You know that the industry’s changing when a game about a closet cephalopod garners just as much attention as the next million dollar blockbuster from a multinational team. Sony’s taken great strides to put smaller studios on a level playing field with its first-party developers, and that was evidenced at E3 when Young Horses’ kooky Octodad: Dadliest Catch – a sequel to the indie developer’s PC splash hit – shared a stage with Killzone: Shadow Fall and The Order: 1886. An imaginative lifestyle simulator with an aquatic twist, the title sees you attempting to deceive your unsuspecting family of your underwater origins. Slapstick, silly, and very, very strange, the release has already secured its status as one of the PlayStation 4’s must-own games. But with such a bizarre premise, we had to find out more. We reeled in studio president Phil Tibitoski and (briefly) designer Seth Parker – who we can confirm are not octopi in disguise – to get the full story.
Push Square: Octodad: Dadliest Catch is based upon an unbelievably outlandish concept. Can you give us some background on the very original idea? Where did it come from, and how did the initial ‘light bulb moment’ change during development?
Seth Parker: We had pitched basic ideas for three days. So, we split up into teams of three and four and basically sat around for an entire day, banging our heads against the wall, trying to come up with eight-page pitches to bring back to the team. John Murphy, one of the artists, and I were in a group together, and we were like, “Okay, let’s just go crazy.” Somebody said something that reminded me of Descartes, so I was like, “What if you were kind of a passenger in your own body?” And then someone added, “What if you were driving your own body?” “What if you’re a guy inside a robot and you were driving them?” “What if you’re an octopus in your head?” “Well, what if you’re just an octopus?” And that was how it happened.
Phil Tibitoski: From there, we went on to discuss this octopus-man's life. What if he had a family? What if they didn't know he was an octopus? And so on. You know, an entirely natural progression of thought.
PS: The game sees you attempting to deceive your family of your nautical nature. Is there a deeper metaphor at play here? Are you trying to say something about family life, perhaps, or are we reading way too much into it?
PT: Originally we were not as conscious in forming the games themes around a deeper metaphor, but then through its creation came this idea of what it would be like to be 'other'. What would it be like to have a secret that was so wholly part of you, and yet you can't share it with anyone for fear of rejection? The truth is that many of us hold these sorts of feelings inside of ourselves, and I think that's why the game is so relatable to so many people. You know, other than the floppy octopus thing.
PS: The game has been compared to QWOP in some circles. For as funny as that game is, though, it’s very, very difficult. How have you managed to make Octodad playable, while still maintaining the sense that you’re essentially in control of a cephalopod?
PT: We can see the similarities when comparing Octodad: Dadliest Catch to something such as QWOP or the daring Surgeon Simulator as much as anyone, but we've also always looked to do something a little different. The original Octodad came out after QWOP and before Surgeon Simulator, in November 2010 to be precise.
At the time we knew that we wanted to clearly communicate the idea of how hard it would be to control an octopus pretending to be a human father, and so we spent months looking for the "perfect" control scheme to get this idea across.
At Young Horses, we've never intended for the game to be overly difficult, and have always looked to create a balance between frustration and fun. We ride the line between the two much of the time, but try our best to err on the side of fun. To do this, there are a lot of unseen forces affecting the motion of Octodad's wiggly body – forces that actually help you. For instance, when you're trying to walk up something like a set of stairs, we add an additional force, even though small, to give you that extra push in the right direction.
We've spent countless hours working towards those sorts of tweaks to make your movements deliberate with a slightly off-centre result that you can't always entirely predict. And that's where the humour is. We've had many players proclaim how intuitive the controls are after a minute or two of play.
I believe that most people who've yet to play Dadliest Catch perceive the controls as difficult because of how different they are. There's no precedence for them really, and so you come at the game with a perspective tainted by all that you've been taught in previous games on how things "should" control. Once you've spent 2 minutes with the game, you start to see how you could perhaps master this unwieldy flopping octopus-man.
PS: Can you talk us through the decisions behind the art direction a little bit? The game looks very colourful – almost like a Saturday morning cartoon. Where did you look for inspiration, and how did you happen upon the current visual style?
PT: With the original Octodad, we looked at cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, and Disney's World of Tomorrow. It's a bit of a mix of the 1950's white picket-fence America and select pieces of the technology from the 1980s. With Octodad: Dadliest Catch, we found ourselves with similar inspiration, but also a look towards a more clean looking colour style that something like Team Fortress 2 shares. If you couldn't tell, Disney's Pixar films were also a bit of an inspiration.
PS: Assuming that our facts are correct, you only recently graduated from university. Can you talk a little bit about the progression from education to standing on Sony’s stage in front of a global audience of thousands at E3? Has it sunk in yet?
PT: Most of the team graduated from DePaul University here in Chicago only two years or so ago. At the time, we had Octodad available for free online, and it had garnered some good buzz in the gaming community. We'd only recently started our independent studio Young Horses, and we had no idea if this new Octodad would be something that anyone would really be all that interested in as a full game. From there, we decided to run a Kickstarter to gauge interest, and with that successfully raising $24,320, we decided there was enough of a pull from fans that creating a sequel would be worthwhile.
Since then we've shown the game at everything we can make our way to, and made a big push for creating an online presence not to be reckoned with. We got Greenlit for release on Steam, and even had some huge YouTuber's like TotalBiscuit, NorthernLionLP, MangelRogel, and PewdiePie play the game.
The team at Sony had been in contact with us since 2011 and the first Octodad, but until Dadliest Catch had reached a more polished state, we hadn't really thought about the possibility of a console release. That all changed during PAX East 2013, when Sony let us know that they were looking to get more indie games onto the PS4, and had great terms to boot. We signed up and got a development kit soon afterwards. In the end, it only took us about four weeks to port the game over and get it running on the PS4 hardware. And then a few weeks later, the game was on Sony's E3 press conference stage with our producer and programmer Kevin Geisler at the helm playing our little game in front of thousands if not millions of people.
It's been a whirlwind to say the least. I don't think that it will settle in our minds as something that happened until after release.
PS: As you mentioned, it took you just four weeks to port the game to the PS4. Did it surprise you how easy the console was to work with, especially after the situation with the PS3? Do you think that the simplicity of the architecture is going to encourage indie development even further in the next generation?
PT: Yes. The less barriers that developers have between their products seeing the light of day and being played by others, the better.
PS: Octodad has easily become one of the poster childs of the PS4’s lineup. Are you surprised that your “small” title has been put on par with blockbusters like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Watch Dogs? Do you think that this is evidence that the industry’s changing?
PT: Yes, and yes. I think it's more so evidence that gamers are looking for a more diverse set of experiences. We try to provide something that no other studio can, and that's really our biggest goal. Create what others will not or cannot.
PS: Sony’s really pushing the social aspects of the PS4 hard. Octodad seems like it would lend itself well to machinima and the like. Is that something that you’re personally excited about? Do you think that the share button’s going to give games like your own a boost by enabling them to go “viral”?
PT: Oh, we're way excited for the social features and the share button. Players love being able to show their best disasters and greatest triumphs in their time being an octopus. The PC version of the first game sprung a wildfire of ‘Let's Plays’ and other awesome videos. We want to see what folks will do with this new and better Octodad. Hopefully we can encounter stories told with the game that not even we expect.
PS: A bit of a sneaky one to finish off with – do you have any idea on a release window?
PT: We're not entirely sure just yet, but the PC, Mac, and Linux versions are targeting a January 2014 release. If all goes well with the PS4 version, it will follow shortly after that. We're trying to get it out as soon as possible with the resources that we've got, but eight people and four platforms is an exciting adventure for sure.
PS: Thanks so much for taking time out of your hectic schedule to chat to us.
PT: Thank you.
How highly does Octodad: Dadliest Catch rank on your PS4 wishlist? Do you have any suspicions about the true nature of one of your family members? Let us know in the comments section below.