Fixing The Castle Doctrine’s Self-Defense Parable

You find within the depths of the mansion a treasury, looting it for all its worth. Tracing your steps leads you safely back into the night. Whatever thrill you derived is stifled on the discovery of your shattered front door. Someone has already come and gone, fleecing your entire vault. Scoundrels. Thieves. They are the baddie.

But you are also the baddie. This is a game where you are also the baddie, and this is the game’s lesson. The lesson extends no further than this revelation that burglary hurts the victim. Tomorrow, you will be the baddie again.

The Castle Doctrine is a story of theft and death, if creator Jason Rohrer is a credible source. Since the game isn’t out yet, I’m going by his word. Several interviews (Rock Paper Shotgun part 1 and 2 and with John Brindle) hinting towards his aspirations for the title dash optimism, at least regarding his personal views.

So bearing in mind that this is how he chose to market the game and this is how he’s representing it, I have an objection to the message he seems intent on sending. 

Rohrer seems focused on the basic moral question of the castle doctrine – the legal tenet that permits homeowners to kill intruders while protecting their property. To provoke this scenario he tweezes out everything surrounding the reality of “unsafe neighbourhoods”, to force the abstract question into actuality:

Obviously it’s not supposed to be a perfect simulation of ‘the world’, and the causes of crime and everything – it’s about the distilled moral question, in the moment of the crime. 

[…]

“The inevitability that I build into the game is just a mechanism to ensure that it happens, to face the real question instead of answering it in the abstract. The game is very sort of balanced in its construction, in that everyone who’s sitting around, well, who are they defending themselves from? Other people who are going to do themselves! It really is a game about being a victim, but in order to make that happen I had to populate that world, so that’s just sort of a side-effect of making this really elegant system that churns away like a machine, forces this situation to happen, and forces you to deal with what you would do in this situation. This question is a pretty popular one, a pretty common one to discuss, and something that I’ve thought about a lot.” 

[Emphasis mine]

To ask the distilled moral question, Rohrer extracts all the social, political and economic factors that play into the issue’s reality. In The Castle Doctrine, players are baddies because there isn’t very much else to the game.

“But no, it's just a bit of fun – everyone robs to be a robber. Sneaking through someone’s darkened house – keep the system working so that the misfortunes that you want to befall you do happen, so you have to grapple with the consequences of these things.”

The violator/violated cycle of The Castle Doctrine self-perpetuates because, it seems, it’s enjoyable to violate. In reality, the relationship of a burglar and the mansion owner is a ton more complex than swapping a binary. An enormity of factors play in that push it into motion: low incomes, high rent, rising costs for groceries and bills, an overcrowded job market, a disparaging national media, unattainable health services, poorly maintained amenities and local services, and on and on.

Rohrer’s distillation creates a gulf between the issue in reality and the issue as TCD discusses it. For the most part, people don’t suddenly materialise into criminals one day. There are causes that drive them there, making their roles in society much more tragic than Rohrer’s moustachioed caricature. As game designer, he adopts the teleology of the world within TCD, and with it responsibility for the system’s narrative dynamics falls upon his head. So, whereas in reality these criminals are created by the horrors of the world, in TCD they are selfish, greedy opportunists with nothing better to do.

So the narrative of TCD’s violator/violated cycle speaks of how enjoyable it is. Having decontextualized the moral question from any social or economic cause, burglary resembles an adventure rather than enactment of desperation; an intruder is a rival adventurer, the morality of killing is justified by Rohrer’s demand for it.

In The Walking Dead, moral dilemmas are contextualized through interpersonal relationships. In Mass Effect they’re contextualized politically (Council vs Alliance, Geth vs Quarians, Krogans vs genophage). Since Rohrer shuns context, the moral question in TCD is framed around little more than Rohreric cosmology – the player has no narrative backstory outside of the gameplay to justify actions. It’s unanchored.

Now, supposing I’m right in this, if that’s what Rohrer hopes to achieve, that’s fine. If he wants his message to be no more than “burglary is wrong (but isn’t it fun!)” I can’t fault him for going no further than that. As messages go, it’s vapid and shallow and irresponsible. It warrants criticism for its immorality.

But it’s fixable. Some tweaks and the introduction of a rudimentary economy would suffice to ground the message in relevance. I sometimes get the feeling that tearing something apart without explicitly suggesting a fix is considered redundant or petty. That’s a wholly unfair and incomprehensible complaint, mind you, but in this case it might be fun to try a few suggestions. 

So, prior to the player launching into the trap-burgle-trap dynamic of the game, all that’s needed to substantiate the narrative could be achieved through context via a few underlying systems. 

1. A teetering budget. Capital in TCD is dedicated to the purchasing of newer and greater traps. You have a family who presumably cannot eat traps, sleep in traps, or watch traps all day as a form of entertainment. Instead, the player should need to allocate money to food, bills, rent, entertainment, etc. Pushing numbers on a column is all it takes. 

Except, no matter how hard the player tries, the breakeven point is always just out of reach. Your family’s total income is never enough to satisfy the family’s needs with enough left over to protect against the future. This tension can be antagonized by…

2. An economic recession. Salary from your day job slowly decreases from day to day, while the costs for groceries and amenities creeps ever upwards. The less you venture out to burgle, the steeper the graph. When you do go out to rob a neighbour, your budget levels off or tips back to grant you some leeway. Since the sole deciding factor to this is your current income, the state of your budget can be determined by fixing the numbers to be just out of reach if you’ve been living peaceably or comfortably balanced if last night saw a burst in capital.

3. Cost-fixing for traps. Along with groceries, traps need to be purchased to maintain your livelihood. The better-off you are, the more expensive the traps become. Since traps are the means of retaining your wealth or your pacifism, the cost can creep according to how long you’ve been playing and how successfully you’re doing.

4. The player’s been put into a small loop, forced to turn to crime by their immediate finances. Now it’s time to contextualize that loop within the greater community. An oversaturated job market pins the player to their presently declining income. Offer the illusion that greater (legal) options are available to them if they only work hard enough.

Except, perhaps, the only jobs actually available are unpaid internships or involve a step down in wage; all higher-paying jobs advertised could rule you out through criteria or simply never respond to your application. The job market is already a network of Catch-22s and, in my experience, effective at instilling fatalistic inevitability. It’s a perfect fit for TCD’s nihilism.

5. Antagonistic media. One large factor in the self-perpetuating machine of poverty and crime is the sense of Othering by society at large. If the player continuously feels unfairly labelled a criminal and degenerate by local or national media, they’re likely to feel justified in turning to a life of crime out of resentment and despair.

This can be done any number of ways. Whenever a TV is turned on it can broadcast disparaging comments about the player’s neighbourhood, saying it’s no more than the inhabitants’ own fault. Newspapers can cite full-bellied politicians blaming local crime on laziness and immorality of perpetrators, while glibly demonstrating ignorance on the economic conditions familiar to the player. Billboards can advertise super effective home defence systems for the responsible, caring, mature family figurehead, but at a price far beyond the means of the player.

6. Relating not so much to teleology as it does to the problematic nature of affixing your family to a mechanic: an autonomous wife. Rather than making her a piece of walking property, strip out that mechanical function entirely. Instead, assign her random behavioural habits reflecting personality traits. Perhaps when an intruder breaks in, she’ll look for a hiding spot. Perhaps she’ll try to escape. Perhaps she’ll flee to a panic room (ie. the vault). Perhaps she’ll try to attack the intruder, or lure them deeper into your deadly maze.

In doing so, the wife is decharacterized as a manifestation of the player’s wealth and granted some agency in her own right. She becomes more of an agent and less of a prize.

As she stands, the wife is an incredibly troubling inclusion for TCD – it’s tough to think of a fix without either ditching her mechanic or superseding it with more prominent design choices. (Credit for this solution goes to Zoya Street, by the way.)

Most of these elements can be little more than a screen of text and images – your budget is a very basic balance sheet, the newspaper a legible headline above lorem ipsum, the job market a bulletin board displaying a handful of generic job titles and salaries, your weekly grocery shopping an adaptation of the trap purchasing system. None of them need to detract from the core of the game – building and evading traps.

Every single one of these would be optional for the player, so if the player right away wants to set up traps and burgle from the get-go, the opportunity is there to ignore this context. (Chances are the moral of the story would be lost, though.) But if the player rebels against the mechanical constraints of the game, these elements could provide sufficient context and narrative impetus to diegetically prod them towards a life of crime. It adds substance to TCD’s moral question and helps cure the game of its irresponsibility.

It also tells a nifty tale about the social repercussions of capitalism. If that’s not something Rohrer intends to do, he may want to change the game right now, since it’s going to be about capitalism one way or the other. 

While these few suggestions won’t fix even nearly all the problems hinted of the game, nor do they remedy Rohrer’s objectionable personal opinions, they might do to dissipate some of the teleological issues shining through Rohrer’s interviews.

 

Stephen Beirne is a freelance critic of videogames as cultural texts, examining design and social phenomenon under narrative, philosophical, political, social and feminist lenses. You can see more of him on Twitter @ByronicM and his blog Normally Rascal or help to support his writing by visiting his Patreon page and pledging a few quid as patronage.