Advertisement
Games

We Need More Games Where Animals Don't Just Die or Carry Us Around

Video game animals don’t need to be reduced to murder machines or beasts of burden.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Apr 28 2017, 9:00pm

All Shelter screens courtesy of Might and Delight

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Being a badger mother is emotionally draining. Off-screen somewhere, you have birthed these small animals, and now they are wiggly, hungry little beasts with their own personalities, desires, and ways of acting. You have to keep your eye on them at all times as you creep through the underbrush knocking apples to the ground and digging up tubers for your children to eat. Your entire life is consumed by making sure that these miniature versions of yourself can consume, and worse, making sure that they aren't consumed in turn.

The game is Shelter, and you spend less time looking for somewhere to huddle down than you do trying to shepherd your five mammalian babies through a world that's trying to kill them at every step. And sometimes, no matter how much you bark and run and chase, they're going to be eaten by another creature. Against everything my video game playing brain tells me, to lose one of them hits me in the gut.

That doesn't stop me from doing the same thing to other creatures, though. I will eat frogs and gophers with ease, eagerly chasing them with my badger-mother jaws with which I will snap them up and feed them to my young. There is no justice in this universe. There is only a desire to eat, live, and make sure that my young can do the same for as long as I am able to protect them.

This is what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "the war of all against all." It's the state of nature, a way of being that pits every creature against the other in a mad gambit to make sure that they are not destroyed and consumed for their nutrients. Without allegiances and without agreements, there is nothing in the animal world other than bare life. Things merely live in a constant state of nature fight, and not dying is good enough.

Video games are good at imagining two kinds of life for animals: You either have animals-as-tools, like the horses in every fantasy game ever made, or you have animals who are constantly having to fight to survive. In either case, these animals are just machines. In the former example, they're mechanical advantage for human endeavors, and in the latter example they are fighting-eating-pooping-dying machines with no internal life of their own.

I think Shelter is an interesting and valuable title, but I want games about animal life that aren't completely bleak. No matter how wonderful your personal badger mother story in that game is, it ends horribly for most animals you encounter. I want to see games about animals being happy, and I don't just mean petting or playing fetch with dogs. I want to see the full range of life for creatures outside of the human frame of reference.

I had the good fortune to talk with the development team of the recently-Kickstarted Cattails recently. I had seen the Kickstarter page and video for it, and I was intrigued. It was a game about being a cat out in nature, talking to cats about cat stuff, and then getting married to other cats. You collect things. You level up your cat abilities. Like a feline Harvest Moon, it seemed like it was more about scheduling your daily activities than it was about hunting down rival cats and leaving them for dead in the woods.

At first blush, it also looked a little austere and bleak; solo cats hunting alone for hours in the woods seemed to be a somber idea for such a colorful world. Tyler and Rebekah Thompson, the husband/wife duo heading up the Cattails teams, set me straight.

All Cattails images courtesy of Falcon Development.

"There is certainly a solo side to it, but a large portion of it is socializing with other cats. There's a pretty big friendship-marriage-have kittens kind of a system to it. You can befriend the other cats around you, and you can also fight them, so you're technically not alone if you're fighting other cats."

I asked why cats were getting married, and Tyler, a cat aficionado, had already thought about it. "Because cats are these loner creatures in the wild, but they do team up. There is this natural phenomenon where colonies of wild cats will group up together for survival purposes, and then they'll have kittens to maintain their survivability." Rebekah was more direct about Harvest Moon-style mechanics: "Who doesn't want kittens?"

Cattails also evokes the work that Kevin Cancienne has been doing for years on the still-in-development-game Home Free, which is about being a dog. Not just fetching and sitting at home in a crate while your owner abandons you for nine hours a day, but the entire life and times of being a dog in a city who wants to go off and do anything that a dog might be doing.

Instead of focusing on the tragedy of being an animal, both of these games are trying to create abstracted versions of the ways that animals navigate their relationships with our shared world.

Importantly, in both of these games, these relationships are not completely overridden by the concerns of humans. These are not sympathy games where you are meant to look at the plight of the common cat or dog and wonder about what organization you can donate to in order to make you feel better. These games aren't interested in having the animals die so you can ponder life and death without the supposed safety net of the human social contract. In fact, dying in Cattails has to be agreed to in a conversation with Death itself. Most of the time, you will just be resurrected by a very cute cat doctor named, you guessed it, "Doc."

These games are important, I think, in that they give us some kind of hope when it comes to thinking about animals in the world. They're not just "lesser" lifeforms who will murder without mercy. They are living, thinking creatures, and while they might not employ mayors or town doctors like Cattails has them doing, they certainly have a more complicated existence than the majority of games about animals suggest.