intimidating tally of deceased attackers steadily growing alongside the value of its vault.

There are other strategies, too, puzzles and psychological ploys that players have lent expressive names like "Schrodinger's Corpse." There are the commit gates that prevent retreat by activating when certain thresholds are crossed. The pit bulls that catch sight of invaders through windows, then move to attack through unknown channels behind the walls like Dead Space necromorphs. The massive spans of electrified floor that only receive a current the moment a burglar is too far from the end to make a break for it, and too far from the start to go back the way they came. The most devious of the bunch place cats—which move away from the player upon sight—in a position where they retreat towards an off-screen assemblage of switches that control traps attackers must step over. Only the owner knows the specific pace required for safe passage.

The incentive then, is not to repel invaders, but to draw them deeper--to play off their confidence or curiosity and lure them into putting their own heads in the noose.

Every trap has a corresponding tool that can be used to bypass it, in theory. Wood walls can be sawed, pit bulls can be fed a drug-filled steak, and so on. These weapons are intended to be the means by which robbers can circumvent inauspicious pathways, or rectify a wrong step. But it's no difficult task to introduce enough redundancy to your home to tool-proof it, when a section of steel wall costs $40 and the one-time-use cutting torch needed to bypass it costs $800. Entering another's home is a bad bet in The Castle Doctrine, a lottery ticket's chance at success measured against near-infinite permutations of grisly death.

Perhaps parity isn't the goal for The Castle Doctrine. Indeed, there's something of the desperation that might drive someone to attempt a real robbery in the game's model. Nobody tries to shoot the moon here unless they've been dealt a bad hand, one way or another. Perhaps you fell to another player's traps. Or you returned home to find your metaphorical castle sacked, the vault empty and your family dead, and committed suicide. There's no end-game here; one fate or the other catches up to everyone eventually. Death means a hard reset: a new vault, a new $2000, and a new pixelated family with new randomly generated names.

A wife, two kids, and a safe. You'll be returning to this screen often.

The tragic story of your faux-family dulls each time they're bludgeoned to death. You start viewing them as board game pieces, to be distributed in the defense of your vault. You use their panic buttons to trigger traps. You give your wife a gun. You turn the children into sentinels. You stop checking their randomly generated names. They're doomed anyway--by the end you're about as broken up over their loss as you are when the opposing team captures your flag in Call of Duty. The zero-sum structure of The Castle Doctrine encourages this sort of casual indifference. Cynically, the game parcels out half of your cash to the wife character with the expectation that a mechanical concern for her safety will bleed into an empathic one. But the decision provides a motivation for attackers to kill wives, too.

What is The Castle Doctrine, without empathy, without emotion? Just a game, in the most pejorative sense of the word. From their removed, isometric vantage point, the player gets no sense of the concerns or fears that could rouse a new father from sleep, baseball bat at the ready. Nor do they get a fair look at the political and ethical undercurrents that run just underneath just such a hypothetical. Any semblance of reality evaporates the first time they attempt to return to their house only to be turned away with the message "Your house is currently being robbed. You can't work on it right now."

Rohrer may have set out to make a game that puts players in his shoes, that plays at conflicted machismo and the fuzzy logic of home invasion paranoia. I would have been interested to play that game. But the flawed, nihilistic, trap-building simulator that resulted isn't worth a look. In the whole of the game, only one metaphor hit home for me. Sometimes when you manage to reach another person's vault, you find it empty, pillaged by a previous robber. There's nothing to take away, and all the time and effort you've put into the endeavor has been wasted.

The Good
There's a strategist’s joy in turning your home into a dark, imposing maze
The best traps showcase an admirable, mustache-twirling supervillainy
The Bad
Doesn't execute on its premise of exploring the emotions of home defense
As a robber, you're usually on the wrong side of a guessing game that's stacked against you
Advocates a confused brand of nihilism
4
Poor
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

/ Staff

Even after many hours of play, Nick Capozzoli clearly doesn't have the sort of nefarious criminal mind required to succeed at The Castle Doctrine's game of trap-building and armed robbery. For the purposes of this review he was killed hundreds of times by pit bulls.

Discussion

30 comments
AK_the_Twilight
AK_the_Twilight

While I don't agree with much of what you say in this review, Nick, I will say that this is one of the most enjoyably well-written reviews I've seen on this site in a long time. Keep writing; you're good at it.

Oloryn
Oloryn

A very well written review for what turned out to be a 4, it read more like an editorial, which is actually what I'd like to see more of in reviews...depth and attention. Looking forward to what you think of games you actually enjoy, keep it up!

GameYakuza
GameYakuza

the game designer was last seen running away with the preorder funds

mariocerame
mariocerame

In terms of your political commentary that's interspersed throughout--I disagree, and particularly with the bit that the doctrine is "bound to systems of economic and racial disparity, to prejudices and fears that are inherently irrational."  I super disagree, both on a historical and a practical basis, and this is an area I have some expertise in.  I won't lay out the diatribe, though.

But as a review, you have given me a good sense of what you liked and didn't like about the game and why.  I feel I can make an informed decision.  I may enjoy the game more than you did--I really enjoy games like Dungeon Keeper and Evil Genius. But your review conveys where the game could fall short, even for someone like me.  So thanks.

majere613
majere613

I think that's the first time I've seen 'Advocates a confused brand of nihilism.' as a review point.


TBH, if I wanted to do this sort of thing I'd probably go for Dungeon Keeper (no, not THAT version) or Deception. But then I prefer to humiliate smug adventurers more than herd desperate home invaders into spiked pits. That's just how I roll.

turtlethetaffer
turtlethetaffer

The premise of the game still sounds really neat. at the very least, I'd be interested to see what kind of traps players make. I can imagine there's frustration involved, but he said nothing about the game being inherently broken (bug or glitch wise).  A 4 seems low for a game where the biggest issue seems to be that it just doesn't get you emotionally invested.

Romeric87
Romeric87

This is an excellent piece of writing. Descriptive but not overly heavy going - just how I like my articles. I thought it read like a higher score, however. One would expect better from Rohrer. You guys rarely steer me towards the wrong games, though. I'll take your word for it on this one!

Keep up the good work!

edgarallanfoe
edgarallanfoe

This is one of the most interesting new ideas I've seen in a while, and it's a very cleverly balanced game (Having to beat your own house, losing equipment upon failure in order to keep top players from harassing noobs, etc). It deserves more than 4. The reviewer just seems annoyed with the concept, and possible the person behind the game.


There are a few factual errors here, as well. For example, you can check out a house before deciding what tools to get, so it's not just a lottery. I've seen people enter my house only to return with a saw or something and wreak havoc.

prats93
prats93

Is this from the moron who said Steam sales are bad, and increased the price of his own game over time. Lmao.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

Just in case you are wondering, Jason Rohrer is the dude that said sales screw fans.

(I would put a link here but GameSpot's LiveFyre plug-in is f*cking up again.)

ziproy
ziproy

What racial undercurrents does The Castle Doctrine have?? I find some scumbag in my house where he doesn't belong trying to take what I have, I am going to stop him any way I can. Black, Caucasian or otherwise

sunbeam4
sunbeam4

re: Jason Rohrer is a whack job. don't waste your time on him or his game.

AdaptorLive
AdaptorLive

Good review! I was really intrigued by this game but the gameplay just seemed way too frustrating and tedious to be enjoyable.

edgarallanfoe
edgarallanfoe

@majere613  I don't even see how this game "advocates a confused brand of nihilism". It doesn't do that any more than GTA advocates stealing cars and killing innocents. I think the cynical premise in The Castle Doctrine is quite humorous. "Rob other people's houses to afford protecting your own". The irony in that is pretty hilarious.

edgarallanfoe
edgarallanfoe

@Romeric87  If you're one to expect good stuff from Rohrer, you should probably give this one a shot. I usually find Rohrers games (the few I've played) interesting but too mechanical and ultimately boring. In the Castle Doctrine, the gameplay comes together better than in any other of his games, in my opinon. It's suspenseful and organic, with a wonderfully cynical premise to match it.

edgarallanfoe
edgarallanfoe

@prats93  He's not increasing the price. He had a cheap early access price and then went full price, promising no future sales.

edgarallanfoe
edgarallanfoe

@Gelugon_baat  Not fans especially, but he's right. How many games did you buy during Steam sales that you will probably never play? If you know a game will never go on sale, it does you two favors: 1) You will never feel burned because you bought the game just before a sale, and 2) you won't buy the game unless you really are interested in it, so it keeps you from wasting your money.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@ziproy  

The reviewer isn't alleging that The Castle Doctrine has "racial undercurrents", but instead mentions that the game dodges it. You might want to read the passage with that phrase again.

In other words, you are confusing a passing remark by the reviewer as something that he associated with the game.

bassjunkee
bassjunkee

@ziproy  The racial undercurrents are more about the way the doctrine has been applied.  In the Southern US it's more difficult for a black individual to successfully invoke the doctrine if the intruder is white than the opposite situation.  Additionally, white individuals have been able to successfully invoke the doctrine when the alleged intruder wasn't clearly intruding.  Although these situations are the vocal minority of cases involving the castle doctrine, they do exist.  The doctrine itself is race-neutral but judges and juries are not.

mariocerame
mariocerame

@Gelugon_baat @ziproy

The negative reciprocal is that there are racial implications--just that the game tries to avoid them. And it was hardly a passing remark--the reviewer intersperses political commentary throughout.  Maybe that's right here, and maybe it's distracting.  I'm not sure.

mariocerame
mariocerame

@bassjunkee

I think this supposition is misinformed.   Are folks in a white, upper middle class suburb with all that entails more likely to need the shelter of the doctrine than folks in a poor, inner city community?  Here's the disparity I see, in terms of reporting and even in prosecutions--white upper middle class communities have home invasions; poor people just have robberies. 

Although there is a racial issue here, I think it cuts very much the other way.

Setho10
Setho10

@mariocerame I think you are missing the point. The wealth of the individual is not the issue. The issue is the assumption that a black man in middle class suburb is likely there to rob the white residents. You can see numerous examples of this all over the country. A black professor, I believe at Harvard, was arrested for trying to enter his own house. The cop didn't think a black man could afford the home he was entering and so he was arrested. There is a great video, I sadly don't remember the name right now, that shows a social experiment. A bike is placed in a park locked to a lamp post. First the creators have a young white man go up to the bike and try to saw off the lock. The man is an actor, and he is told that if questioned he has to admit he is stealing the bike. After something like two hours only one or two people even question what he is doing, and even when told that he is stealing the bike the people simply move on.

The creators then have a young black man, wearing the exact same outfit perform the exact same action. He is there less than 30 seconds before the cops are called, and even when the producers reveal that the man is an actor, several people refuse to believe them. Just to be certain they wait a while and then have the same actor go back out and once again, within 30 seconds the police have been called. Lastly they have an attractive young white woman doing the same thing in a revealing outfit. Within a couple of minutes several men ask her if she needs help and even after she reveals she is stealing the bike, several men still help her cut through the lock.

Obviously this isn't an instance of the castle doctrine, but it illustrates how in the US a young black man is assumed to be a criminal while a young white man is not and a young white woman is in fact immediately assumed to be the victim.

The Castle Doctrine More Info

First Release on Jan 29, 2014
  • PC
  • Unix/Linux
  • Macintosh
The Castle Doctrine is a massively multiplayer game of burglary and home defense.
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Developed by:
Jason Rohrer
Published by:
Jason Rohrer
Genres:
MMO, Role-Playing