Dropsy first-look: the surreal adventure game that wants you to love the unlovable

Andy Kelly

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Dropsy is a mute, terrifying clown with no hands, but creator Jay Tholen, an experimental artist and musician, wants us to fall in love with him. “Loving the unlovable is one of the game's most prominent themes,” he says. “Instead of reacting to the world's apprehension and fear of him with hatred, Dropsy responds with a seemingly naive, childlike love. When he encounters the bitter or hateful, he sees them as hurting and in need of a friend. No one is disposable.”

After a fatal fire at Dropsy's circus, he becomes an outcast, living in the stitched-up remains of the tent with his father and dog. The game follows him as he tries to discover the truth behind the blaze, during which we piece together his past. As well as exploring this mystery-filled open world, we also delve into the bizarre otherworld of Dropsy's subconscious.

Classic LucasArts adventures are a clear influence, but Tholen says his take on the genre will be more about exploration and story than those notoriously convoluted 'rubber chicken with a pulley in it' puzzles. “The challenge lies in exploring and understanding the game world more fully. After obtaining clues through environmental details, NPC interaction, and simple puzzles, the player's perspective of the world shifts; a system that lends itself to a series of rewarding 'eureka' moments.”

This marriage of the traditional with something more abstract and exploratory is just one of the many ways in which Dropsy is a wonderfully unconventional game. Tholen's influences only add to the surreal quality. “The idea of a small town with secrets, and the dreamlike elements of Dropsy, are heavily inspired by Twin Peaks. I'm also influenced by crazy, theatrical progressive rock from the 1970s.”

Dropsy is an odd game, but it's also surprisingly accessible. A picture-based dialogue system designed by Tholen ensures anyone can play it regardless of language. “Characters communicate using icons. The player may not always understand them, which is entirely intentional. You'll make assumptions based on your own personal interpretation of the symbols, which incorporates the fact Dropsy can't speak into the gameplay.”

What at first glance looks like an homage to LucasArts' heydey is in fact one of the most fascinating and curious indie games I've encountered in some time. It's dark and sinister, but has an incredibly positive, inspiring message. It's also ambitious, its freeform structure at odds with its adventure roots. I'll be interested to see how it all comes together, but mostly I just want to learn more about its unlikely hero. “I know it sounds kinda depressing,” says Tholen, “but trust me: it's probably the happiest game you'll ever play.”

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