The Castle Doctrine is a game based on the eponymous legal doctrine in America that designates a person’s home as a place where they can use deadly force to protect themselves. The premise of the game is simple, and yet psychologically complex. At its core, the game is about protecting your home (and safe), complete with wife and kids, before going out to raid other houses. Yet as you play, you find yourself becoming more paranoid about your home, and more intent on revenge.
You begin the game as a generic, three-named man. You have $2000 in a safe, a wife and two kids. You must use your funds to build home defenses while still allowing your family a free route out of the house. Upon completing your death maze, you must prove that it is doable by raiding your own safe without being killed by your own traps. As there is no tutorial, this is the first place you use to learn how all the defenses work. I was killed by my electrical flooring, pit bull and wife (I gave her a shotgun) before I learned how it all fit together.
Death in The Castle Doctrine is permanent. If you die (in your house or someone else’s) you must restart as a new three-named man with a new family and $2000. Just like Procedural Death Labyrinths, you as a player level up and gain greater understanding rather than having an in-game character improve. However, this isn’t a PDL – your death is not due to some evil program, but rather engineered by a superior human mind.
It is a unique form of MMO – all players are robbing each other without any sense of who the other person is in real life. Everyone is a generic, three-named individual regardless of their actual sex, race, or geographical location. You could be robbing your best friend playing the game, or your worst enemy without ever knowing it. This adds a faceless danger to the experience – you have no idea who is robbing you or whom you are robbing.
Aesthetically, The Castle Doctrine is very minimalistic. Design is pixellated and can often be confusing – without description of the defenses it’s hard to differentiate the types of walls, wiring or switches. There is music, but only when robbing your house or testing your own home. It is meant to be moody and set you on edge, but in the end didn’t really add anything to the experience for me.
If the gameplay and aesthetics are less than engaging, the psychological experience at least makes up for it. At first, I would build my house quickly and then go off to rob others, spending most of my money on tools for burglary. However, I became frustrated when I kept dying and had to start over again. Instead, I decided to build a more deadly and complex home (inspired by the horrible ways I died in other homes), checking in from time to time to see if anyone had tried to rob me. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that you can view the security tapes of every robbery attempt – you can find the man who killed your wife, or see the security weaknesses in your defenses. I found myself in a strange cycle of going out, watching tapes and tinkering with my design.
Unfortunately, there is no way to save your death maze for ease of restarting. This means that upon your death, you will need to restart, building a new home defense system. This actually discouraged me from going out to rob other houses – why would I want to risk death in another house when it would mean losing my perfectly constructed electrical death maze? In fact, this was the most frustrating part of the game for me. I just wanted a “restart with my default defenses” option so that I didn’t have to agonize about going out to steal from others, or at least could rage quit after dying without having my new house utterly exposed.
I believe that is intentional – from a psychological standpoint it makes you ponder the futility of your own defenses. It also makes players engage in risk analysis – is it worth it to go rob the miscellaneous three-name man’s home when it could mean dying myself? Furthermore, it plays on the modern man’s doubts of his ability as a protector – words can’t describe how I felt the first time I returned home to find my wife dead. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t protect her.
While The Castle Doctrine makes for some interesting psychological analysis, the gameplay ends up feeling futile and frustrating. Perhaps it’s all worthwhile when you build the perfect death maze, your family is always safe and your funds keep rising. However, it is incredibly difficult to get to that point, and the game isn’t pretty or intriguing enough in the short term to make me want to invest the necessary time to get to that point.
Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine is available on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux.