by Alex Spencer
After years of longingly staring at pictures of puppies online, last year my girlfriend and I decided we were finally ready to get one. Unfortunately, after a long conversation with the RSPCA, it turned out that online staring doesn't 'qualify' you to become a 'responsible dog owner'.
So, during the long weeks while we waited for our puppy to grow from a Beanie-Baby-looking thing that fit into the palm of one hand and into an actual normal-sized dog, I readied myself in the only way I knew how. While my other half read all the books and websites you're actually meant to read, I decided to play a load of games with dogs in them instead.
Cynical readers might note that this coincided with the release of MGS V, and I was just looking for an excuse to spend more alone time with my Xbox. But, after a few months of successful dog ownership ('successful' here meaning 'he's still alive, and so are we'), I'm here to share my learnings. And some pictures of my dog.
Meet Lucky Spencer-Dale:
THE FIRST LESSON: DOGS HAVE RUBBISH TUTORIALS
The first game we play, Puppy Luv – a budget release from 2006 – sets us up with some useful advice on caring for a little furry life: “Make sure all his stats are as filled as possible”. Yup, makes sense.
It's not, however, entirely clear how to achieve this in Puppy Luv. We spend a lot of our time guessing at the results of our actions (“do you think he gets better every time he catches the frisbee?”, “does playing in the park make him less clean?”) which is actually a remarkably accurate of the mental process we go through every time every Lucky starts woofing.
So maybe the shonkiness isn't just a result of the game being a rushed Nintendogs cash-in. Maybe it's actually a brilliant simulation of the chaos of dog ownership. It's certainly more honest than The Sims 3: Pets, which gives a status bar for every one of your dog's needs – although, brilliantly, this includes the 'destruction' urge to chew stuff.
Dogs come with one innovation in this area, however, which beats out any game: the wagging tail. Even the reward loop of a Destiny or World of Warcraft can't compete with the swish of a contented pup's back end.
THE SECOND LESSON: THE CONTROLS ARE EVEN WORSE
OK, so let's say you've managed to figure out what your dog wants. Having offered food, toys, that one corner of the garden that they seem to think of as their outdoor en suite, you finally realise, oh, they must be thirsty. Now all you have to do is reach the water bowl without them spotting, leaping into and eating their way back out of that gigantic pile of leaves.
The thing is, dogs are almost entirely voice-controlled – and frankly, the speech recognition isn't great. This is something Nintendogs gets exactly right, relying on spoken commands to control your virtual dog. This still feels like strange magic, even a decade on, and it's exactly the same for the real-life variety. It's incredibly rewarding to see your pup sitting down just as you tell it to – even if you do quietly suspect that it may have been a coincidence.
The other thing about Nintendogs is that it's a DS game. Play it on the go and you're likely to be the guy on the bus that everyone else avoids sitting next to, as you loudly berate the unresponsive piece of plastic in your hands. If you plan to get a dog, though, this is a useful experience. You'll spend plenty of time in public shouting commands, as the dog looks on disinterestedly and continues to chew on the child's shoe you desperately hope it just found on the street.
THE THIRD LESSON: YOU NEED TO LEARN TO MULTITASK
The Sims 3: Pets captures this experience best with the autonomy setting turned up to max. You can queue up commands for the dog, but momentarily turn your attention to one of the bipedal Sims under your care, and you're likely to find your furry friend disregarding those earlier suggestions in favour of digging up that carefully landscaped garden.
Frankly, even the most helpful in-game dog is going to get in the way of your objective every now and then. D-Dog is a great companion on MGS V's missions, able to sniff out enemies before you spot them and act as a distraction... until the moment things go wrong. Suddenly, you're angling the camera over Big Boss' shoulder to check D-Dog hasn't rushed over to tussle with the driver of that Metal Gear walker with the two machine guns strapped to its sides.
This is how working from home with Lucky feels. He's a great stress-buster, but has an uncanny knack for launching a salvo of woofs during any vaguely important phone call. It's hard to stay angry with a face like this, though:
It's much, much worse when you're the problem. While playing with Boss's new stun arm, trying to figure out how it works, I accidentally knock D-Dog out with a concentrated burst of electricity. 'Your bond with D-Dog has decreased', reads the on-screen message.
My heart sinks exactly like it does every time I accidentally trod on Lucky, or shut the gate in his face, or ran over his tail with my office chair. In MGS V, you can hammer a button to tell D-Dog he's a good boy, until that tail starts wagging again and you can breathe a sigh of relief. In real life, Lucky just stares at me with eyes full of confusion and betrayal.
THE FOURTH LESSON: YOU CAN NEVER TRULY BE PREPARED
There are some things that no game can really prepare you for. I don't remember the bit in MGS V, for example, where D-Dog is sick en route to a mission, producing a substance that resembles awful school-dinner chilli con carne but which he apparently finds delicious.
There's no Nintendogs minigame that has you waggling the stylus to pee against a shed at 3am in a sleep-deprived attempt to teach your new puppy that the garden is a great place to go to the toilet. Your Sims never have to handle a call from the vet, telling them in gibbering Simlish that they've spotted that the dog still has his balls attached and, as he's already under anaesthetic, they can lop them off for an extra twenty quid if you act now.
Every day of dog ownership comes with more snap decisions than an entire season of Telltale's Walking Dead. It's deeply rewarding (as if to prove this point, Lucky has just collapsed onto my lap as I write this, like a softly snoring hot water bottle) but equally exhausting.
Thankfully, when it all starts to wear you down, you can always turn the comforting relief of games. I hear some of them don't even have any dogs in.