Jason Rohrer’s “weird, hard and disturbing” MMOG centres on the American legal principle that permits the use of lethal force against intruders to your home. In The Castle Doctrine, you secure your own house, defending it from fellow players as best you can, while also invading their homes to take their money.
As you might expect from Rohrer, the game’s origins lie close to his heart. His childhood featured a father anxious to fulfil the protector remit. He’s lived in a rough neighbourhood. While these inform its premise, The Castle Doctrine is a game about constructing and solving puzzles based on logic and psychology.
You start with an empty house and a nuclear family in which you’re the alpha male in charge of protecting your homestead. You have $2,000 to spend on resources – walls, wiring, doors, triggers and so on – for creating traps and protecting any remaining wealth.
There are two caveats: you must be able to reach your own vault without using tools (proving the puzzle solvable) and your family must have an uninterrupted passage to the exit. Money to improve your defences or just to progress up the leaderboard comes from bounties dropped by those your house kills and from successfully robbing other players. The bounties increase as players manage to successfully rob vaults or kill family members, too. Killing someone’s wife will give you half the house’s money. The other half is found in the vault.
With no tutorial, the learning curve is steep. Coupled with the threat of permadeath when testing your creations, this can result in intense frustration as you fall to traps you didn’t fully understand or predict. Whether you enjoy the game or ragequit will depend entirely on how much you like building, tweaking and investigating the systems. On persevering, logically inclined players may create fiendishly clever security arrangements, while fans of mind games can explore the protection basic psychology offers.
We constructed a ‘commit gate’ – an electrified floor tile that activates as a thief passes, locking them into a robbery – near our house’s entrance, but it wasn’t powered. It was a cheap deterrent. The next morning, watching the security tapes the game records, we saw 14 intruders pull out rather than proceed.
The Castle Doctrine is a curious game about exploiting systems and psychology. The discussions surrounding it deal in politics and morality, because it’s a game about Rohrer’s response to a controversial real-world issue. Yet The Castle Doctrine’s notoriety ends up feeling like another fakeout – a disconnected conceptual commit gate at the entrance of an often-frustrating sandbox puzzler.