Like Animal Crossing before it, Nintendogs well and truly worked its way into my daily routine, evoking a sense of compulsion few games have. It wasn’t obsessions necessarily, but rather a sense of responsibility, that saw me make my real life plans around my fake life obligations. Whether it was my civic duty to perform weed maintenance to ensure my mate Cyrano didn’t leave Snooksville, or making sure my oh-so-very fake puppies were fed, bathed and walked every day, rain or shine I was there being a good upstanding e-citizen.
Nintendogs also cemented Nintendo’s then ugly clamshell handheld’s place as king of my video game mountain. I would like to say that it was an impulse purchase, or the result of a perverse desire to see the handheld’s true proof of concept, but the answer it slightly less exciting than that. I was uncharacteristically excited for Nintendogs, had premeditated which version I’d bought, and was well-versed in the ins and outs of virtual pet ownership. I simply couldn’t wait to own my own virtual dog, and so on the day of its release, I ran down to the store and picked up my copy almost right on 9am.
Right from the outset it was impossible not to fall in love with Nintendogs. The promise of an actual artificial intelligence was really something special – the way the puppies bounded around the garden, running up to the screen to greet you, imploring you through their adorable eyes to take you home – it was a new level of interactivity that was damn near unprecedented. My first dog, Snag, was a Daschund. It took a while for him to warm to me, but within days we were bounding across the neighbourhood together like one big happy family.
While it’s cool to pretend that Nintendogs wasn’t cool or just wasn’t my cup of tea, to the contrary, I rather liked it to the point where for a little while it was probably my most played video game. It had the innate ability to make me drop what I was doing just to pick it up, turn it on, and be the responsible pet owner I claimed to be. There was something very tactile, very human, about interacting with your virtual puppies. It turned the mundane into something more, against all odds ‘gamifying’ the less exciting parts of pet ownership, and making what is conceptually the most ridiculous idea into one of the most brilliantly executed games of that decade. Particularly when I had a real dog sitting right there outside the back door.
But much like the Tamigotchi craze, the game wasn’t necessarily relying on complex game design or thrilling narrative to draw players in and keep them there, it was appealing to people on a far more primal level. I was boxed in by an impending sense of virtual guilt any time I’d even consider neglecting these virtual worlds. Because like most human beings I like to do the right thing, and that wily minx Nintendogs, she preyed on my naivety. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t love every minute of it. Whether it was washing, walking, or (embarrassingly) talking to Snag – there was something gratifying . And if in the off chance I missed a day, the guilt was unbearable, and i’d wind up spending twice as long with him the next day. It, like Animal Crossing, existed as a persistent world. And whether I was there or not, Snag was at home alone, waiting for his owner to come home and spend some quality time with him.
Guilt as a gameplay mechanic may not sound compelling, but if I’ve learnt anything from Animal Crossing and Nintendogs, it’s that it can be an incredible motivator to stick with a game. All too often I find it far too easy to put a game down and never return. So many adventures have gone uncompleted, damsels or gentlemen left unsaved, and the world left in a state of disrepair or decay. And the knowledge that no matter how long I leave it the story will be in the same place, the characters no better or worse off, and the world will be waiting for me to save, takes away any sense of urgency. Apocalypse will always wait, but those dogs need feeding.
So what if guilt was used as a mechanic or driver in most video games, where time spent outside of the game negatively impacted the world in the game, and the virtual blood was on your hands? Imagine Far Cry 4 if the blood from the slaughter of innocent Kyratis at the hand of Pagan Min in your absence was on your hands, or take a sports game, where your failure to turn up to training every day impacted your team’s performance. Most games are predicated on doing the right thing, and as Nintendogs and Animal Crossing proved, that is a strong motivator for play. If that premise were extrapolated to matters of life or death, I can only imagine how powerful of an experience that could be.
Guilt simply isn’t a good feeling, and any game that encourages you to avoid it simply by playing it, is something very special. Getting you invested in a game’s world is one thing, but forcing you to live by that world is quite another. In this respect, Nintendogs and Animal Crossing weren’t just cutesy brilliant technical showpieces, they were game design revolutionaries.