Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.

All games begin as a glimmer of something bigger, a vision in need of structure and cultivation. Sometimes a game is born as a tipsy conversation between friends; other times it’s written within the margins of a small notebook, an idea destined to be ushered into material existence with coding, artwork, a lot of sweat and tears and likely years of work.

The kernel that would eventually grow into Dropsy, an old school adventure game starring a clown trying to bring happiness to those around him, was born way back in 2004. “I had made this really crappy zombie game,” creator Jay Tholen tells me. “I just had this sprite of him laying around; he was like a boss in a circus level. And I was like Ah! I still like this guy, so in 2008 I re-used his sprite and made him a good guy.”

Tholen shared the development of this early version of the game on the forums of Something Awful, a comedy website, and even took requests and suggestions from other message board users. The retail version of the game centers around having Dropsy hug as many people as possible, often having to solve puzzles, like distracting an overbearing church woman by blaring a hard rock cassette tape so you can steal a sandwich to feed to a homeless person, in order to make individuals happy and welcoming enough to accept a hug from him.

Tholen says that central mechanic was actually created after forum members kept telling him to have Dropsy hug other characters; he says that while he grew as a person over the years, the game evolved alongside him: “As a person I’ve changed—as people do—and it just wouldn’t be in me anymore to make a game with like a really dark undercurrent,” he says. “I wanted to make something that helps people or something. I think as I grew a little bit, Dropsy and what it needed to be changed too? So maybe at one time it could have been a one note joke about creepy hugging but then it became something I wanted to say something good with.”


In 2013 Tholen launched a Kickstarter campaign for the game, one that he says failed because he made a bunch of “big boo-boos.” But what interest in the game did exist (along with him being “quit-fired” from his job) encouraged him to launch another campaign this past October, with the funding goal cut down from $25,000 to $14,000. That campaign was successful, netting Tholen and the rest of his team $24,921 to develop the game. Since its release in September it’s received glowing reviews from the majority of game publications, becoming one of 2015’s oddest-looking critical darlings. In a way it’s fitting that Dropsy has had such personal and somewhat rough road to creation, because the game is both uncomfortable and intimate in a way that few others dare to be.

The story of Dropsy is just as straightforward and painful as a hammer blow to the skull. After losing his mother in a circus fire that he’s blamed for, Dropsy, a hideous looking but cheery clown, spends his time trying to bring joy to the folks around him, who are generally distrusting if not outright resentful of him. Clowns on their own are frightening enough but Dropsy’s melted looking face and missing teeth make him a particularly potent form of nightmare fuel, which actually plays a huge role in setting up the game’s surprisingly poignant core.

Shortly before his death poet Frank O’ Hara wrote “I am the least difficult of all men. All I want is boundless love.” O’Hara’s line isn’t a winky-look-how-clever-I-sound nugget of wit but is instead an earnest outcry: “I just want to be loved. It’s supposed to be so simple. Why can’t I have it?” It’s a sentiment that most people have felt at one time or another, whether it’s the love of someone else we’re seeking or the ability to be OK with ourselves.

Dropsy and his quest for this kind of love are exceptional because unlike most games it’s not about thwarting an evildoer, saving the world or garnering as much power as possible through force or intellect. It’s a game that’ concerned with a character who’s probably a lot more like us than we’re willing to admit, triumphing over both himself and the negative expectations that others have of him. But what makes Dropsy even more appealing is that he’s not a character that’s striving to succeed just for personal gain. He wants more than boundless love for himself—he wants it for everyone else too.

The game deftly avoids being obnoxiously sentimental by presenting the world and its characters in a disturbing way that evokes a watercolor version of Robert Crumb’s gross-out caricatures, and by showing us Dropsy’s psychological scars. As Dropsy sleeps, he’s bombarded with all sorts of grotesque horrors related to the trauma associated with his mother’s death, but he pushes on, attempting to bring joy to others in a dark world. When I told Tholen that I saw the game as being about Dropsy learning to love himself and the world around him, he softly pushed against that notion, explaining “There’s this Mr. Rogers slash Jesus philosophy of seeing all people as having this inherent worth, and I think the game is a lot more about Dropsy having mercy on this really miserable world and just being kind to them more than it would be them accepting him, in a way.”


Tholen with a clown they hired for the game

Tholen with a clown they hired for the game’s press tour (courtesy Devolver Digital)

In a culture obsessed with creating games that are mostly about giving you a thousand and one different tools with which to kill people, Dropsy feels fresh. It’s a game explicitly about love and it owns that in its own twisted way, refusing to hide it inside euphemisms or place it as an awkward footnote to player-orchestrated massacres in space operas. Instead, it wears its feelings on its dirty, mustard-stained clown sleeves.

Dropsy wants you to know you’re worthy of love and so are the people around you, and whether you agree or disagree with such a premise is ultimately irrelevant. What’s worthwhile is that we have a game unapologetically expressing that pure philosophy in a way that’s beautiful and compelling. It’s almost too genuine for its own good, especially amidst a backdrop of mostly first-person shooters and role-playing games explicitly designed to make you forget about the struggles of life.

This could have easily been merely another nostalgia throwback to the adventure games of old, completely serviceable with the genre’s trademark illogical puzzles, retro graphics and goofy humor. But instead it’s something more: a trippy and sometimes brutal musing on what it means to love. Dropsy is a strange, captivating game, containing profound honesty—all too rare in video games.

Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.

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