I remember starving as a former house cat, crawling over the empty husks of old cars in the irradiated desolate streets of Tokyo. Taking a drink out of a pond that had formed in the cracks of old vegetation-ridden pavement, my cat, the last of its litter, was able to stave off dehydration. The streets surrounding Shibuya station were ripped clean of food sources, and my only option was a herd of bison, long since escaped from the local Zoos, that was migrating. I ended up getting trampled. On my next playthrough of Tokyo Jungle in survival mode, my long line of sun visor-wearing sheep lasted a whopping 95 years until dinosaurs ate me in the park.
Tokyo Jungle, released by Sony’s Playstation Camp developer talent search program, is as brutal as it is ridiculous, and it has quietly released in the wake of Borderlands 2 to become one of my favorite games of 2012.
The actual proper story mode of the game, unlocked by collecting items in the survival mode, answers questions such as “what would happen to my pets if every human died off?” As someone who cares immensely about his lovable golden retriever and his stupidly friendly cat of questionable mental health, I was incredibly touched by one of the story mode’s many episodes – a short tale about a sweater-wearing Pomeranian that has to learn how to hunt and raise a family amidst an emerging ecosystem of nimble prey and larger predators. Even at its most ridiculous points, like a tosa dog being given a quest from a bear to kill a gas mask-wearing chimpanzee, the game never shies from how brutally unforgiving wilderness survival is.
The best games are story creators, and Tokyo Jungle’s survival mode does that so well that it comes close to overshadowing the actual story mode proper. While the cold depiction of the life and death struggle where animals must eat or starve establishes and upholds the tone of the game, the randomly generated events in the world influence decisions in ways that make hopelessness just as emotionally valuable as times of plenty.
There have been times where I’ve chosen a species to play as, be it the lowly porcupine or the scrappy terrier, and had to struggle for every minute of survival. Heavy rains lead to low visibility, which decreases the distance you can see both on your radar and in front of your animal – a potentially deadly obstacle whether you’re looking for food or trying to avoid being turned into food. Fleeing the rain with just enough food to sustain me, I’d end up in a polluted area full of food that I couldn’t eat, with radiation levels threatening to kill off a member of my pack. Sometimes, there would be these horrible combinations of terrible circumstances where all of the time I’d invested in that playthrough would end one pack member at a time in the space of a few minutes. I would be left hopelessly making one last effort to find safety while knowing my chances were even less than slim.
Even the most fortunate of my runs in Tokyo Jungle had their challenges. The 95 year long line of sheep that I mentioned earlier only lasted so long because the sewers of Tokyo had such an abundant food supply. When the going would get rough on the surface with the increasingly dangerous predators and weather that the game would randomly generate, I’d pop back in whatever cave or manhole I could find, staving off old age with a new generation of lambs while keeping my energy up. Sure, I’d have to avoid a population of coyotes and alligators by luring them towards less swift herbivores and, at times, other predators, but my underground strategy lasted me quite a while. I saw the end coming when all of the sewers were out of edible plant life and full of disease, and I came out of the caves of Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park only to see Pterodactyls dive bombing hippos and small predators. Forced to migrate out of the park towards food in a nearby subway station, I was run down by a group of dinosaurs, packmate by packmate.
Those inevitable losses can be excruciating but Tokyo Jungle’s pervasively effective immersion of the player in that struggle makes the game truly feel like a triumph. 2012 has been a good year for big releases already, but the quality and brave weirdness of Tokyo Jungle makes it just as worthwhile as the next blockbuster game on your play list.