In recent years, I’ve been very surprised by the profound nature of some indie developed games. When you say the word “game”, it’s not unreasonable for people to immediately think of blockbuster shooters, such as Call of Duty. However, to me, it’s evident that we are also entering into a new era of interactive exploration, and this is something we should be very excited about. Thanks to the recent growth in appreciation for small independent games, the medium has been branching in as many directions as the creativity of these developers can take us, and the possibilities truly seem limitless. That’s not to say the conventional games don’t have a place, but the potential of this direction could earn the prestige needed in establishing the medium for academic consideration.
In Gone Home (2013), we learned about the struggles of being young gay woman. In To the Moon (2011), we learned about autism, and the complexity of mental illness and its effects on a relationship. These are especially controversial subjects, and not the sort of ideas I ever expected to see explored in a game. And yet, both of these games resonated with me in a way that no other entertainment medium ever has. It opened my awareness to the situation, and allowed me to understand it’s effects. To be fair, there are many other unconventional examples, such as the thought provocative Papers, Please, and the bizarrely creative, Stanley Parable; all of which are commendable for the message they try to convey. Which brings me to an indie game called “Social Caterpillar”.
Social Caterpillar is a game which focuses on the exploration of introversion, and essentially delivers a sense of understanding through mechanics that emulate the difficulties of this condition. It’s an idea that I had never considered before I heard it, and while it sounds like it might not be fun to play, the creator has put a lot of effort into developing a captivating experience. In saying that, I don’t think every game needs to be “fun” as we don’t always watch a movie or read a book for the sole purpose of fun. Sometimes we enjoy learning, and other times we pursue the urge to have our perceptions challenged. It’s a concept very new to the interactive medium, but I think it’s absolutely vital for it’s growth. For me, the game was thought provocative, and I enjoyed my time with it.
The way the game emulates the condition is by having the player wake up every morning to work their way through virtual a diorama of various social situations. When you first begin, you will have very limited energy, and an internal voice which consistently tries to discourage you from doing anything or going anywhere. It’s clear to me that this is a metaphor, emulating part of introversion, and while it doesn’t actually stop you doing anything, it is frustrating as it always insists you never progress forward. On top of that, each door you walk through consumes energy, as does every attempted conversation with another person; which is yet another fantastic metaphor representing how exhausting something which we all find so easy, could actually be for someone else.
Essentially, you only have “x” amount of energy points per day, and once they are depleted, the player must return home to recharge, which is represented by the protagonist playing a game and relaxing on the couch (quiet rejuvenation). The way you get further into the game without running out of energy is by completing social interaction puzzles, which are inspired by an over-simplified metaphor for that particular social situation. For example, fitting in with friends might require choosing which single picture combines with the others to form a whole rectangle. Each puzzle contains several questions which you must interpret, and for each answer you get correct, you will earn social stamina; hopefully levelling up to earn energy points, so that you can progress further.
In terms of narrative, it’s more so represented through the environment than with dialogue. In fact, there is no direct dialogue between the characters whatsoever, which makes sense as each social encounter is literally a puzzle to the character. However, there is also a lot of implied narrative as well. When you begin the game, you can choose one of four characters, and there is an interesting segment where you get the opportunity to pursue a love interest, which will allow you to reach one of three endings, based on your decisions. The ending is essentially a final puzzle, and in my case, the scenario was getting up in front of a group of people to speak. Additionally, there are collectables you can unlock from certain puzzles, and secret rooms to be discovered.
Essentially, the game works like a virtual diorama, leading from one area to another as you gain enough energy to move forward, with the big conclusion waiting for you at the end. To get the most out of Social Caterpillar, you will need to think deeply about the social situation you’re presented with, and then translate the theme of that encounter to find a solution for the puzzle. Visually, Social Caterpillar is presented using pixel-art, which isn’t unusual for an indie game, and works quite fine with this style of game. However, the game is also accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack which adds to the experience greatly and includes contributions from To the Moon director, Kan “R” Gao”. I would go as far as to say it’s worth purchasing separately in support for the developer.
If you choose to see Social Caterpillar as a conventional game, it would most likely only appeal to fans of the puzzle genre. However, if you can relate to the issue it’s trying to portray; whether through personal experience, or because you have a friend, co-worker, or family member who is very introverted, this experience is going to be a lot more meaningful. Additionally, in case you were curious, there are several caterpillars you can locate throughout the game, but the title is mostly representative of the concept of growth and development. I personally found this to be a rewarding experience, having studied mental health in college, and by the end of the game, I felt as if I understood the condition a little better. If the subject doesn’t interest you, then I don’t think you will get a lot out of the experience, but at a cost of $2.99, I think it’s worth the investment to at least give it a try!
The game can be purchased via the developer’s website: http://www.twelvetiles.com/SC/socialcaterpillar.html