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Why we love it: Tokyo Jungle

Sleeper hit Tokyo Jungle is dominating conversations, and Gamasutra looks at why the offbeat genre mashup involving pets and zoo animals in post-apocalyptic Tokyo is capturing hearts and minds.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

October 4, 2012

7 Min Read

We know you're busy making games. That's why from here on out, Gamasutra will be bringing you a regular look at what passionate game fans are talking about right now, tapping the zeitgeist to look at what makes these heroic new fan favorites tick. Sometimes cultural buzz isn't just about retail units, formal market research and sales figures. This time, we take a look at Tokyo Jungle, Sony Computer Entertainment Japan and Crispy's offbeat animal game. Somewhere in between the recent launch of Borderlands 2 and the imminent launch of Resident Evil 6, fans around the world have fallen in love with a decidedly weird Japanese game, now available on PlayStation Network, called Tokyo Jungle. Critical reception focuses on how the title defies genre and explanation in favor of an animal kingdom free-for-all -- and maybe this breath of furry fresh air is part of the key to its success. So what's all the buzz about Tokyo Jungle? The game plops players in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo where mankind is extinct and nature has taken over: The city's overrun by animals, and the story involves excavating the truth behind the disappearance of man across two distinct modes: Story and Survival. Pomeranian pups are major characters. In Survival Mode, which can involve local multiplayer, players take the role of an animal and survive as long as possible. Players can accumulate packs of creatures, and while bigger animals, like lions, have stronger predatory skills, smaller animals, like dog breeds, are more predisposed toward pack behavior, which helps things feel fair. In Story Mode, players can inhabit several different kinds of dogs, as well as deer, lions, hyenas and more. In total the game allows you to unlock up to 80 differenet kinds of animals, with more to be available through DLC. You can even eventually play as a dinosaur. Or a giraffe. Which brings us to the first reason Tokyo Jungle's drumming up so many fast fans: It just sounds cool. Tell anyone -- your spouse, your child, your nongamer friend -- that there's a game where you can dress a survivalist Pomeranian in a party hat, and anyone might be intrigued to check it out. Animal culture thrives online and so does word of mouth, and the relationship between animals in tricky situations and people who love to swap creature pics online (everyone?) becomes a powerful marketing tool. The concept is intriguing and weird enough that many people are attracted to Tokyo Jungle sight unseen. Tokyo-Jungle-1.jpgIt gives us a way to connect to things we love. Tokyo Jungle's buzz is a testament to the importance of personal storytelling in games -- that means the degree to which a game gives us the urge to take ownership and share with our fellows. You can, as Eurogamer's Ellie Gibson did in her review, derive a story to tell your friends about the time you saw an elephant being chased around a subway station by a pack of Golden Retreivers weaing shower caps. These unusual events lend themselves to bite-sized sharing, and add interactivity around our natural interest in animal tales. The lesson here is that games that create funny or memorable moments -- ones that you've just gotta tell someone else about -- can spread like wildfire. Plus, if you need evidence that everyone likes to look at and talk about animals doing silly things, just go on the internet for two minutes. It does much with little. At a glance one deduces this is obviously not a high budget game, and fans embrace how resourceful the team has been when it clearly had so little. It's a tiny, grimy vision of Tokyo with clunky gating and limited arenas in which to play, but the gameplay itself is deep enough that nobody minds. The game's world doesn't feel big, but it makes sense, and it's incredibly telling how far that takes a game in terms of goodwill. It's easy to make an immersive game if you've got the budget to research and render places so that they feel beautiful and real, but an honest, scrappy expression resonates with people. Fans understand limitations if you enable them to do so -- moreover, they'll cheer for you. The condition of putting your whole spirit into what little you've got is easily relatable for just about anyone. It puts the quirkiness back into survival play. It's interesting that Tokyo Jungle should see such fan favoritism in such proximity to the launch of Resident Evil 6, the latest installment of what you'd call the granddaddy of the survival genre out of Japan. But amid dubiously-successful Westernization efforts, many longtime gamers clearly long for the quirk and character with which they once associated Japanese games -- Resident Evil was once about zombie dogs, weird mansions and strangely-hollow analysis of typewriter ink ribbons stashed in metal briefcases. But now it's a muscle-bound, buddy-oriented gorefest angled toward a Western mainstream consumer who likes to know how to get the biggest gun and where to aim it. But Tokyo Jungle is also about survival -- and many players find a return to the task of navigating a surreal world with tons of unexpected, kinda broken circumstances to be simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing. It feels brave and new in a world where Japanese games largely try to divorce themselves from any cultural barriers. tokyo-jungle-2.jpgIt's a new kind of violence. Lots of players, no matter from whence they hail, enjoy fighting for their lives, but the popularity of Tokyo Jungle suggests that this enjoyment isn't necessarily associated with headshots and heavy weaponry. "It makes a change from shooting dudes in the face, but it's still a bit violent," Gamasutra's Mike Rose says. And it employs the post-apocalyptic format that's considered a trendy alternative to regular old fantasy and sci-fi -- but with a twist. It doesn't take itself too seriously. Every element of the game, from having dogs urinate on checkpoints to avoiding potential mates that are "desperate" in favor of higher-quality animal partners, radiates fun and absurdity. When you think about it, most games are about striving and reproducing, but the past few years have seen massive fantasy operas that tasked players with navigating incredibly sincere choice trees leading to lovemaking with earnest-eyed aliens. Tokyo Jungle has a sense of humor, and to some players that seems to be a breath of fresh air. Sometimes a mate is just a gameplay advantage, and as long as we're watching house pets go at it, it's silly in a healthy way. It doesn't fit in a genre box. Much of the talk about Tokyo Jungle, especially in mainstream reviews, seems to revolve around how to talk about Tokyo Jungle, and the degree of enjoyment people are experiencing around the game's hybrid vigor seems to be part of the fun. It's a survival game; it's a post-apocalypse game, it's a roguelike, it's a simulation. It's clear that it's actually okay for a game to defy the conventions that players expect. You could even say they seem to like having those conventions blown wide open and mashed back together with a free-spirited, experimental attitude. All the talk about Tokyo Jungle is overwhelming evidence that fans want new and unusual things, and that they're less concerned with fidelity and realism than the standard wisdom often assumes. So long as the gameplay systems are reliable -- and Tokyo Jungle's are -- players are not only able, but willing to suspend their disbelief. You don't necessarily need to give them a plausible role model in order to create empathy so long as you tap into something they already universally like, which in this case would be cute pets and zoo creatures. People always root for underdogs (if you will), and fans seem to be rallying around Tokyo Jungle's adorably weird lo-fi world the same way they once glorified sleeper hit Katamari Damacy. Logical disconnects can be incredibly provocative for the imagination, and unexpected scenarios encourage sharing and discussion. Players crave funny things so long as they're genuine, and a little bit of warm, furry heart goes quite a long way. It's a nice reminder of how much players really want you to succeed.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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