By Mento 11 Comments
Ahoy-hoy Bombinos, welcome to another blog to be cast into the phantom zone, from whence no man, woman or entity might be able to see it. At least until I tell @ZombiePie about it, anyway. All this grousing about the missing site features that once supported the blogging community is going to seem really dated in a week or so. I hope.
But that's not why we're here today. Today I'm looking at video games that not only contain dogs, but make them central playable characters. Because dogs are usually thought to be insentient and unable to comprehend the sort of motivations, ministrations and machinations of the human world that normally comprise a story with depth and layers to it of the sort we'd wish video games would really start adopting as standard already, they're severely restricted in how much they can affect the plot, which is kind of instrumental for the protagonist's role. They generally can't talk either, but I guess that never hurt Crono or Gordon Freeman.
In spite of this, there are several games with playable canines that find one way or another of circumventing what would seem to be a golden rule of making the hero a person who is capable of knowing what's going on. Some of these instances start heading deep into Technicality Country (which is, strictly speaking, a sovereign state), so I'll start with the "purest" (in terms of doggy fidelity at least, if not in wholesome content) and work my way outwards.
Like a great many of you with premium accounts and nothing better to do on a Friday afternoon (or a Friday middle of the night, in my case), I was captivated by a recent game covered by GB's Unprofessional Fridays. Enraptured, even. Dog's Life - which is actually from the same British studio that developed the sequels to Frontier, which in turn was the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, so that's kind of weird - is an action-adventure game (sort of?) that stars Jake the Dog (unfortunately not the magical one) as he attempts to track down the dognappers that stole his beloved paramour Daisy.
The gist of the game was fairly well elaborated upon in the Unprofessional Fridays section that brought it to this site's collective consciousness, but essentially the game is all about collecting a core currency (in this case bones) which in turn somehow makes Jake stronger, allowing him to defeat certain roadblocks between him and the end of the game. These obstacles are invariably other dogs, and the dogcatcher's Rottweiler Killer in particular, with whom the player competes with in various contests involving tugs of war, competitive territory marking (with pee, naturally), hole digging and races. On top of that, many bones are found by helping humans with their problems (often requiring some adventure game-esque puzzles, filling in the "adventure" part of "action-adventure") and simply exploring the surroundings for errant ulnas. It's somehow far more involved than the usual plot coupon currency games that are the 3D platformers I generally cherish, so I can't really fault the game for its core gameplay. Pretty much every aspect outside the gameplay cannot be afforded the same protection, however, but hey, the game's practically a decade old so maybe I can forgive a few ugly models and some truly dubious voicework.
Somehow the game gets even more in-depth with its first-person "Smellovision" view. A cute mechanic, the world is considerably desaturated but is enhanced in turn by the visibility of color-specific scents of humans and other dogs, as well as telltale orange glows that indicate nearby bones and loose enduring scents that make up the various other collectibles of the game. Collecting all of a specific-colored scent in an area will unlock one of the aforementioned dog challenges, while the purple, area-constant 50 scents (which doesn't include "blood in the sand" or "sick-ass skulls" among them, sadly) take the role of the sort of extended series of scavenger hunts that Banjo Kazooie et al were predicated on.
It's an oddly decent game, though one obviously meant for children given its general lack of challenge. You'd be forgiven for thinking it's mostly bodily function gags and obnoxious Marmaduke-brand dog jokes, since both are far better represented than anyone could possibly hope or want, but it's a goofy, off-beat curio that the universe was apparently happy to let slip by unnoticed. Well, until someone on GB's staff dug it out from its obscurity like the figurative beef cutlet in a trash can.
So here's where we sort of depart from the core dog model here. Jake was capable of human-like thought processes, albeit ones far more focused on pissing everywhere, but was otherwise as Canis lupus familiaris as they get. Amaterasu, despite appearing as a regular white wolf to most of the characters of Okami, has a plethora of supernatural abilities at her disposal, due mostly to her status as a creator Goddess. In this sense she is far more than simply a dog (or a wolf I guess, but why argue semantics?). Even so, much of the game's narrative beats and script is built around her canine presence, with characters simply thinking aloud whenever she's nearby because it's not talking to yourself like a loon if a doggy deity's in earshot. She also has Issun, a flea-sized artist, to translate her barks and howls to anyone who cares to listen (like us players, for instance) as well as act as a necessary audience surrogate in other, more subtle ways. In fact, Issun does so much of the talking that it sometimes feels like Ammy's taking a far more passive role in the proceedings. Doesn't help that she's always yawning during cutscenes - though given how long and numerous they are, it's sometimes hard to fault her.
Okami makes the best use of its animal heroine with the way she fights: She employs a series of "divine instruments", each with their own reach, combos and advantages, and swings them around in her mouth while agilely leaping around the various encounters of the game, random or otherwise. As Dog's Life also ably demonstrates, taking a dog's natural inclination for jumping and running and employing them in a genre like the platforming action-adventure where such abilities can shine is maybe the best course of action if your game happens to star a dog. I'm not saying you can't have, say, a survival horror game or a city-building sim with a dog protagonist, it's just that it'll have far more restrictions than is perhaps desirable.
Why the hell did I have to bring up an idea like Dog SimCity? I've made myself sad because it doesn't exist. Giant vacuum cleaners used for disasters... arcologies shaped like fire hydrants... all lost, like urination in rain.
Mostly ignored even by Discworld fans, the CGI-heavy third installment of the Discworld series of point-and-click adventure games featured an original character, Lewton, who would've been an incongruously modern construct (a classic trenchcoat and fedora-sporting detective) had Ankh-Morpork had anything resembling a consistent sense of time or place. Terry Pratchett's world is full of idiosyncrasies which, as with the sci-fi universe of his contemporary Douglas Adams, served mostly to humorously draw parallels and satirize the real world than be a separate entity with a strict internal logic of its own. That said, with dozens of novels set in that world by the time this game came out, Pratchett's Discworld had been fleshed out sufficiently that fans more or less knew its most famous city inside and out: From the magically ramshackle Unseen University, where wizards ostensibly go to learn their craft but in actuality are finding ways to escape real jobs for as long as possible (what did I say about satire?) to the stern palatial holdings of Lord Vetinari the Patrician, a man only as evilly Machiavellian as he needs to be to keep Ankh-Morpork in one piece, which is about as benevolent a leader as the city could hope for.
Discworld Noir presents itself as a classic film noir story in a city that just so happens to feature giant rocky troll bouncers and goons, vampiric pianists, a sardonic Grim Reaper who flat-out refuses to be a murder witness despite technically witnessing every murder that has ever happened and, as would later become vitally important to the mystery, a werewolf or two. While much of Lewton's adventuring is of good old-fashioned interrogation and observation detective work, at one point in the story he is assaulted and turned by a werewolf and is able to adopt its form to solve scent-based puzzles. Similar to Dog's Life's Smellovision, they essentially boil down to Lewton figuring out the scent of a particular person of interest, dropping into his wolf-form and sniffing them out.
It's a very witty game (as would be expected of anything Discworld), packed with as many film noir references as it is with characters and settings from the Discworld books, and the scent puzzles gel neatly with the rest of the adventure game elements. Everyone in the city treats a noirish detective in a fantasy city with the same level of incredulity that the player initially might, which never gets old, and while the models are as blocky as was sadly inescapable in late-90s CGI games, they're only really apparent in the cutscenes: The rest of the game uses pre-rendered characters and backdrops that represent perhaps the most detailed depictions of the Discworld outside of the TV shows. Though not yet on GOG, it is one of their more heavily requested titles, so fans of pre-collapse era adventure games hopefully won't have to wait too long to try it.
As always, I've waffled on too long. Here's but a smattering of playable dog characters of note that I didn't cover:
- First and foremost are all the RPG dog characters that can get away with the usual doggy issues by simply being part of an ensemble and thus entirely ancillary in terms of plot significance. These include the Mabari War Hound of Dragon Age, Repede of Tales of Vesperia, Blanca of Shadow Hearts: Covenant, the player-named Dog of Secret of Evermore, Red XIII depending on whether you consider him a coyote or some kind of jaguar, Koromaru of Persona 3 and last but definitely least, the completely ineffectual King of EarthBound.
- Missile, everyone's favorite undead Pomeranian (unless you were a huge fan of that vampire one in Blade Trinity), is introduced early in the excellent Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective as simply one of many chapter-specific characters the hero Sissel needs to save from a premature demise. However, Missile would go on to have a much bigger part to play. Ghost Trick is kind of incredible, and Missile is a large part of why that is.
- Link's wolf-form in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Though not utilized quite as effectively as the examples above, it is a form that both restricts certain actions Link is able to perform while simultaneously introducing new ones. Beyond that, I'm not sure why the game didn't just do what A Link to the Past did and make Link's dark world form a pink bunny rabbit. Perhaps that would've spoiled the moody atmosphere the game was trying to engender?
As a final note, I hope to all that is good and grand that puppy patron Matthew @Rorie can find more work. To be made redundant so soon into this new job makes me wonder if there isn't some vengeful Gypsy pup out there that Rorie petted too hard one day. Hang in there! (Which, given, is a message more closely associated with determined kittens, but then I never claimed this blog would be 100% dogs, you guys.)