April 23, 2019

How The Castle Doctrine is a very bad game that refuses to go away

The only way to win is not to play, or: How The Castle Doctrine is a very bad game that refuses to go away

I was excited to review The Castle Doctrine. I’d heard a lot about the game when Polygon profiled creator Jason Rohrer in 2012, and the concept intrigued me.

Yet I was also aware, when I took the assignment of reviewing it, that it had some controversy surrounding it. Some people had taken issue with the game’s grim nature, and possible sexist overtones in promoting spousal murder.

So to say I went in carefully would be an understatement.

You can read my review at Polygon to see how the story went from there. I pulled no punches in the reiew. In short, I did not like The Castle Doctrine.

Once you’ve read the review, allow me to share with you how the story continued:

I had hoped to file the review and leave it at that. I was not super thrilled with my experience of playing the game, and found it deeply troubling. On multiple levels. I found it offensive, blatant in its moralizing and simplistic in its heavy-handed approach to forcing players to do terrible things. I wrote my review quickly, filed it sooner than it was expected and asked that I not be involved in further discussion about the game. I wanted to be done with it and move on to happier subjects.

Let me say this again: I was deeply, negatively affected by this game. I would have preferred to have nothing whatsoever to do with it again.

Not to be.

The Castle Doctrine’s developer and publisher, independent game maker Jason Rohrer, added my name to his Steam page for The Castle Doctrine. When first I played the game there were two critical mentions on this page, a seemingly positive quote from website Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and another seemingly positive quote from PC Gamer.

Beneath these two, Rohrer had now placed a quote from me, pulled not from my review, but from my Twitter feed, referencing my review. Actually the original quote he used was pulled from two separate Twitter posts, spliced together with an ellipsis. As in this screenshot I captured at the time:


Not only did the edited quote make it sound like I was saying something about the game that I hadn’t, but the attribution made it look like it was quoting from my review at Polygon, which it wasn’t.

Here is the Twitter exchange Rohrer quoted:

A review of the most disturbing game I’ve ever played. “The Castle Doctrine”

As you can see, the first part of the quote was pulled from my introduction of my review, and the second from a response to a friend. The two sentences were not even a part of the same post, and yet had been edited to appear as if they were a complete thought. Needless to say, this was misleading.

At Polygon’s request, Rohrer edited the attribution to suggest I was referencing my review, and that the quote was not actually from the review. This was still not acceptable to me.

The reality is that game publishers use quotes from reviews all of the time. I’ve had quotes from my reviews appear in television commercials, in web ads and in magazines. Usually the game publishers ask for permission first. In fact, almost always they ask for permission first. And if they intend to edit the quote, they’ll mention this to us and make sure we approve. They don’t legally have to do so, but they do it as a courtesy, and so that, if there are any disputes down the line, they’ve covered their asses.

So I’m used to having quotes from my reviews appear in ads. Even when those quotes are edited to appear slightly more positive than I intended when I wrote the words. Even for games I wouldn’t necessarily endorse. It happens. It is a part of this job.

Although I have never had my quotes used without someone at Polygon or wherever having been asked, I am also used to indie developers doing things in ways I am not used to. They are not part of big companies. They have often never done the things they are doing before. Especially indies formed by former Triple A developers who are used to having other people around to do those things. They make mistakes. It happens. It is a part of this job.

Yet until this week I had never experienced someone quoting from my personal Twitter account to advertise their game, without asking, and editing the quotes to change the meaning. It just literally does not happen. It is a boundary that most in this industry will not cross. I was shocked, hurt and deeply offended to see it happen. Especially with this game that I wanted so badly to be done with and would have never recommended. I assumed this must be a mistake.

Yesterday I asked Jason Rohrer, politely, via email to remove the quote from his Steam page. He refused. And so began a two-day ordeal of back and forth emails. I repeatedly politely asked for him to remove the quote. He repeatedly refused. Then he acquiesced – only to the point of altering how he displayed my quote – but never quite enough to say that he had honored my request.

As the discussion wore on, he began interspersing his refusals to honor my polite personal request with accusations and exhortations. Exclamations that I now understood how it felt to be criticized, and suggestions that I was attempting to force him to do things against his will. Odd, especially in light of the last, which was exactly what he had been doing to me.

Rohrer also suggested multiple times that my objection was other than it was, in spite of my very clearly repeating – word for word – exactly what it was that I was objecting to and how I hoped he could resolve it. An objection and a request that, in spite of my having repeated word for word in near to a dozen emails, he never acknowledged or respected.

Rohrer suggested his use of my quote was “Fair Use.” And perhaps it is. Fair Use law is murky at best, and as far as I’m aware there is no legal precedent for using Twitter quotes on a Steam page. Then again, there is plenty of practical precedent for politely considering the wishes of those with whom you may frequently interact. Just as major game publishers politely ask permission to quote reviews, even when they don’t have to. Or when we politely ask them to not murder the meaning in the editing.

Rohrer denied that he had changed the meaning of my words by editing two Twitter posts together with an ellipsis, but eventually did change the quote so that it was no longer two posts spliced together. Rohrer also eventually added the score from my Polygon review so as, presumably, to make it no longer seem as if he were white washing my opinion.

This is the most recent appearance of that page:

Although the changes made do indeed resolve a lot of possible objections, they do not resolve the only objection I have ever voiced to Rohrer: That my personal Twitter posts have been used against my wishes, and in spite of my polite request, in an advertisement for a game.

Given the lengths Rohrer has gone to in order to edit the quote he has selected, one wonders why he wouldn’t simply quote from the review in the first place. It was suggested to me that this might be because there aren’t actually any complete sentences in my review that appear positive. So I checked this. It’s true.

The closest you can get in my review of The Castle Doctrine to an entirely positive, complete sentence is this sentence fragment:

you can’t quite seem to stop thinking about it.

Which is the latter part of this paragraph:

Created entirely by developer Jason Rohrer, The Castle Doctrine is neither of those games. It’s something worse. Something that tests the definitions of the word “game” and that may leave you wondering why the hell you’ve even bothered to pick it up, what of value you might possibly take from the experience, and why — in spite of how terribly sad playing it makes you feel about yourself, whoever made it and those who against all odds might actually enjoy it — you can’t quite seem to stop thinking about it.

The rest of my review is almost entirely negative, or pointing out negative aspects of the game. I quite honestly had nothing positive to say about it.

And yet, the fact that I do not like The Castle Doctrine has no bearing on how I feel about my personal Twitter posts being used without my permission. I would not agree to this for any game made by any person. It is a line I would prefer to not cross. It is, to me, unseemly.

And yet here we are. The creator and publisher of a video game has used my words to promote his product against my wishes and in spite of my polite requests to not do so. I have offered alternate quotes from my review. I have offered suggestions for alternate quotes from other reviews. I have offered to simply not be a part of his advertisement at all. Rohrer has refused to budge, for what reason I can’t even imagine.

My review of his game is the second least positive that has currently been published. (The very lowest score it has been given is a 4.5. I gave it a 5.) I have stated repeatedly on Twitter and elsewhere that I do not like the game. There is no possible way any reasonable person could conclude that I am endorsing it, except by looking at my quote on the game’s purchase page. For Rohrer to desire to use my Twitter quote against my wishes, in spite of being willing to post it alongside my score of “5 out of 10″ suggests there’s some motive beyond simply wanting to use quotes that appear positive. And what that motive might be, no one could say but Rohrer.

As distasteful as I find the situation to be, there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve no desire to go to lawyers because, even if my lawyers are bigger bullies than Rohrer’s (hint: they are), seeking legal remedy in this situation would be a process I do not wish to be a part of. And, to be honest, there’s little I would gain from it other than the satisfaction of forcing someone to do something I want them to do against their will.

But then, that’s what all of this is about, isn’t it? That’s what Rohrer has done to me. That’s what I’ve found objectionable – loathsome, even – about his game.

Jason Rohrer forced me to do a thing I do not want to do, twice. The first time by creating a game in which it is literally not possible to be redeemed, and the second time by forcing me to appear to endorse that game against my will.

How I feel now is how I felt playing his game: defeated, bullied and taken advantage of. Whether or not he has intended it, he has carried over the message of his game into my personal dealings with him, and, just as in the playing of The Castle Doctrine, I find the experience mentally exhausting.

What would I win by forcing those same emotions on someone else? Even if it granted me what I wanted? The answer is nothing. And again I’m drawn back to The Castle Doctrine‘s intellectually simplistic yet inescapable message: The only way to win is not to play.

Whatever game Jason Rohrer is playing here, in real life, I choose not to play it with him. People who make their own rules typically do so for a reason. And that reason isn’t to ensure your success.

In case you were wondering why I might be appearing to endorse a game I absolutely would never endorse: Now you know. I hope you find the explanation satisfactory.

As for Jason Rohrer, he can have my Twitter post. I will take my dignity.