The Secret Lives of Video Game Animals

By Andreas Inderwildi on at

If you’re reading this, chances are you clicked the headline with a human finger and are processing these words with a human brain in a human body propped up by a chair conveniently designed for human physiognomy. In our anthropocentric world and especially online – cat pics aside – it’s easy to forget that our experiences with our particular brand of bodies are a marginal phenomenon on this planet; the vast majority of life on Earth is, after all, non-human.

What’s it like to slither across the ground as a snake, to ‘see’ via echolocation as a bat, to 'smell' underwater like a shark, or even walk on all fours like your dog? We’ll never know but, if you’re interested in those questions, videogames offer unique angles to consider them from. Even though most games cast animals and other creatures as background actors or throwaway enemies, more and more games are fascinated by the way non-human creatures crawl, jump, fly, or climb through their worlds.

Take Monster Hunter: World, where we spend much of our time with our eyes glued to every minute movement of our preys’ rippling bodies. We may not be motivated by a naturalist’s curiosity (even though the game invokes science again and again) but the result is the same. By rewarding close observation, the game encourages the diligent hunter to learn about those creatures’ habits and behaviours within their ecosystem. Those behaviours are complex enough to warrant careful observation, and simple enough to allow clear conclusions based on these observations.

But while Monster Hunter: World manages to condense some of the beauty and colourful diversity of the animal kingdom, there’s something coldly mechanical about its lively and well-animated monsters. It’s a defect so common in games that a creature like Trico from The Last Guardian provoked a wealth of writing admiring its lifelikeness. Trico boasts an overwhelming physical presence that none of the monsters of Monster Hunter: World, despite their size and ferocity, can match.

The reason behind this is not just technical wizardry and animation, but the unique relationship between Trico and the boy. The game highlights the vulnerability of the boy’s own frail body, and his dependence on Trico. Faced with danger, you’re sometimes forced to seek shelter in Trico’s dense plumage and trust the creature’s AI to handle the situation for you. Awkwardly scrambling around on Trico’s body gives it a sense of tactility, weight and reality that comes surprisingly close to interacting with actual animals. Trico’s fickleness and independence only adds to this impression; it gets distracted by playthings, lies down if it’s hungry and tired, and generally ignores the boy’s commands. The Last Guardian does away with the mechanical predictability of other games, which means that Trico demands closer attention than most virtual creatures. It constantly asks us to interpret its often-ambiguous body language and to guess what might be going on inside that large head at any given moment.

In many ways, The Last Guardian is a game about building intimacy with another being not through language or dialogue, but simply through physical closeness and the growing familiarity with various cues. Of course, there’s no greater intimacy than actually ‘inhabiting’ a body, and The Last Guardian would be a very different experience if we got to experience its world through Trico’s eyes.

With today’s well-established, cookie-cutter control schemes, most games are reluctant to give us control over non-human(oid) bodies. There are rare exceptions to this rule. In Snake Pass, we guide Noodle the snake through ever-more demanding obstacle courses with all the trappings of a 3D platformer. But Noodle isn’t just an anthropomorphised snake, jumping around on its coiled tail like a cartoon character. Despite the colourful, stylised aesthetics and gamey design, Snake Pass is a simulation of sorts. We slowly learn how to build momentum by wiggling across the ground in wavy motions, or how to coil our serpentine bodies around bamboo poles and tighten our muscles for more friction and a better grip. Slowly, you get a feeling for the weight of this strange body, which can be both an asset, anchoring you to higher ground, or a liability, dragging you into an abyss.

While Noodle does probably far more climbing than your average snake in the wilds and the highly artificial obstacle courses are nothing like a snake’s natural habitat, the game still does a good job of giving you a feeling for the body of a very alien creature. Every other aspect of the game – the challenges and dangers, the collectables – is simply there to encourage the exploration the full spectrum of movement this body allows. Despite its steep learning curve and all the frustration this brings, Snake Pass can be a uniquely rewarding experience as the unfamiliar movements become more natural and you start to forget your cramped fingers on the controller.

Despite its general weirdness, Rain World’s slugcat seems less alien in some ways. After all, evolution has gifted it with two hands and two feet, and it moves and jumps not unlike many other humanoid game protagonists. Still, the slugcat’s cumbersome body is hard to get used to; its legs are hardly made for jumping or even running. In a world where every predator is far quicker and more mobile than you, these defects often prove deadly. This soft, squishy body was not made for physical confrontations. In order to survive, it must hide or escape by squeezing itself into tight passageways, or use its hands to climb out of reach or throw makeshift weapons. But most of all, it needs to be aware of its surroundings at all times, scurrying away at the first sign of danger.

Here, obsessively observing your fellow creatures isn’t a matter of mastering challenges like in Monster Hunter or building understanding and empathy like in The Last Guardian; it’s essential to raw survival, even though it never guarantees it. The ecosystems of Rain World are far crueller and more chaotic than the ones we explore in Monster Hunter World, and its inhabitants are more unpredictable than Trico at its most fickle. All of this fosters a sense of constant paranoia as you try to keep this small body safe from predators and deadly environmental hazards against all odds. It’s a game that has the courage to slaughter that holy cow of game design, fairness, because life isn't fair – especially when you're a small prey animal. And the payoff is in equal parts infuriating and interesting. You may curse and wail as your slugcat vanishes into yet another set of jaws, but there's no denying it succeeds in putting you into the mindset of a weak creature in a dangerous world.

In our obsession with clearly marked-off genre definitions, it’s easy to forget that very different games sometimes share common inspirations or aims. Whether you befriend a cat-bird hybrid, use a snake’s body to tie knots around poles, or panic as a predator gets a whiff of your slugcat’s scent; all these scenarios share a fascination with the ways non-human bodies behave and function. What life is like behind a different set of eyes. And at their best, as you turn off the machine and get up from your chair, these games can make you think about how we move through the world – and emphasise with the many other living things that don't have it so easy.