by A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz — University of Southern California
February 18, 2011 – 21:29
Robot Butler is a successful experiment on the theme of a failed experiment.
In some future time, or in the recent past of an alternate universe, Robot Butlers have finally been invented. The human being has become a poor wretch fit only to pass the time in bed in front of a flat-screen TV. The “American Way of Life” has reached its pinnacle, and the greatest of liberties—the most fundamental right emblazoned at the core of the constitution—is now the right to do nothing.
The ethical and social conflicts of the world have faded, and the Robot Butler has taken the weight of the world on his metal shoulders. Luckily, he takes the burden well: he’s been programmed for this.
The drama of Robot Butler relies in part on the element of surprise, so I suggest you stop reading here and try it for yourself now.
Robot Butler opens as a game of household management. The robot that you embody must make his human owners happy by performing a series of tedious tasks such as cooking, cleaning, stoking the fire, plunging the capricious toilet, even changing the TV channel. When he has free time, he can also go for a stroll to the garage to tinker with sprinklers and takecare of the lawn.
To this point, Robot Butler seems like a version of the Sims, taking place in a twisted, perverse universe that the humans have deserted.
There is no plush promotion in the cards for our robot: his only remuneration is the satisfaction of his owners, and the value of his S.C.O.R.E. It’s a little thing, but it suffices to prod the player to clean the toilet with pleasure: after all, that’s the program.
Only, not all the robot butlers benefit from such excellent programming, and it seems that their gears have slipped slightly into the terrible realm of free will. There suddenly appear robots who have rebelled against their masters, assembled, and decided to exterminate the human race that made them. The murder of the father, an Oedipus of screws and bolts.
In an instant, the simple resource management game is transformed into a tower defense and your world (very small, admittedly) changes. Duster, ladle, poker and plunger become impromptu weapons to beat back the invaders, and sprinklers transform into terrible turrets. The player must defeat the robots, recover metal resources left behind, and use them to build more sprinklers to secure the home area – or precisely the gameplay one would expect in a game of defense. But the manic butler can still reconcile security and domestic duties, so as not to leave the humans in a dysfunctional household, and to achieve the highest score.
I recently read “What video-games have to teach us about learning and literacy” by James Paul Gee, in which the author investigates the process by which the video game teaches its player proper gameplay. I am certain that he would have much to say about Robot Butler.
In effect, the uniqueness of Robot Butler is that it teaches the player the mechanics of resource management through an initial short tutorial. It then allows the game to progress in a completely different direction, transforming it into a game of defense, without prior instructions.
Further, when this transformation takes place, the player feels the same surprise as his robot avatar. He will have to, by himself, adapt his behavior and understanding to this new gameplay, and the transition is remarkable.
The player knows how to use his tools, he knows how to make sprinklers, he has been given a set of priorities… in short: he knows how to play Robot Butler without having even the slightest idea of what the game is about.
More than a subtle mix of genres, Robot Butler is a great video game.
We also appreciate the care taken by RUST LTD in creating their fictional universe. The website of the company Domestronics, creator of the domestic robot, went live with the release of the game. Enjoy.
(Translated from the original French by Heidi Sulzdorf.)
NOTE: Robot Butler was created by the members of RUST, LTD. (which includes Anton Hand, Luke Noonan, Lucas Miller, and me, A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz) for the Kongregate Unity Game Competition. Many thanks to Pierre Corbinais for agreeing to publish his review on MediaCommons, and to Heidi Sulzdorf for her translation.