Octodad is a game that uses intentionally awkward controls to simulate the life of an octopus who is trying to pass for a human man.
He has a family, you see, and he doesn’t want the people in his life to realize he’s a cephalopod. If they knew he would be cast out and lose everything.
The act of finding acceptance in your community is a modest goal for a game. There are no worlds to save, and no alien threat to fight. Your task, made difficult by the control scheme, is simply to hide who, and what, you are. Making coffee becomes a tricky endeavor when you’re an octopus, after all.
So why does a game this deeply silly often feel so desperate, even sad?
The cephalopod as mirror into self-doubt
Imposter syndrome describes what happens when people lack the emotional tools to internalize their accomplishments or external praise. This leads to the fear that those around you will find out that you don’t belong, or that you haven’t earned your place in your surroundings.
Phil Tibitoski is the president of Young Horses, the developer of Octodad, and he said this subtext surfaced with time.
"We didn’t have a name for it, but we did know that it was going to be about this octopus who has this family and they don’t know he’s an octopus and he tries to keep it from them, because he thinks if they find out they won’t love him anymore," he explained to Polygon. "That’s the motivation for everything he does. He loves them and wants to be with them."
It’s a basic idea that leads to many different interpretations of the game itself. "We didn’t know that people were going to run with that and interpret that in so many different ways and relate to it. It’s been a really nice surprise."
"It comes from different sources… sometimes it’s a family dynamic where you might have been the kid who came home with four As and one B, and your family was just focused on what that B was doing there," Dr. Valerie Young explained. "So you grew up thinking that the only thing that’s acceptable is perfection. For kids praise is like oxygen."
Dr. Young wrote a book on Imposter Syndrome, and she was intrigued by the idea of a game that expressed that feeling visually. She also said that Imposter Syndrome is a common occurrence in women who are in positions of authority.
"A sense of belonging fosters confidence, and if you’re one of only a few [women], like in the tech industry or the video game industry, you’re going to be more susceptible to feeling like you’re not as good as other people, that you’re not smart enough, etc." she said.
People often deal with these feelings in one of two ways: They either work harder and gain more success without being able to take pleasure in their own rise, or they hold themselves back from trying new things. People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome don’t just feel discouraged by failures or setbacks, they feel shame when they don’t measure up to impossible internal standards.
"They don’t feel good about themselves, because they feel they could have done better," Dr. Young said. "They’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop."
The message is there if you want it
Octodad works as a sort of visual representation of those feelings, and the fear that you could lose everything if people see the doubt inside you, or find out who you "really" are.
The idea that an octopus could pass for a human is deeply silly on its face, and the question of how he fathered two human children is never brought up or discussed, but the constant fear of losing loved ones if anyone were to find out some deep secret, some aspect of yourself, is universal.
Octodad is a game that allows our inner fears to manifest in an outwardly funny way, but the subtext is much more serious.
The game could also represent any number of inner fears, insecurities, or secrets. "We’ve heard… from people in the gay, lesbian and transgender communities they’ve interpreted it as coming out of the closet, since he’s holding this secret in and is afraid to tell his family," Tibitoski said "Which we didn’t expect, but it’s interesting and nice to hear that people are relating to it on that level."
I’ve had discussions with other folks in the industry who have played the game and found comfort in its commentary about Imposter Syndrome, as well as others who simply find the humor in the game. Tibitoski seems hesitant to agree or disagree with any specific reading of the game.
The constant fear of losing loved ones if anyone were to find out some deep secret, some aspect of yourself, is universal
"We think about it, but we’re not trying to shove it anyone’s face. You can take what you want from it," he said. "Whether that’s having fun and being silly for a couple of hours, or getting deep into the story and relating to him on a personal level. But we’re not trying to make people confront these things, it’s what people pull out of it from playing and talking to us."
Octodad is heroic in his own way. He does things that should be impossible for an octopus, and he tries so hard to function in society not for personal gain, but for his family.
He rises to the occasion and does things that should be impossible for an octopus, all in the hope of blending in. People with imposter syndrome are often driven to do great things in order to avoid being "seen" as what they are, since they never feel like they belong.
"Our fears of being inadequate pales in comparison to our fear of being extraordinary," Doctor Young said. "Because then we’d really have to show up."