It would be careless of me to say that video games only cover a small range of emotions. Yet in my experience, I can’t think of too many games that directly address emotions as their subject matter. And it’s not hard to understand why: they’re a thorny subject, and faithfully representing them requires a different kind of thinking than many games employ. Devolver Digital understands this, if Dropsy is anything to by. Their throwback to LucasArts-style adventure games approaches the subject with a mature, nuanced understanding that lends it a lot of credibility. It’s that understanding that allows the game to recognize all suffering as valid without giving up hope that people can find happiness.
Of course, it also helps that the game knows its limits. Despite the game following its eponymous clown’s journey as he hugs everybody he meets and brightens up their days, Dropsy isn’t naive enough to assume that hugs are enough to make everybody’s problems go away. The burdens the people carry are just too numerous and too complicated to be solved overnight. As bleak as this situation might sound, it hints toward a vital awareness of the issues that Dropsy needs to lend its story credence. Without that understanding, all you’d have is a gleeful veneer, which while entertaining, certainly wouldn’t be enough to do any lasting good in the world. It’s only by tempering that with an adult outlook on the world the game finds its power.
Dropsy himself makes that incredibly clear. He’s the link that makes the whole game work in the first place. His actions do not stem from a denial of the world’s suffering, but only occur because he confronts that suffering in the first place. This is clear from the moment the game starts: a fire swallows up the circus, and with it, everything that Dropsy has ever known and loved. Yet somehow, he’s still able to find joy in living. Given how profoundly traumatic this experience is for him (and how he relives it every time he goes to sleep), it’d be hard to say he’s ignorant of the world’s problems. If anything, it’s his knowledge of those problems that motivates him to help people in the first place. And if he can face something so traumatic and come out of it happy, why can’t the people he’s helping do the same?
I don’t want to give the impression that Dropsy is an unempathetic game. One of its strengths is how far it goes to avoid essentializing its characters. Although we only get a brief glimpse into their lives, it’s enough to know that they lead lives beyond their sadness. They have hopes and fears and reasons for approaching the world they way they do. Even those the game portrays unfavorably exist not as mere moral objects, but as actual people with some degree of respectability.
I’d say this allows Dropsy a nuanced view of life, but that would be missing the big picture. More important is how it allows the game to embody the kind of empathy that’s so essential to what the game does. Because the game acknowledges even the most negative aspects of its characters as deserving of respect, Dropsy himself has to take their problems seriously. So when we finally see him hugging a character, we have actual reason to believe that he’s made their lives demonstrably better. We can enjoy the good deeds he’s performed with moralizing people’s sadness (which would only prevent Dropsy from treating it).
I say “we” because of the clever ways Dropsy recruits you into this scenario. Its tone of respectability seeps into its gameplay, forcing you to approach its various scenarios exactly as Dropsy would. The name of the game is hugs, and one possible exception notwithstanding, Dropsy can’t hug anybody in this game on any terms except their own. He must listen to them, figure out what’s bothering them, and find a solution that actually works.
And seeing how you control Dropsy, you have to, as well. You have to approach these people honestly; treating them as objects for your own moral vindication is out of the question. I’m not even sure it’s possible. You’re not even making them happier for your own selfish reasons, but because doing so is its own reward. True, the people will sometimes give you a gift for your troubles, but given how you use those gifts to make other people happy (and hug them), it’s hard to see them as rewards on their own. Think of it as paying it forward. It’s not for a while that the player finds some outside motivation for making the people of the world happy.
In fact, if I had to point out any one weakness with Dropsy, it’d be how it develops a narrative arc. I don’t mean that the story itself is bad. Dropsy’s quest to help a close friend is well in line with what the game’s been doing so far. No, what upsets me is that the game develops a narrative arc at all. Dropsy has only ever been about helping people, so tying that to some greater goal only distracts from the game’s focus. That would certainly explain why the game’s charm slowly fades the closer you come to the end. Granted, that charm never disappears, but it does dwindle enough that attentive players will take notice. This becomes especially prominent toward the end, when the game seems to forget Dropsy’s charity in favor of an ending ripped from We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, for some reason.
Considering the dearth of games that cover what Dropsy covers, it would be easy to say that the game’s choice to handle those topics is significant on its own. However, to reduce Dropsy to that would be a disservice to what makes the game work. Its success goes beyond merely addressing people’s sadness, having more to do with the careful judgment it applies to them. And for as much as I want to avoid saying something cliche like, “The game’s authentic nature is refreshing”, I can’t deny the role that authenticity plays in the game’s story. If video games want to address things like the role suffering plays in our lives, then Dropsy is the right foot for the industry to start on.