Games like Stray and Endling create more realistic animals

Games like Stray and Endling create more realistic animals

While an ominous blood moon hangs in the sky, four cats seek shelter from torrential rain. In strayed, released this week for PlayStation consoles and PC, you play as one of these animals. Pressing the left analog stick causes your cat to go into a lilting trot; by holding down the right trigger, they accelerate to a jump; then you press a button at certain times to communicate with your feline friends nearby. You play fight, nose rub and crawl towards them, each action beautifully animated, accompanied by a soundtrack with delightful spiders and trills.

By chance, strayed was released on the same day as End: Extinction is forever, another game where you are a virtual animal: a fox in a world ravaged by environmental disasters. Where finally is a simple eco-fable, strayed is a philosophical cyber adventure. Together, these games do more than just our memefied affection for virtual critters; they let us ask questions through their virtual protagonists while asking ourselves questions. In Strays In case the form of the cat – a digital/electronic creature masquerading as a biological/organic creature – feeds the subtext of the game. Developer BlueTwelve examines the all-too-rigid separation we impose on nature and technology, the blurred line between artificial and natural intelligence. It’s a tribute to the game’s artists, animators and sound designers that the constituent parts of this animal fuse together into such a compelling whole. We are far away from the low poly animals of yesteryear.

As I write this, Twitter is indeed flooded of videos of cats glued to television screens while their owners play strayed (there’s even a account dedicated to it). Their ears spin with every chirp; their eyes follow the four-legged body on screen as it is aimed across the underground streets of Walled City 99. These videos could almost be outtakes of Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk classic, Blade Runner. What, we may ask, are these cats thinking as they interact with their digital lookalikes? Maybe a vulnerable feeling of relationship; What do you think of slow approaching horror?

Image: HandyGames

finally, on the other hand, is concerned with nothing so abstract. The game, a side-scrolling 3D adventure, begins with a devastating forest fire (like the one that has just swept across Europe during a week of extreme heat) from which you, a pregnant fox mother, must escape. From there, events hardly get any easier as you head out every night with your newborn cubs, in search of food while searching for your cub who has been captured by a furrier (a person who trades in animal fur). Most of the story is told through the kind of environment stories that have become popular in games like 2007’s Bioshock. You pass graffiti that reads “Your grandson is already dead” as the landscape gradually changes with each passing lunar cycle; towering trees become chainsaw stumps; you sneak under hulking machines.

The game is part of a new wave of titles that explicitly address environmental issues, some hoping to inspire their players to take action in the real world (finally creator Javier Ramello calls the game an “awareness tool”). But where is 2020 Beyond Blue and before that, 2016’s ABZU achieve a sense of ecological wonder, finally goes for the jugular vein with environmental fear.

finally is most effective when its survival mechanism intersects the environment. As the fate of your cubs becomes increasingly at stake (represented by a diminishing hunger bar), you find yourself frantically searching for food in a habitat infested from every angle; you are running out of space, just like real animals. But this good work is undermined by an emotional tenor that all too often feels cheap, reminiscent of what filmmaker George Lucas once said: “Emotionally engaging the audience is easy. Anyone can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and wring a guy’s neck.” Without revealing what exactly happens, I thought Endling’s climax to be the apotheosis of this approach – maudlin, overwrought, underwhelming.

Despite these shortcomings, finallylike strayed, seems to be driven by a well-intentioned desire to connect with what ecological writers like David Abram call the “more-than-human world.” The two games are interested in the intimacy that can be nurtured between a player and a virtual animal (and, by extension, a human and the real thing). In finallyYou take care of your cubs, rewarded at the end of each night with a shot of them sleeping contentedly in the den. In strayed, it is achieved through the small, inviting senseless interactions of drinking from puddles and clawing in fabrics or other tactile materials. Of course, these role plays don’t let us experience the world in non-human terms, but they help us imagine it.

For all the help we provide to these virtual critters, they are still our toys. We control them (just like any other protagonist) and steer their bodies on the screen using the controller as if they were an extension of us. It’s a fantasy and maybe, I’d suggest cautiously, a weird one, especially when it comes to animals. Another way to approach these virtual beings is through what philosopher Donna Haraway calls “letting go” – the idea of ​​accepting that there will always be an unknowable gap between how we perceive the world and that of another being. “Not knowing is a quasi-Buddhist value,” says Haraway, author of The Manifesto of the Companion Species: Dogs, Humans, and Significant Othernesssaid to the LA review of books. “The appreciation of not knowing and letting be, you learn in a serious relationship.”

This is exactly what I’ve come to realize with my two cats: Win, a grown ginger just like the main character in strayed, and Greta, a tabby barely six months old. They roam an overgrown garden (of almost post-apocalyptic unrulyness) wherever and whenever they please. They come back to eat at (semi)regular intervals, although they might as well move on and find another cozy apartment full of food. The fact that they exist outside of my control, acting on their own feline thoughts and decisions has become one of my favorite things about our relationship. I’ll never fully understand what’s going on in their walnut-sized brains!

Win and Greta.
Image: Lewis Gordon

This dimension of human and non-human relationships is relatively little explored in video games, albeit with a few wonderful exceptions. Of course there is 2016 The last guarda game that revolves around a young boy’s relationship with a giant dog-bird hybrid called jersey. You must team up with Trico to solve environmental puzzles and guide her to nearby ledges, across gaping chasms and through twisting tunnels. But Trico doesn’t always follow obediently. There is delay, delay and confusion between you and her, just like with a real animal. You must earn the trust of the feathered creature – positively reinforce actions with gentle pats and comfort with soothing blows. What’s absolutely critical to the game’s success is that the AI ​​that makes Trico tap—which makes her move around the environment and dictates how she feels toward you—is hidden. There is no HUD with handy confidence and hunger gauges. Trico is a black box: unknowable.

Fifteen years earlier The last guard was released, the god simulation of 2001 Black and white gave us another virtual creature with seemingly intelligent AI. Almost at the beginning, you can choose which of the three creatures – a monkey, cow or tiger – will help you deliver benevolent or evil supreme rule. Black and white gives you much more information than The last guard; there are bars that go up and down depending on whether your behavior reinforces positive (stroking) or negatively (slap), but in the moment-to-moment action in the game, your being is often gloriously unpredictable. One minute they can water crops and gather wood; the next they can snack on a villager or defecate in a nursery.

Like strayedboth Black and white and The last guard explore the question of what separates artificial and natural intelligence, but they do so through the material form of their characters rather than explicit narratives. The player can only influence rather than directly control these creatures – assemblies of AI, algorithms, automation, animation and audio. They roam virtual landscapes according to coded instincts, while simultaneously responding both impulsively and thoughtfully to player input.

The last watchman.

They are also talking to bigger ideas and rethinking what exactly intelligence is. On the one hand, thanks to the work of scientists and writers like Frans de Waal and Ed Yong, we are beginning to understand that non-humans are not only much smarter than we previously thought, but smart in ways that our own human-centric definitions. On the other hand, computer scientists are developing increasingly powerful AI, looking to animals as a guide to the ways in which intelligence doesn’t just happen in the mind, but is attached to the body. At Stanford University, researchers unleash strange, digital critters in virtual sandboxes to see how they evolve when faced with problem-solving tasks.

As the writer and artist James Bridle wrote in the recently published Ways of being“We’ve always tended to think of intelligence as ‘what people do’ as well as ‘what goes on in our heads’.” Artificial intelligence, he argues, “provides a very real way for us to come to terms with all the other intelligences that populate and manifest the planet.” Bridle refers to all intelligence as ‘ecological’, entwined and ‘relational with the world’ This is much like Trico navigating the ruined city in The last guarda creature game designer Fumito Ueda described in terms of her “independence,” her ability to make decisions within an environment, and the degree to which we believe she is a “real, living creature.”

Ideas like this raise the question: Can we ever think of virtual animals as real animals? I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to this yet (as academic Seth Giddings has provocatively done). Virtual and real beings are fundamentally different beasts; one is powered by computer-programmed algorithmic intuition, the other by biological processes and organic matter evolved over millions of years. That said, what? Stray, The Last Guardian, and other games that bring non-human promises to the fore, are new, hitherto undiscovered links between the human, non-human, and the virtual. With its feline fans scattered across the internet, strayed is perhaps a glimpse of an increasingly confused future.

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