How much is that virtual doggy in the window?
I still remember the exhilaration when I picked up my little, chocolate Labrador. Several rambunctious puppies frolicked around the kennel, while one little puppy, very friendly, but perhaps a bit more shy than the others, nipped around the outside of the group. I knew instantly that we were meant to be companions. I took him home and my girlfriend and I christened him Brooklyn. Unfortunately, his name could only be seven characters so his handle actually wound up being Brookln. But we pronounce it Brooklyn and he still responds, at least to me anyway, as I was the one who trained the voice recognition.
That was a month ago and I figured I would be pretty tired of caring for a "virtual" dog by now. After all, you have to feed him and walk him and tap on his poop almost constantly. But oddly, I'm not done with Brookln yet. If anything, I'm more attached. Right now he's wandering around his room, occasionally tearing at a white rubber bone while he waits for me to finish writing this review. I think he's after some petting or maybe a game of catch.
Like most sim games, Nintendogs is not about control, but care. The gameplay is quite simple. I look after Brookln, feeding and cleaning him, taking him for walks, watching him sniff at his own scent and then marking the sidewalk with yet more pee. Much like Animal Crossing, Nintendo's other sim, the game continues even when I turn the DS off. If I put the game down for a couple of day, I return and find Brookln famished, parched and his coat covered in fleas.
In my spare time from his care, I yell commands at my DS to try and train Brookln. I want him to perform little tricks like sitting down, rolling over, or spinning in circles. Unfortunately, the DS voice recognition demands you say commands with the same intonation each time, leaving Brookln confused when I tried to coax him with a sweet-toned "sit down" or a stern "shake". So I've switched to using commands like "X" or "Y", things I can pronounce the same each time. It sounds silly, but I suppose it would probably be easier to train a real dog that way too. Thanks to the sensitivity of the DS microphone, ambient noise from subways and cafes confuses Brookln, sending him into spasms of obedience routines. Of course all of the people around me probably also get confused and nervous watching a grown man yell, "X. Brookln, X. X, Brookln. X," at a little piece of gray plastic.
The game forces you to earn more money to keep feeding and caring for your dog, or to buy another puppy for the household. To earn money, you can train your pup and enter him into Obedience, Agility and Disc competitions. None of these minigames are very hard, that is if you've spent time training your dog. After several sessions of training, Brookln cruised through the agility trials, only messing up when I got nervous for the little guy and interfered to give him a command. In a pleasant turnabout in gameplay, you don't get better at the game, your dog does.
In fact, your presence in the game is limited to the icon of a hand as you use the stylus to gently stroke your dog's head, calming him or patting his butt to work him into a frenzy. Of all the Nintendo DS titles, Nintendogs best takes advantage of the touch screen and stylus. At its heart, Nintendogs is about petting, about running your hand over your little puppy's head. This game simply would not work on any platform other than the DS. Sure you could guide a pointer across the head of a dog, but the action would be so far removed from real-life that it would evoke no emotional resonance. But with the DS you can quickly scratch or gently pet, or offer up a hand for licking and it really translates to petting. The developers at Nintendo did an eerily accurate job of animating these puppies so that they really seem to react to your touch, shaking their butts or cocking their heads to the side as you scratch at an ear. The combination of the physical action, the coming into contact with a solid object, and the screen animation really makes you feel like you're petting a live creature.
Now it's not all rosy looking after Brookln. He chews up a lot of my time eating, walking, and peeing. Of course, he occasionally brings me wonderful little presents like broken disposable cameras which I can sell for a buck fifty. But frankly he's a bit needy, always jumping up at the screen and yapping for attention. He can be a bit oblique as well. I sometimes have a hard time reading the little guy's mood. But then he's a virtual dog so it's fairly likely he wants to go for a virtual walk, play with other virtual dogs, or take a virtual poop.
This emotional obliqueness works brilliantly. As the Turing Test shows, artificial intelligence breaks down at the point of communication. If a computer simulating a person says something nonsensical, it leaps out and breaks the continuity of the illusion. But if a computer simulating a dog runs around in circles for five minutes, you simply question whether the dog wants to go for a walk or pull on a rope. You wouldn't fully understand a real dog, so you don't expect to fully understand a virtual one either. This allows a "Nintendog" to creep closer to the feel of a living creature.
Of course, it wouldn't be terribly engaging to spend hours just petting a cute dog. That would get old pretty quick. It's the feeling of dependence that sucks you in. Little Brookln seems to need me so badly. He gets hungry and filthy when I don't feed him. It seems we humans are always inventing new ways to feel needed, from Tamagotchi to that bizarre high school Home Economics project that forces girls to walk around with an egg for a week. And it almost always proves addictive. This illusion of dependence, along with the physical act of touching, imbues Nintendogs with a rare emotional power not often seen in games.
When I originally set out to review this game I had developed some hackneyed thesis that Nintendogs was the perfect play for Nintendo to move kids from the GameBoy Advance to the DS. While browsing at a video game store, I watched a little girl tug at her father and point vociferously at the gigantic Nintendogs display, "Daddy, I want that, I want a puppy." It struck me that Nintendo found a way to move new electronic products by tapping older, more primal desires. How does that song go again, "How much is that simulation of a doggy in the window?" And they just may have. Nintendo of America reported sales of 250,000 units in the first week, with retailers reporting DS sales up between one and half and three times previous levels. But the pull of this game reaches far beyond kids; it pokes and prods at our need for companionship. It brings to mind some sort of hyperbolic Wired headline, like, "Love is the new killer app".
What's amazing about this game is that while I don't find the gameplay particularly stimulating, because, really there isn't much to do other than pet your dog, I feel bad not playing. I desperately want to return to playing Advance Wars DS, but I worry Brookln's getting hungry, getting filthy, getting lonely. But most of all I'm terrified that I that if I put the game down long enough Brookln will die, that I'll find the corpse of this little brown lab one day when I turn on my DS (I've been warned in the game that dogs might run away if you ignore them -- which could just be a "friendly" Nintendo euphemism). And while I don't think the creators at Nintendo would be that devious, death would be a sure-fire way to guarantee I never put down Nintendogs. And that really would be a killer app.
Editor's Note: There are three versions of Nintendogs -- Chihuahua & Friends, Dachshund & Friends, and Lab & Friends -- and this review is meant to encompass all three variations.
10 October 2005