I have witnessed The Troof, and it was… interesting.
I witnessed it four times, actually, and within the span of two days. I think I studied Potatoman Seeks the Troof more thoroughly than I did most novels my professors assigned in college. Just don’t tell them that. Really, The Troof didn’t make much more sense the fourth playthrough than it did the first, yet for some reason I kept coming back. I had this notion that one more journey through Potatoman’s world would give me the hidden key I needed to interpreting the game, as if I’d stumble across the one crucial bit of dialogue or the one hidden art asset that would allow me to peel apart its many layers to get to its sweet, sweet Troof-y center. But by playthrough four I was pretty much ready to write Potatoman off as just a silly game. Perhaps the creators randomly threw it all together to make it seem artsy, to mess with people who tried to interpret it as Lennon did to his fans who just had to find the true meaning behind “I am the Walrus” (even though we all know it’s about Sonic’s rotund and eggish villian-formally-known-as-Robotnik, anachronisms aside).
But enough about Eggmen. We’re talking Potatomen.
Try as I might to write this game off, I simply can’t bring myself to call this endearing little spud’s journey completely random and needlessly incomprehensible. His journey made me feel some feels and think some thinks, and that’s worth something in and of itself. It also successfully taunted me with the possibility of interpretation, giving me a handful of nicely developed themes and a plot twist which plays out like the part of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” that everyone seems to remember. It wanted me to ask, “So what’s The Troof? Like, really. Tell me.” And I did. But it didn’t want to give up an answer without a fight.
What first convinced me to give the game a spin was its more than perplexing trailer. The advert acts as a preface to the action of Potatoman, giving some much needed backstory to the already far fetched premise that is a sentient potato’s adventure into the big, dangerous world to discover The Troof. In the video we hear from Malik, Potatoman’s pawdad, who reveals that Potatoman comes from a fairly loving family of farmers who have a tendency to spread some rather unconventional and toxic fertilizer on their crops. When they found the mutated spud, they took him in and raised him as their own. Malik reports that Potatoman never fit in quite right and never excelled at much of anything–not even dancing, despite his love for the act. He was homeschooled and sheltered from the “other boys.” But Malik didn’t feel right keeping him sheltered, and eventually brought him to school where the school kids “made a fool of him somethin’ fierce.” Then, for one reason or another, Potatoman left home, leaving a note which read, “Papa + Merma, went to seek The Troof.” The video is actually one of the most baffling yet emotional pieces of advertising I’ve seen in a long while, and it got me to connect with Potatoman long before I got a chance to play him. Not that the download took long or anything. It’s only 40 MB.
Primed by the lovable advertising, I was ready to start Potatoman’s journey. It began with an escape from the farm. I use the word “escape” carefully, as I was not just allowed to leave without trouble. There were hurdles along the way, many of the literal variety. Mainly in the form of cacti. I overcame these easily enough, jumping over obstacles with the most elegant leaps my potato body could muster. But soon I came across a man in a cowboy hat. Approaching him, he offered me his unique spin on The Troof, saying that it “echoes loud and clear in the silence of the desert.”
Well, that something I thought and carried on my way. Only two steps later, BANG. I received a bullet in the back, and my little potatoman went spinning out of control, letting loose a woefully tragic Atari 2600-like cry. The farmland philosopher shot me! I had no way of anticipating it. The game didn’t warn me. No “Hey, uh. Murderous cowboy’s up ahead. Just letting you know.” Upon returning on my next life, the cowboy even had the gall to ask whether or not he’d been “clear enough the first time.” Jerk. This time I carefully anticipated his moment of treachery and vaulted over his bullet right after he shot it. Ha hah! Take that!
The next cactus hurdle cut my celebrations short. I leaped and actually heard myself suck in a breath when the damn thing shot up at me, barely scraping my little legs. That’s when I knew this game was out to get me. I recalled the hair-ripping obstacles in games like I Wanna Be The Guy and Eryi’s Action, where delicious fruit defies gravity to rip you to pieces, and invisible blocks appear right between you and an already impossible-looking jump. Potatoman, I came to find, is nowhere close to being as unforgiving as these titles, but I still found myself jumping a little when one particular cactus decided to launch into the air and explode into a spiky rain of death.
Really, it seems that almost everything is out to cut this this potato’s journey short. Yet I still felt compelled to heed the “wisdom” of each deadly character that I met. A handful of forest animals spoke of The Troof; to monkeys, The Troof was bananas. To squirrels, “nutz.” The birds didn’t care much for The Troof, and were too busy carelessly dropping eggs like hail overhead. The journey started feeling somewhat like Alice’s adventure through Wonderland, with each new character representing a certain type of person back in the real world. Perhaps the food-fixated animals were stand-ins for single-minded people, like the stereotypical drug addict. Maybe the cowboy’s reverence for silence represents those who seek to keep to themselves and live in isolation. Their ideas on The Troof seem shaped in part by the hand in which they were dealt in life, by the nature and nurture around them. The cowboy’s kind wouldn’t likely find The Troof in the hustle and bustle of the city–which is exactly where Potatoman’s journey brought me next.
Potatoman’s visit to the metropolis is such a simple yet hilariously effective depiction of city life. The city itself consists of many other potatopeople going about their business, being “BZY BZY BZY” as you’d expect city folk to be. Yet it was never really made clear what the potatopeople did that made them so busy. They just kinda rushed around, back and forth in hurried beelines until a random car slammed into them or sent them spinning in amusing cartwheels. After dodging these crazed drivers, I ran into one potatoman who was more willing to talk about The Troof than anyone else in the game. He asked whether or not The Troof could be used to attract ladies, get him a new car, or even make him mayor. He continued asking if The Troof would let him stop going to school and work, and if it would let him watch more TV. Following my Alice in Wonderland idea, I found this sort of questioning to be a pretty spot on representation of the get rich quick sort of person. Pyramid schemes and loopholes ahoy. Sounds like the city if you ask me.
I don’t want to ruin all of Potatoman’s bizarre journey. Half the intrigue is meeting this strange assortment of characters yourself and getting that oh fuck you, game feeling when an obstacle changes behavior right after you felt you mastered it. There’s even a nice twist at the end which could possibly reveal The Troof, or maybe just undercut it entirely. I think the verdict’s still out on that one. But the conclusion is beautiful in its use of game mechanics to make the player feel a loss of ability. By making old obstacles suddenly seem impossible, it shows the player what it feels like to surrender oneself to encroaching inevitability, to just give up and embrace what’s coming. Think the conclusion of Journey, but, you know, coming from a silly little game about a sentient potato.
What I find most satisfying about Potatoman Seeks The Troof is that it leaves itself open to multiple and even conflicting interpretations. In talking about it, players must draw from their own life experiences to contextualize the often-puerile action of the game. Personally, I found a connection with Potatoman’s need to find meaning in things (as if this feature didn’t make that self-evident already). He’s this wide-eyed, outlandish figure who takes on tasks that are too big for him. Tasks that have the potential to ruin him, to turn his worldview upside down. I look at his journey and see a tale that celebrates the pursuit of the impossible just as much as it warns the player against it. It showed me that I’ve got a bit of Potatoman in me. Perhaps everyone does. And if that isn’t The Troof, I don’t know what is.
So really, I don’t feel that Potatoman is a game about telling The Troof. I think it’s a game about reflecting on The Troof, about learning what The Troof means to you.
Or it could just be about potatoes.
Yeah, it’s probably that one.