The first and only time I dropped acid, it was a snowy February morning in a sleepy northern England town. I vividly remember the moment it set in – I was sat in a Thai cafe with a friend, watching people drift past the window, when I noticed something troubling outside. A parent and child, walking past, were momentarily transformed into parent and TERRIFYING GOBLIN MAN.
I stood up immediately. “I have to go.”
My friend gave a slow, solemn nod, silently letting me hoof it out of the establishment. He’d been around the block before. He knew how my life was about to unfold.
Playing Dropsy, then, years later, having traded cheap Thai soups with £7.50 gourmet hot dogs, a small town of thousands with one of the world’s greatest megacities, and the occasional psychedelic excursion with the occasional rent crisis – I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic.
Dropsy is a classic point-and-click adventure, with a fairly hefty wrinkle. You play as the eponymous character: Dropsy, a giggling, deformed clown. You sound a bit like Banjo from Banjo Kazooie, with some major physical differences: you have an extra-bouncy walk and stumps for arms. Essentially you spend your time going around town, helping people solve their problems. They’re fairly simple problems really, like giving food to a hungry person, or a flower to someone seeking a gift for their lover. Make people happy, and you receive hugs in return. The twist is that you are one hundred percent out of your mind at all times.
Your tenuous grip on reality means you can’t understand what people are saying, and people’s requests and demands are represented as vague, abstract icons in word balloons. Sometimes, people get too wordy, and these icons collapse into even more abstract and meaningless shapes. You definitely can’t read, and written text is rather brilliantly portrayed as a series of mad and unknowable symbols. Televisions blare out garish flashes of infomercials and light entertainment programming. The townsfolk seem to be more than a little wary of you, which in no way dampens your own enthusiasm upon meeting them.
Dropsy’s inner world may be very different to the one inhabited by the rest of the cast, but it’s their problems you’re trying to solve, mostly. For a genre so often concerned with creating flavour, detail and incidental dialogue, it’s a fun spin to render all of those things meaningless. You can’t even reliably interact with the world itself – one of the game’s best gags lets you inspect the number pad on a public phone. Any attempt to dial a number results in Dropsy wildly mashing all the keys. The game’s gentle way of reminding you that everything is just a bit much for this character. There’s a loose, abstracted story, but no clear goal. As far as I can tell, you want to hug as many people as you can? Christ, this is starting to sound familiar.
With acid, you are adjusting the difficulty slider on real life. Everything becomes less knowable and less accessible. It’s the cost of entry for making everything much, much more interesting, which is fine if you’re sitting around listening to music, or aimlessly wandering the streets. But woe betide the space cadet who doesn’t have anything ready to eat, 9 hours into an unrelenting 18-hour monster of a trip, who has to run seemingly insurmountable social gauntlets like ‘going into a shop’ or ‘interacting with shopkeepers who are not on acid’.
So, in Dropsy, as if on acid, you wander the streets doe-eyed and confused. As if on acid, you chat to everyone you meet, even though you know the conversation will make little sense to you, and will probably do nothing for your reputation. And as if on acid, small victories in Dropsy mean the world. Complete a puzzle (even tasks as mundane as ‘manage to buy something in a shop’, or ‘successfully give food to a hungry person’) and the game erupts in neon fanfare.
An LSD trip is hard work though, and not just in terms of getting through social interactions or correctly performing one’s bodily functions. There’s always a point where you feel tied down by the drug, where you wish you could just turn it off for a second, pierce the veil momentarily in order to change your clothes, or find your keys, or successfully eat a small sandwich in its entirety. And so it is in Dropsy, where although I was completely enchanted by the game’s artistic conceits, I often found myself wishing that I could see past the endless deluge of wonderful abstractions and catch a glimpse of the concrete. Maybe just a sneaky little cheat-sheet of objectives to give me some focus, so I can see more cool stuff. Or a fast travel mode. Moving from place to place takes a long time, man. And there’s even a bothersome day/night cycle, where you have to get a handle on people’s schedules, a lot like (the actually fairly hallucinogenic) The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
It’s up to you whether you consider what I’m about to mention as one of the game’s accomplishments – if it is, I’d suspect it’s maybe the game’s greatest – but my feelings coming away from Dropsy were remarkably, laughably similar to those I had in the days following my big ol’ acid trip. A sense of having seen something beautiful, but superficial, and perhaps even kind of shallow. An experience which very artificially makes your interactions more complex than they should be. And then, of course, there’s always the chance you’ll mistake that artifice for profundity, ever the Achilles heel of the student stoner-mystic.
So anyway. That’s Dropsy. It has a great soundtrack, made up of breathy, mid-morning, black coffee jazz recitals. A cool visual style of delicately animated ‘90s pixel art made psychedelic by its colour palette of swirling pinks and purples. And a gentle reminder of that one day I put a kaleidoscope lens over my immediate surroundings, and ran amok for 18 hours. Much like that long, intense, heady day, I didn’t really accomplish all that much in Dropsy. I didn’t need questions answered, or mysteries uncovered. Locked doors remained so. That’s the deal with acid, though – you go in seeking enlightenment, but come out finding something much more precious: contentment.
Correction: Following the publication of this piece, Existential Gamer were approached in the night by a crazed, towering stranger. We didn’t get a good look at his face, but he smelled like a mixture of theatre paint and old vomit. Seemingly unable to enunciate words he handed us a note from the developer. According to the note, there is in fact fast travel in the game – you just have to get far enough to unlock it. Which isn’t far at all, apparently. We apologise for saying otherwise in the piece, and beg that the stranger, who has since been stood outside this reviewer’s bedroom window, staring and occasionally giggling, stay away from our families and loved-ones.