Turning a clown upside-down.
Clowns don’t frighten me, nor do I actively dislike them, but I won’t pretend that I don’t understand how they can seriously freak people out. Their overdrawn smiles, loud noises, and bright clothing read as "fear-inducing interloper" to many. So enters Dropsy, a game centered on an unavoidably creepy clown… who bears a heart of gold. Despite not being a living nightmare, he is living through one, and his experience renders him genuine versus the ambiguous saccharine sweetness of performers at a party or a circus. Dropsy’s penchant for love and forgiveness in a cruel world is among the reasons his adventure game is one of the best in the genre.
At the start, we are shown the horrific event of Dropsy’s circus being burned down to the ground, killing most of the performers and leaving him and his father to live in the ruins. For whatever reason, possibly including his disturbing almost-toothless smile, Dropsy has been accused by the public-at-large of arson and has become persona non grata on the island he lives on. Although he maintains a caring and giving air about him, he is haunted by disturbing nightmares of the incident, evidenced occasionally when the player has him rest to cycle the day. Regardless, when he is awake, he maintains an admirably plucky attitude, and this is what defines the gameplay.
This is, at basic, a point-and-click game, but it’s structured much like an open-world RPG. To explain, there is a main storyline to follow, but players are welcome to explore their environment at their leisure until they want to return to it. During my first go-around, I really went all over the place. You see, part of the game is trying to hug everyone. Completing the main storyline nets you about eleven hugs, but by the end of my game I hugged 53 people and objects, tracked by adorable crayon drawings Dropsy posts on his bedroom wall.
The hugging mechanic may at first seem shallow, it’s connected to Dropsy’s deep sense of empathy and love. There are no English words spoken or displayed in the game; instead people communicate via pictographs. However, you’ll be able read their thoughts about the things they long for. Anticipating and meeting these needs is central to gaining hugs and acceptance. Character expectations are quite varied, ranging from feeding the homeless to proving your part of an exclusive club to finding rare alien poop. Sometimes, befriending a citizen is an isolated event—find item nearby and take it to them—but other times, doing so involves befriending others, which gets you access to more parts of the island and more objects of desire.
Although Dropsy always has a goal to move the story along, he begins this story without any sense of the endgame. There is no clear antagonist, and Dropsy expresses no desires himself. So these hugs are a way for players to anticipate his needs, which is to integrate back into local society and make people happy again. As I implied earlier, it’s possible to complete the game doing as little of that as possible, and you can have an okay time doing so, but the charm is in meeting everyone, making them happy, and learning about this world in the process. Like an RPG, the most direct path is the least enjoyable, which reminds me of Tale of Tale’s The Path in a sense. In that game, you’re basically admonished for going straight to the goal without wandering the environment extensively.
To help Dropsy on his path is his little dog. The dog can be independently controlled and has the ability to dig up mounds of dirt or enter smaller spaces than his owner. He can also pee on things, which nets a similar success graphic to the one Dropsy receives when he hugs someone or something. Eventually, Dropsy makes other animal friends who aid him on his journey, and they are tied to the main quest, so players can’t miss them. There may be moments before he meets them when players may have no clue how to please anyone they’ve met, rendering them effectively stuck.
There’s a special brand of “adventure game stuck” that fans of the genre should be familiar with. It’s when, given a variety of possible actions and objects to click on, you have no idea what to do next to move things along, including the main storyline, and you’re positive you’ve tried everything. This happened to me early on, leaving me wandering the city in search of someone who wants an object I’m holding or some way into an inaccessible area. It turns out that the solution to my pitfall was hugging someone who didn’t like me, which the game didn’t communicate effectively as a way to accomplish anything. It’s heavily implied from a few tries that no one will hug you until they’re won over by you and that trying is fruitless and nets no gain. Although it’s creative when a game doesn’t play by its own rules, that’s an expectation that has to be set somehow, such as in Antichamber.
Moving on, the actual story, as a result of seeking out extra hugs and taking time to learn more about the world, is really delightful to absorb. Although it deals with trauma and violence in its own peculiar way, Dropsy remains uncorrupted and steadfast, a light in the dark. Bringing joy to others, as a game mechanic, is what humanizes the player, using Dropsy as their vessel. I like that along with the quests, there are clues all around about the culture of the island, replete with religion, corporatization, and extraterrestrials. Even the peculiar language you’ll find written about is easily translated into English—it’s not like Fez—and is worth learning to get more out of the game.
The pixel art of Dropsy is notably beautiful and fluid. Much care has been given to Dropsy’s bumbling stroll, especially compared to how he moved in the Kickstarter pitch a few years ago. But other characters carry a lot of charm as well. The island features multiple body types and ethnicities, creating a diverse set of characters to fall in love with. Even the pictograph style of communication becomes second nature to translate very early on. Environments are also kept alive through constant animations in each scene, and they each contain little details that add to the narrative, stuff that’s easy to miss but worthwhile to notice.
Along with the other aspects I love about Dropsy, the soundtrack is a shining star and sets the game distinctly apart from other adventure games. Perhaps, this is related to Jay Tholen’s history as a composer/audio designer himself, but rather than rely on subtle but quirky background fluff, each piece of music demonstrates a ton of character and varied instrumentation. On top of songs to complement each scene, Dropsy can find a ton of audio tapes (remember those?!) of short but engaging loops from multiple musical genres. All aspects of presentation feel well-thought-out and considered.
Aside from getting stuck, my time playing wasn’t all hugs and love. I encountered a bug, which replicated one of a set of quest items, making me unable to get credit for finding them all and pleasing the person tied to them. Although I appreciate the bittersweet ending, which was the same both times I played, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was barred from rounding out my experience or seeing something else in store for Dropsy. This was aided by another bug which prevented me from using an item Dropsy found in the last act on an object I was constructing throughout the game. Again, I don’t know what I missed as a result.
Regardless of these slight setbacks, I enjoyed Dropsy through and through. Though the premise of an adventure game about a lovable clown is not enough to win me over on the surface, it’s the complex tale of a cynical and unforgiving world the player is expected to change through loving and non-violent interaction that ultimately seals the deal. Adding in the wonderful presentation and dynamic soundtrack, this becomes an adventure game that should not be missed. It is a must.