Dog of War: Doggy Representation and 'Metal Gear Solid V'
DD is a good dog. I mean, like, a really good dog.
I've written about video games for more than 10 years. During that time, I've talked about sex in video games, religion in video games, representations of masculinity in video games, representations of femininity in video games, politics in video games, clothing styles in video games, economic issues in video games, morality in video games, violence in video games, self identity in video games, death in video games, reproduction in video games, but I have never written a single article about dogs in video games.
To be honest when trying to remember games in which I had encountered dogs in the past, I had a pretty difficult time. I remembered that Grand Theft Auto V featured a Rottweiler named Chop that you could hang out with if you wanted to. I didn't get into Chop much, despite him representing a breed that I'm rather fond of. He seemed like too much of a hassle to play around with much. His mechanics and value weren't intuitive to me, so I quickly abandoned the idea of developing a relationship between he and Franklin. I had more important matters to attend to in that game. I also remembered that another Rockstar game, Bully, had a mission in which a dog figured quite heavily, and I remembered that Fallout 3 had a dog in it, but that's a game that I only played a small chunk of, so I don't know that much about Rex. Beyond that, I found myself struggling to think of any other dogs in games.
So, I Googled “dogs in video games” in an effort to jog my memory and discovered that Wikipedia actually has a page called "List of fictional dogs in video games". The list isn't tremendously long, though, and features characters that serve as protagonists in games (like PaRappa), which wasn't quite what I was looking for. I was more interested in dogs that serve as companions to a character, dogs like, I guess, Angelo from Final Fantasy VIII (one of the dogs listed on the Wikipedia page), a companion so memorable that my only response to seeing the name of a dog in a game that I have played was: “Wait. There was a dog in Final Fantasy VIII?”
Quite honestly, though, I'm not really much of an animal person, and I don't really pay much attention to their presence in video games beyond the function that they serve mechanically, like horses as the major mode of transportation in Red Dead Redemption. I do have to say that the only animal character (besides, perhaps, anthropomorphic characters, like PaRappa) that I really think that I've ever felt much of anything for in a game was the horse from Shadows of the Colossus. In such a solitary and lonely game, it's easy to recognize the need to bond with something living, and that game really does create a rather profound relationship between its protagonist and his horse over the course of the hours that you spend with him and through a pretty touching sequence involving that relationship near the end of the game.
However, while I'm not much of an animal person in general, the only animals that I really am especially fond of in real life are dogs, and it kind of surprises me both that I just don't remember any dogs in video games and that more video games seem to not have taken advantage of the kind of interesting and unique affinity that exists between humans and the extremely social animal, the dog. You know, like Metal Gear Solid V does.
See, that's why I've been thinking about dogs in video games. I've been thinking about how certain kinds of video games do create problems in developing relationships between protagonists and other characters, largely because much of one's time in many games is spent solely with a protagonist that doesn't have time to interact with other characters. The protagonist of most action games performs whatever it is the game concerns itself with, be it shooting, crawling through tombs, or assassinating targets, and usually all by themselves. “Relationships” in such games usually only get developed through brief minute or two long cut scenes, while hours are spent acting like a lone wolf in such video game worlds. With Metal Gear Solid's “buddy system,” the ability to choose an AI companion (or sidekick, if you prefer) to accompany Snake on his missions, you do at least get to do something alongside another representation of a living creature and not merely play out the fantasy of being a one man army.
And the “buddy” that I am most sold on in Metal Gear Solid V is Diamond Dog (aka DD, aka D-Dog).
Snake and I ran into Diamond Dog in the wilderness in Afghanistan. He was just a pup. After Snake extracted him back to Mother Base by attaching a balloon to him, Revolver Ocelot took an interest in him and began training DD as something more than a pet. After some time passed and I had completed a number of additional missions and side missions, the one-eyed pup, who greeted me enthusiastically every time I returned to Mother Base in the meantime, grew up, donned an eye patch, and began accompanying me on missions as my completely badass, tail wagging sidekick. He even began arming himself with a knife, which he gripped in his teeth and leapt on unsuspecting sentries on my command, cutting their throats and saving my bacon more than once.
All of which sounds utterly ridiculous I know, but this is a game by Hideo Kojima, who can expose the grim realities of warfare in one scene, but is still committed to the absurdity of launching sheep into the atmosphere via balloon in another. His games do consider serious themes at times, but the man is not afraid to temper the seriousness of his topic with the outre and the utterly bizarre.
And a dog armed with a knife and wearing an eye patch is, of course, seemingly evidence of a pure commitment to the bizarre or an addled mind. And yet, still so many things about Diamond Dog are so very authentic and legitimately dog-like that I can't help falling in love with my digital doggy. I think that one of the main reasons that the game is able to generate an authentic sense of a relationship between Snake and Diamond Dog is related to how it bides its time in allowing the puppy to become a dog over the course of hours of play. The repetition of the simple, excited greeting between missions evokes a clearly familiar experience for anyone who has ever lived with a dog.
Dogs aren't cats. They are extremely social creatures and reuniting with a member of their “pack” is (especially when they are young) just the most damned exciting thing that they do every day (or at least their tail wagging and wiggling and wriggling like lunatics as you step through the door seems to suggest that this is true). There is nothing in real life like coming home to a creature that treats you like they have missed you more than they could possibly ever stand stand after a long day at work, and Snake's arrival between difficult and challenging missions to a loony, little puppy endears the player to the little guy.
Once Diamond Dog is let off the chain and “out of the house” to accompany you, though, his mechanics make him a fairly useful “buddy.” DD barks when he locates something, another animal in the wilderness or a medicinal plant, things which are sometimes hard to spot on your own in the game. And he barks and then growls and bares his teeth when he spots and then visually marks an enemy that you and he are approaching. He functions the way that the mini-map and radar function in other Metal Gear Solid games, creating a means of keeping tabs on foes outside of your line of sight and most importantly making it much harder for the enemy to get the drop on you, which happened to me with some frequency before Diamond Dog was old enough to participate in my missions.
But it isn't just his use value and functionality that seem to largely parallel what service a dog provides people in real life (security through a heightened awareness of others) that makes DD seem like such an authentic simulacrum of a dog. His animations, when he stops to scratch himself, when he shakes himself off, when he lays down and pants after dispatching the last enemy in an outpost, all suggest an attention to detail in animating a dog that I can't recall ever seeing in a video game. The animation that I love the most, though, is how whenever DD runs alongside Snake, he glances up at him regularly even as you and he charge forward towards (to him) some unknown destination. Dogs really do do this when they run with a human, constantly seeking cues from their “alpha” as to what we do next. It is a very pure expression of the social qualities of dogs, their need to constantly make sure you are still there and to check if they are needed in any way, so that whatever the goal of the pack at that moment is met through their co-operation and attentiveness.
I find DD so compellingly “doggy” (for lack of a better word) that I actually have felt the urge to call my own dog over to see DD on screen, as if she could somehow recognize a digital facsimile of herself and assure me of the authenticity of this representation of her species. To be honest, it seems to me that if I could somehow extract DD from the screen that she and my dog would get along swimmingly. My basset hound doesn't do flips in the air and sever quite so many throats as Diamond Dog does, but the authenticity of DD's behavior, his hunger to be a good member of the pack, is so remarkable that I can't help but imagine that both of them really would be anxious to meet and greet one another in that very important doggy way if somehow the digital divide between them could be breached.
What I admire most about Kojima as a game designer is his exceptional craftsmanship. He makes big games in which I find no action frivolous, no experience boring. I didn't realize that in playing what is apparently Kojima's last Metal Gear game that I would find his crowning achievement to be his ability to make me fall in love with a virtual animal, but Diamond Dog is just so exquisitely crafted with an eye both to his absurdity and at the same time to his authenticity that I just can't help myself. He's a very good dog.