Jason Rohrer makes games about big ideas and universal themes. But also, Jason Rohrer makes games entirely about the hyper-specifics of being Jason Rohrer.
The characters in his games are him and his family, as they are and/or as he imagines them. He tackles a theme as massive as a whole human lifespan, from birth to death by depicting a straight white man who kind of looks like him, and who (optionally) gets married to a woman who kind of looks like his actual wife, and who lives to a ripe old age—by no means a reflection of everybody’s life, but a pithy summation of what he, Jason Rohrer, expects from his own.
Or, he depicts the difficulties of balancing creative ambition with family life with a scenario that includes a pixel art rendering of his actual child, Mez.
He doesn’t claim to speak for everyone. Instead, he tries to reach something authentic—and counter-intuitively, accessible—by speaking only for himself.
The Castle Doctrine is still fundamentally a game about being Jason Rohrer, or about what it’s like inside Jason Rohrer’s head—but it goes to a darker part of Rohrer’s psyche than we’ve seen before. It’s a game about paranoia, insecurity, helplessness, and fantasies of violence. But of course, it’s more specific than that: it’s about Jason Rohrer’s paranoias, insecurities, and fantasies of violence.
The rules are simple. Every player starts with a house, a family, and $2,000. The player is always a man, and the family always consists of a wife, a son, and a daughter. The house is always the same size, and it always contains a vault, which always contains half the money. The wife always holds the other half, assuming that she’s alive. Money can only be spent on (1) tools for robing other people’s houses, and/or (2) materials with which to build a security system to keep one’s own house from being robbed.
Now, from these basic facts alone, it’s easy to assume that The Castle Doctrine belongs to the space of heteronormative power fantasies: a lunkheaded admixture of the legal principle after which the game is named and sheer dadification. Cameron Kunzelman wrote this thing about why he refuses to play it, and it’s easy to see why he’s grossed out by the premise, and by Rohrer’s exceedingly candid interviews. In principle I’m not that interested in anyone’s opinion of a game they haven’t played, a book they haven’t read, or a film that haven’t seen—but in this case, I do get it.
And yes, there are some very weird aspects to everyone in this world being Jason Rohrer. Chiefly, everyone is therefore white, and no honest depiction of 90s-style crime paranoia can reasonably exclude race as a factor. Fear of home invasions is all wrapped up in in fear of the Other, fear of invading barbarians, fear of neighbors you don’t understand. Making everyone the same (complete with randomized, predominately Anglo-sounding names) simplifies the dynamic immeasurably.
That being said, though, the game’s politics are a hell of a lot more complicated than Kunzelman gives them credit for. First and foremost, what appears at first to be a game about power quickly reveals itself to be a game about powerlessness. You’re never home when someone robs your house, nor are they ever home when you rob theirs. This means that there’s no direct confrontation between men, ever. There’s only buying and selling and booby-trapping and sneaking around. Only a closed economy running on criminality, arms races, and just-plain-meanness.
The fact that the player is never home during a robbery also means that, if anyone is going to be Standing Their Ground against a burglar, it’s going to be the player’s NPC wife, not the player. She’s the one who can wield a shotgun and take up arms against invading criminals.
And while you can watch these sorts of confrontations play out on security tapes, you can only do so after the fact. Before you see what happened, you’ll see the aftermath. You’ll be richer because you’ve bagged a bounty, or some portion of your family will be dead. Either way, you’ll have had little directly to do with it. It’s in that sense that the game is a reflection on the futility of father-as-protector fantasies, rather than an attempt to indulge those fantasies.
A quick story: I had set up a security system that I was pretty happy with. My family had a panic room, with a hallway leading directly from that well-fortified room to the exit. The door to the hallway would swing open only when the intruder stepped on a pressure-sensitive plate deep inside the maze that was my house. This would allow my wife and kids to escape safely and without confrontation. I did buy my wife a shotgun, though, just in case.
I was testing out this new setup, and after stepping on the pressure plate, I doubled back toward the door to see if the escape tunnel was working properly.
It was. My wife came running out of it and shot me.
What I thought my wife would do—protecting our home by confronting and possibly killing a burglar—is a much fantasized-about thing that does not in fact happen very often in the real world. What she did instead—shooting a family member by mistake—is a thing that happens much more often. It was an entirely avoidable tragedy, and I failed to avoid it. For all its mad, abstract, hallucinatory aspects, The Castle Doctrine is full of sobering moments like that.
The Castle Doctrine is indeed a clearing house for one particular (straight, white) guy’s anxieties, but it doesn’t flinch from the troubling implications of those anxieties. It doesn’t propose its titular doctrine as a solution to anything; making one’s house into a fortress is a doomed errand at best, an elaborate form of suicide at worst. It doesn’t peg anyone as an easy hero or an easy villain, unless you sort of think of everyone as both (which you kind of have to, since everyone is kind of playing as Jason Rohrer and all).
For me, it’s Jason Rohrer’s most resonant game yet. It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s also his most uncomfortably personal.