Update: The old Dropsy is dead. Long live Dropsy! Here’s the new Kickstarter.
My deepest fear is being alone. I love being around people, probably more than they love being around me. I’m often self-conscious and worry that my idiosyncrasies might annoy the people I love the most to the point of abandonment. That’s probably why I took such an interest in Jay Tholen’s Dropsy, a game currently up on Kickstarter about a clown who struggles to find acceptance and love from his community. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff going on with Dropsy, including a couple of genuinely fascinating iterations on the adventure game genre. But as I talked to to Jay Tholen about the game, I discovered that underneath the surface, Dropsy is about what we do when we feel and fear rejection.
At the time of this writing, Tholen’s Kickstarter for Dropsy has 13 days left in its campaign and still has a good amount of ground to gain. Our advice? Watch the video and just try not to throw money at this thing. Its’ value is self-evident, if you ask us.
Still, if you needed more motivation to make a pledge, get to know Tholen himself. His background is primarily that of a musician who composes a wide range of music, most of which contain some remarkably frank and upfront Christian lyrics that somehow manage to sound more authentic than cheesy or in your face. Tholen is one of the few people I know who gets what Christian art is about: authentic, unapologetic, accessible, and above all, curiously beautiful. If the character of Dropsy doesn’t win you over, Jay Tholen will.
I’m trying to get a handle on exactly what kind of game this is. It’s obviously some kind of an adventure game. Is that what you’d say?
The pacing will feel similar, but in an adventure game, you converse with NPCs, you click on hot-spots in the environment, you find items and then you use those items and interact with people in the environment or with other items, and generally those are the ways you solve puzzles all the time. There’s still going to be an inventory in this game, though it’s going to be less prevalent. There’s still going to be dialogue, though that’s going to be less prevalent – it’s going to be more visual.
Areas won’t have names other than what you decide to name them in your brain. You’ll be like “oh that’s that red clay swampy area,” rather than just telling you “oh this is the the red clay swamp,” or whatever. I want to make this game very exploration-centric. I want to make it feel like there’s an unknown for you to discover. And core to exploring and discovering is going to be the way that you progress.
So not telling you that “this is the red clay swamp” means that your brain will be forced to sort of quantify it with whatever title you want to create in your head. Like, what’s on the top of the Kickstarter, where you see [Dropsy] at the end of this pier thing. That’s an island. It’s at the bottom left-hand corner of the map; this little swamp area. The ground is red clay, but the rest of it is sort of swamp.
I’m sort of mixing two cultures in that area where those people live. They’re a mixture of Norse mythology and bayou voodoo stuff. That’s another thing I’m trying to do, is make new types of cultures that aren’t really recognizable.
I want them just to see things and naturally be like, “Oh, this is how the world works.” I’ve written it in such a way that everything in the world has some kind of connection to something else in the world. It feels like a breathing world of interconnected cultures. I want the fun to be in discovering all of that and learning about how he has impacted someone else in another part of the world. I just like these little moments in games where you’re like “oh my god, that’s actually connected to this.” I’m trying to make no detail irrelevant. I’m really crazy about that.
Is there a particular way those systems play into the game thematically? It seems like the two biggest systems you’ve got are this non-verbal communication, and this interconnected world that you explore.
Yeah, those are the two big things that I like to tout, because they’re the most original. They play into the narrative a lot. A big theme in the game is not belonging. There was a fire, and a lot of the people in the area blame Dropsy. He looks trippy to begin with, and he can’t talk.
I was trying to figure out a way to reconcile his communication problems and make it part of the gameplay, so the dialogue system is almost a puzzle in itself. Some things you may not understand, and I think that’s okay. I’m going to try to make the icons as readable as possible, but when I realized that icons are really difficult to communicate with, it sort of struck a thing in my head. “Wait a minute, I don’t have to make this be something that is limiting me. I can actually work this into the puzzle, and be conscious of the fact that these are going to be sometimes hard to interpret, because it’s part of Dropsy’s character.” You can solve most of [the puzzles] without even having to go through dialogue with people though Dialogue certainly will help.
How does the interconnected world play into the thematic stuff? I liked a lot about what you had to say about how the communication system plays into it, so I’m curious if you had a similar idea in mind with the way the world itself works.
Because it’s such a big part of the game, I definitely worked that decision in thematically, but the decision to make the world like that wasn’t because of the narrative.
Now, after the fact, it does work into it in some ways. Dropsy’s kind of forced to go everywhere in the world at the beginning of the game because he has little errands to run, because he and his dad are super poor. They live in this little ramshackle tent. It looks like a mixture of a really messed up trailer and a circus tent, where they try to make an infrastructure of a home inside of a circus tent and it just really doesn’t work out.
His dad drives this really broken down pickup truck, trying to pick up metal, and ending up with very little of it, and he takes it to this junkyard in the northern area of the map. Dropsy helps out with that, basically. He gets into a kind of adventure at the very beginning that starts a chain of events that sort of guides the player in where to go.
Is there any way in which you relate to Dropsy?
Yeah, I guess so, in a way. I wouldn’t say it’s a big conscious thing, but there’s probably a little bit of that. There’s a big theme of Dropsy facing all kinds of rejection or feeling like he doesn’t belong, and I think that’s a universal human thing. Yeah, there’s definitely some of that in there. He’s misunderstood often. I would say “yes” to that one.
There’s some things about his character that are revealed in his backstory that would help me explain why I would relate to him more. It has to do with faith, because there’s a lot of metaphor.
It’s not a direct allegory or anything, because I try to avoid that. I think it can be hammy if people realize it and they’re like “Oh okay. I get it, Dropsy’s Jesus.” But he’s not. He’s not a metaphor for Jesus. If anything he’s a metaphor for believers.
But the way I guess I would relate to him… [long pause] You’re making me realize this right now, but where the story is right now, he’s not very wealthy and he lives with his dad. And I’m not very wealthy and I live with my dad. I don’t pick up scrap metal, but…
I remember in high school, I didn’t have a group. I was just kind of to myself. And I actually dropped out of high school, because I had these… I don’t know, I think I had some ADHD, because I was diagnosed with it when I was in middle school. Then I stopped taking medicine in eigth grade, and then my grades just went way down. I could never garner enough motivation or interest in my schoolwork to actually just sit and do it. I just ended up staying home and I dropped out in 12th grade.
So it’s been sort of a weird uphill battle since then, because I sort of cut myself off from certain opportunities that I may have otherwise had. At the same time, it’s been kind of interesting because I spend a long time trying to learn new skills and learn new things. So, maybe that has helped me develop some kind of weird non-academic skills that are unique because they’re not given to me because of some curriculum, maybe? I don’t know, maybe that’s self-justification.
I relate to Dropsy in that I think that I’ve been perceived as a failure a lot. Maybe not when you go on the internet or anything, but in real life, I guess? And Dropsy has that happen to him in the game a lot. The game is a little bit about learning how to not let that become part of your identity.
Yeah, the more I looked at the game, the more it felt like, especially when I looked at “Okay what makes this game unique?” it was the communication system, which you talked about, And then there’s this whole world out there, and it’s all connected, it’s all relating to each other, except Dropsy not so much.
It feels like he’s the guy left on the outside.
Yeah, definitely. In the story, the fire happened five years ago. At this point, he’s either not known about much anymore, feared, or some people hate him in the game world. But for most of the people, they don’t really know how to put their finger on him. He’s just misunderstood a lot. They’re like “What are you?”