[2 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
It’s a little hard to know how to discuss a video game meant primarily for children. On the one hand, trying to pretend I’m eight years old brings up memories of playing with the same action figures in countless different ways. Most of them lacked movable limbs, much less actually relating to each other in any place except my head. It was more than enough to keep me entertained for hours on end. But when it came to video games I would rip through them in a couple of days and then never touch them again. For all their bells and whistles, as far as toys go video games are only as malleable as their replay value. This is no action figure that can change roles and blend with new toys, it has its course, and the child’s interest in repeating that experience (over and potentially over) is the main selling point of the game. Empire Interactive’s pet sim Animal Paradise fails to sustain enough motivation for one play through, much less multiple attempts.
There are a couple of different ways to get a person to care about something that isn’t real. You can get them to want it to be true, you can get them to be afraid it’s true, or you can make it somehow involve them personally. Video games usually rely on a combination of the first and last of those but with a simulation, all three elements are utilized. A pet sim typically depends on inducing enough player involvement that the program is now acting like a mirror or reflection of the player based on their choices. The successes of that reflection, your pet being happy because of your actions, then becomes a motivation for conduct because you want that success to be true. The same happens when you avoid failure; it’s a reflection of you and you don’t want that to be true so you work against it. A proper sim thus sustains a long-term gazing into the mirror by the necessity of your continued involvement: your dog just pooped and the game reflects that you’re a good person by cleaning it up. As bizarre as it sounds, this will keep you interested and playing a video game for hours on end by the laws of sheer human self-interest.
The problem with Animal Paradise is that for some reason it hooked a bunch of finite RPG stat mechanics into a pet sim. The game begins with your cousin and uncle greeting you at the train station and inviting you back to their animal farm. Once there, it’s your job to get each animal to love you enough for your friends to take their picture. To do this you have a basic set of activities. You start off by petting them furiously, then move on to toys, bathing, and feeding them. Each of these activities will build up their unconditional love for you until you reach the maximum number of hearts, at which point all of their pictures will have been taken. Each animal also unlocks mini-games and other pets as you overcome their malcontent. And then you cast them aside to move on to the next animal. The whole exchange is very disingenuous because I’m not really concerned with the animal beyond its basic aesthetic cuteness. I just dig around its skin until I find its sweet spot, rub profusely, and keep doing this until I have the sense of accomplishment for earning its love.
The problem is that this sense of accomplishment is incredibly shallow unless it serves some kind of higher purpose besides unlocking content. After the third or fourth animal, when you realize the routine of the game there’s hardly even an incentive to check back on your old pets, much less the new ones. Visiting a pet that loves you as opposed to one that has just met you creates almost no difference in the animal’s reactions. The sim’s mirror has no response to the player and thus I never get any feedback to make me care. The alternative, having the RPG stats serve some other function, isn’t explored because the animal loving you doesn’t really do anything either. I’m only playing with the animal to get at the content and that can only sustain interest for so long.
I’m not trying to say the game should give me some way to abuse the animals, but in order for a game like this to work you have to provide a method for negative feedback. If you’re going to take the pet sim route, you should have a way for their unconditional love to degrade based on negligence, jealousy, something or another. You do this because you’re preying on the second factor; the person is afraid that a crying pet is reflecting something negative about them personally. If you’re going to add RPG stats then you should take the Pokemon route and have the animals then perform activities based on how much time you’ve invested in them. Instead, the fundamental game design of Animal Paradise is to walk around boosting your love stat until it’s maxed, then moving on until all the animals worship you. Doing so gives you access to a collection of real-life photos of their digital counterparts and unlocks a variety of tepid mini-games. In the event that I’m being overly critical of these mini-games and a younger child would enjoy them, you could easily find them in other children’s games without the necessity of petting an animal until it gives them to you. Either way, it is not a very appealing game structure.
There’s something of a mixed nature of this criticism though, because game design issues aside, Animal Paradise is gorgeous. The animation, sound, and music are all very well done along with the basic controls. I don’t even normally mention this when I’m going over a game except when it’s exceptional and that’s true here. Each of these critters are seriously cute, and if that’s going to fascinate your child (I’m assuming no one under eight reads PopMatters reviews) then they might enjoy this game. Yet given the lack of stimulus with this interaction, you could argue that watching a cartoon or just playing a more engaging video game would still be the better investment. Unless a variety of well-animated, cute, and static animals that never really respond to anything except a set amount of adoration is of great appeal then I can’t imagine this panning out.
There’s a mountain of stuff they could have done with this game. They could take the Pokemon route and have your pets compete in competitions. They could take the pet sim route and have each pet interact and depend on your daily care. They could have the animals get jealous, they could have them fight with each other. But walking from animal to animal for the sake of a few photos and low key mini-games doesn’t even create a reward structure strong enough to sustain beating the game the first time. These aren’t action figures; you can only manipulate an animal with your imagination so much when it’s stuck on a screen all by itself. I may not be a kid, and I may not even be a parent, but in either case you want a game that is worth playing not just once, but numerous times. Animal Paradise delivers the same thing to the player that it does for unlocking content: cute images and sounds that don’t ever amount to much of anything.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/animal-paradise/