I didn’t plan for things to turn out this way. It just… happened.
The Castle Doctrine is an MMO created by Jason Rohrer that tasks you with keeping you and your family safe. You play a man with a wife and two kids. You have $2000 and a catalogue of tools to create deadly, elaborate traps to catch would-be burglars setting foot on your property. How do you continue to fund your traps? Simple. You go out and rob other player’s houses, and try not to get killed in the process.
You always remember your first.
Burglary attempt number one didn’t go so well, and that’s putting it lightly. When I stepped into the stranger’s house, two children ran past me. I had no intention of harming them, nor could I—I didn’t bring any weapons with me. And besides, I was just after some money. How else could I keep my house safe? I rounded a corner and a woman’s body lay crumpled before me. Someone had killed the poor bastard’s wife and made off with her money.
But the previous crook must have stopped there and fled. All the house’s traps looked unsprung. The game saves a house’s state after a family member dies and after a house is robbed. This can leave some houses impossible to solve. Bulldogs move around. Traps are triggered and are left on. This is actually an intentional part of Rohrer’s design, and makes the player question whether or not the puzzle before them actually has a solution at all.
Since it didn’t look like the last guy messed things up too badly (you know, besides murdering someone), I decided to push forward. Ahead, a pressure plate blocked my path from the rest of the house. I cautiously stepped forward. The plate triggered a nearby door to slide open. Four bloodthirsty bulldogs poured out. Shiiiiiiit. Forced forward, I was met with eight hallways. Surely only one of them led to the house’s vault. I had to choose.
I chose poorly. Hallway number two led to a live electrified floor. Now that’s just cruel. As if a dead end wasn’t good enough. I now had options. Get torn to pieces by bulldogs, or fry myself with electricity?
Only one life to live (at a time).
When you die in TCD, you lose everything. Even when you’re testing your own traps. It’s ruthless, but it is necessary. It makes every step that much more nerve wracking. It makes you feel vulnerable, weak, and totally unprepared to take on the traps devised by your peers.
After shocking myself to death, the game started anew. I got another house, another family, and $2000 to protect them both. Impressed by the last guy’s trap, I opted to borrow it.
Unleash the hounds!
It wasn’t exactly the most secure trap. Thieves had a one-in-eight chance of picking the right hallway. But it got the job done for a while. The game provides players with security footage of failed and successful robbery attempts.. I watched players break inside. Again and again they chose the wrong path. They ended up mauled, electrocuted. Some even chose to kill themselves. Rohrer chose to include a suicide button, just in case. I have to admit, it was pure voyeuristic schadenfreude.
Though my trap was ultimately bested. An intruder found an easy exploit. They brought a gun. With one shot they stopped all my dogs. The first dog’s body blocked the others’ paths. This gave the burglar all the time in the world to cautiously check each hallway. Once they found my vault, they made off with half of my money. $700. Damn it. Thankfully my wife had the other half.
So I built a fortress.
I had to step up my game. By this time I’d convinced a few of my friends to join in on the breaking and entering fun. We spent a while talking about elaborate ideas and working with the game’s circuity.
I wanted a password system. Something simple yet impenetrable. So I started with a big steel vault with nine powered doors in a row. Why nine? Because players can only bring eight tools along with them. Even if crooks come prepared with eight crowbars, they’d find themselves one crowbar short. Just one door away from the loot. I later changed that last door into an electric floor. It was the next best thing to saying, “Hah! Saw that one coming. Now kill yourself.”
I made my password system—fourteen sticky pressure plates which can only be toggled once (and one regular pressure plate, because I’m an evil person who likes to mess with people). The right combination must be pressed to lower the powered doors and reveal the vault.
All the walls in my house are at least nine blocks thick. That way, my circuitry is hidden and my password is safe. To finish off my design, I placed an electric floor right in front of the door. Once the intruder steps inside, it goes live, preventing them from exiting again. Unless they bring a bottle of water to short it out. But it seems not many people elect to bring that tool.
But my fortress came at a grave cost. In TCD, family members must have an entirely unobstructed pathway to escape. Limited by space, I was forced to put my family right between the door and the electric floor. When an intruder enters, they’re immediately greeted with my family. I was basically daring players to kill them.
And they did. Within minutes. Players are cruel in this game. But that’s coming from someone who’s now trapped and killed 1000 in his house. Perhaps cruelty is a relative concept in this game.
And things got meta fast.
So far, no one has ever legitimately guessed my password, nor have they circumvented my vault. Though people have stolen from me, in more ways than one.
Upon reviewing the first successful thief’s security footage, I saw that he didn’t enter a password at all. He just walked on in and phased through the still-locked doors. Cheating is going to be an issue with any online game, but Rohrer’s security feature acts as a remarkable anti-cheat system. I sent an email his way, and the next day players got an email notifying them that the cheater had been caught and was banned. Serves him right!
The second time, someone actually entered the right password. What are the chances? Well, pretty damn high. But it’s possible! He made off with about $70,000. And I wanted it back. The security footage told me his in-game name. A couple minutes later, I went to steal it back. Or to kill his family. I wanted a bit of vengeance, one way or another. But when I entered his house, it was exactly the same as mine. Exactly. How did I know? He had the same exact password.
I stole my money back, laughing like a maniac. It was the start of an amusing metagame. Lock and key. I kept looking for ways to purposefully sabotage my own house. A wire that’s only accessible after digging eight squares in a certain direction. A hidden bypass switch hidden that blended in with other wiring. I left these backdoors so my friends and I could break in if he ever stole from me again. Which he did. And we managed to steal from him two more times before he was eventually banned. Sweet, sweet justice.
Safe became too safe.
It’s been four days since I’ve made my fortress, and I haven’t robbed a house since. My security tapes are piling up and I’ve been selling the tools thieves brought with them. My vault now holds $185,000. Yet I have nothing to spend it all on.
I’m afraid to leave my house. If I try to rob someone, I’ll probably die. I already proved that I’m not exactly a master thief with my earliest attempts. And I have far too much to lose.
Or at least it feels that way. I have money. I have a vault design with is both expensive and a pain in the ass to make again. And I have my curiosity. How long will it be before someone guesses the right password? Will someone find a workaround I didn’t see coming? I want to see someone make off all that money. But it’s left me unable to actually play. I’m paralysed by the safety that surrounds me.
To balance, or not to balance?
TCD raises a critical question about games. Should they be balanced? I was searching YouTube for videos of people trying to rob my house. Apparently the security footage wasn’t good enough for me—I wanted to hear people struggling with the puzzle I made. I only found a few, and most people just chose not to attempt it. Honestly, that’s a pretty wise move. But in the comments, people were questioning the fairness of many of the player-made puzzles.
And they have a point. There are many houses (including my own) which are horrendously difficult to rob. And my nine-block-thick walls hardly seem fair. In the very least, they’re not very sportsmanlike. But should Rohrer prevent people from making houses like mine?
Art imitates life, and life is tragically unfair. If TCD is art, why should it strive to be fair? Rohrer is known for making “art-games,” a term which I personally find a bit silly. We don’t usually call meaningful novels “art novels.” They’re just “novels.” But Rohrer’s work is characteristically rich with meaning, and this meaning comes directly from his games’ mechanics.
In this case, TCD’s mechanics have made me feel true isolation. In the game, I’m a madman with a fortress. All alone. I can’t go out and try to test my mettle against anyone else. I can only sit back and watch people die in now-predictable ways as they try to guess my password. How riveting, right?
Meaning from murder
So here I sit on a throne of dollar bills, watching tape after tape of failed thieves. I didn’t plan for things to go this way, nor am I certain how long it’ll last. I could wait for someone to get lucky, or I could just end it all and start again. I enjoyed robbing others, and I want to get back to that soon. Not because I’m malicious (though the game might be trying to tell me otherwise), but because it’s amazing seeing what puzzles others can make out of a few simple tools.
It’s a bit odd that players have no choice but to rob others to fund their defenses. Shouldn’t we be able to just, you know, get a job or something? Well, I suppose that wouldn’t be very engaging. And you actually can choose to be the “good guy” in this game. How?
Stay at home with your wife and kids. Be safe, and refuse to participate in violence in the name of protection.
But I honestly don’t see myself doing that anytime soon.
The Castle Doctrine is now in public alpha and is available here.
Update: I have been dethroned! I am now free to go back to a life of petty crime! Congratulations to Joseph Peter Williams who made off with my $233,004. It took 2484 attempts with 1518 kills.