Q&A: How Dropsy fights cynicism (and clown stereotypes)

'I can't blame anyone for assuming that Dropsy is a stoner horror-comedy thing,' says Jay Tholen. But his sweet-natured take on point-and-click adventures demolishes insane clown cliches.

"Dropsy the game is a point and click adventure with an open world and lots of fun secrets," says creator Jay Tholen. "Dropsy the character is a Clown who is feared and reviled following a circus fire that took place a few years prior to the game's start. In spite of this, he's a childlike innocent who only wants the best for everyone."

As the enthusiastic reviews attest, Dropsy is a unique experience that will eat your cynicism for breakfast. We spoke to Tholen about creating a new "hugventure" genre.

Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself and your game development history so far?

I'm a 28 year old fella from central Florida. I've been making games since discovering a Klik & Play demo at 12 or 13, and never really stopped working on tiny projects. There must be ~50 really bad Jay Tholen games hanging out on various lost hard drives. I did very poorly in school, and eventually dropped out of high school after my GPA sank too low to possibly graduate. After that, I ended up working telemarketing and phone support jobs for about a decade. Dropsy was my first real shot at developing games professionally, and it's been a pretty amazing experience so far.

How would you describe Dropsy to someone who has only played Lucasarts adventure games?

As much as I love the characters and worlds that the Lucasarts games are structured around, I wasn't big on the complex multi-step puzzles, so I'd probably spend most of my time highlighting the gameplay differences. Namely the day/night cycle, bevy of optional puzzles, and textless pictogram communication system. While opinions on the game's difficulty vary wildly, I like that most of our puzzles only require one to three steps to complete. There's also no combining of inventory items.

How did you go about writing and designing Dropsy

"The game isn't trying to send a message as much as it's just trying to set a good example. The more kindhearted games there are, the better."

Dropsy started as a Choose Your Own Adventure forum game in 2008. I knew he'd be an innocent doof, but many of his quirks originated via suggestions there. (Most notably, his obsession with hugging.) The popularity of the thread resulted in tons of requests for a game, which I eventually decided to make in early 2011.

I've been stockpiling art and lore spreadsheets and stuff since, but it was only in mid-late 2014 that the game actually became a game. By some miracle, Jesse and David of A Jolly Corpse were able to help me distill a bewildering amount of crazy-person notes into a bona fide adventure game. To answer your question, it was both solo and group at different times.

Did it bother you that initially most people reacted to Dropsy as if it were a creepy, probably scary adventure?

It bothers me only inasmuch as it could keep people away from a game that they may actually enjoy.

I can't blame anyone for seeing the art style and appearance of Dropsy and assuming that it's a stoner horror-comedy thing. It's kind of amusing that the general reaction mirrors how the characters in the game react to Dropsy.

Do you believe that a game that's all about hugs and understanding  can actually make a difference? Can it hope to turn the cynical dystopia we are all living in into a slightly less cynical place?

I think it can help in some small way. I've been moved by various other forms of media to act in kinder or gentler ways. That said, the game isn't trying to send a message as much as it's just trying to set a good example. The more kindhearted games there are, the better.

Richard Goodness described Dropsy as "one of the queerest queer games to be released in a very long time"; that is, a game about someone different finding the okayness in everyone else. Would you agree with his description?

"I'd give prog rock, Mr. Rogers, and Jesus some credit for what the game ended up being."

Yeah, that sounds spot-on to me. I like the idea of Dropsy's gentleness and childlike demeanor acting as a powerful tangible force in the world. Dropsy overcomes most obstacles by simply caring about people. It's in direct opposition to the internet's obsession with picking out villains and dogpiling them. "Love your enemies," while an admirable and selfless command, is also often the best way to 'win' in a conflict. You're making an enemy into a friend and ally - and you can't really do much better than that.

Would you be kind and cuddly enough to spare a few words on the artistic direction of the game and its graphics?

I consider myself something of a maximalist, so I'm never satisfied with my output unless it jams the sound and color spectrums full of stuff. Players have commented on how depressingly run-down the world looks - but I attribute that to my impulse to pack in as much detail as possible. I can't stand an empty flat spot of color without some kind of imperfection to make it interesting.

As far as pixel-art is concerned, it was only chosen because it is what I'm most proficient at. I've been pushing pixels for nearly 14 years.

What about the sources of your inspiration?

In terms of other games, Earthbound is definitely my most prominent inspiration. The childlike lens through which you're shown the often dismal gameworld was very clever and moving. Beyond that, I'd give really weird prog rock sub-genres, Mr. Rogers, and Jesus some credit for what the game ended up being.

What were you seeking to achieve with Dropsy? Do you think you've accomplished your goal?

The initial plan was to create an adventure game that allowed you to play as Dropsy as he was in the original forum game. Figuring out how to emulate Dropsy's communication difficulties was perhaps the most difficult challenge. That was definitely accomplished, but I feel like we've done a lot more in the process. I'm particularly excited by the fact that Dropsy is effectively universal and still tells a complete narrative.

What does the future hold for both you and Dropsy?

I'm not sure! I've already got a few smaller projects I'm diving into. I definitely want to revisit his world at some point as well. If I do, it'll likely be a prequel.

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