Pixel Pets: How game developers bring animals to life

We speak with developers behind games including Shelter 3, Pupperazzi and more to find out various approaches to imbuing virtual animals with real emotions.

Vietnam veteran and accomplished author Tim O’Brien once said that the most harrowing thing he ever saw was a water buffalo getting shot multiple times, bleeding, struggling, but refusing to die. All the horrors of war, and it was the anguish of an animal which hit him hardest.

He’s not alone in that sentiment. Bambi and Charlotte’s Web are two of the biggest tearjerkers out there. One of the few scenes in I Am Legend which reached the emotional heights the movie aspired to was the death of the dog. Despite our position at the top of the food chain, animals have an almost mystical power over us. They protect us, yet expose some of our deepest emotional vulnerabilities.

What exactly an animal is is difficult to articulate, once you get past the dry, dictionary definition. Distilling down all of the complex ideas and ideals of an animal into something comprehensible is almost like a magic trick. When we see animals in video games, we must understand that there’s much more going into the process than simply making the virtual dog walk like a real dog. You have to add the heart.

“Research is one of the pleasures of my work. It makes me appreciate the world around me in new ways,” Emma Richey, the art director for the upcoming Shelter 3 told me. “We’ve studied the anatomy, habitats, motions and sounds for inspiration. Yet, our intentions have never been to create realistic animal simulators, but instead emotional journeys, told through the eyes of animals.”

Shelter, developed by Might and Delight, allowed the player to control a mother badger trying to keep her cubs safe from predators and wildfire as they move to their new burrow, while the third title, due for release in a year, puts you in a herd of elephants. Richey's approach to imbuing animals with heart is touching and emotionally resonant. For other devs though, a key ingredient of creating an animal is fun.

“Most of our games come from wordplay that grows into a concept then into gameplay and artstyle. We do what feels fun, interesting, or downright silly,” Juan Carlos Garcia from HyperBeard explains. HyperBeard specializes in mobile games, like KleptoCats, BunnyBuns and the upcoming Kiki’s Vacation. This “fun, interesting, or downright silly” mentality filters through their whole brand; when I contacted their PR, I think it was a dog who replied to me, forwarding on the contact details of their “master.” A little weird, perhaps, but very cute and endearing.

Another developer with a funky attitude which puts pets front and center are StarColt. They recently ran a "Ruff Royale" event on Twitter for players to submit their dogs to be included in their soon to be released game, Best Friend Forever, a dating simulator based around dogs (you date the owners, not the dogs, they were keen to point out).

“All of BFF’s gameplay was designed around the player’s relationship with the dog. Every junction that it would be realistic to include the dog, we integrated into the game design,” Lucy Morris, the studio and creative director at StarColt, explained. “The dog will always be by your side in a dynamic sense, acting up from time to time, farting occasionally and general having a great time. This close integration makes sense in terms of the protagonist and their dog both on their own journeys of growth, but it’s also the reality of owning a pup which helps grow the connection between player and pal.”

The context of the game itself is key to shaping the developers’ approach to animals too, as three designer/programmers from Sundae Month’s Pupperazzi told me. The game sees you photographing dogs in a variety of humorous locations, taking inspiration from Pokemon Snap, Mirror’s Edge, Toripon and Tokyo Snap, as well as dog photography groups on Facebook, which Ben Sironko says was the “initial inspiration” for the entire game.

Studio co-founder Isobel Shasha explained further; “Pupperazzi offers the experience of taking photos of dogs, so almost every decision we make revolves around that idea, from how detailed the dog artwork is to what their behavior is like,” they told me. Shasha added that for a game like this, the integration of animals has to be a two way street. “We talked about what types of things make dog photos interesting to people and tried to take that back to the game. Over time, we iterated on the dog AI to include emotions and responses to player actions. We spent a fair amount of time considering the relationship people have with their pets, and trying to bring that to the game while being respectful of potentially sensitive or triggering content. For example, we try to never make the dogs aggressive or scary, and had many long conversations about how to handle traffic driving near the dogs.

For all the developers have different philosophies, aesthetics and occupy a range of different genres, their ideas on why video games with animals are so appealing were startlingly similar. “People love animals, we see them as pure and kind. That’s why most of us either have pets or want some kind of fluffy friend,” HyperBeard’s Garcia said.

Shelter’s Richey said, “the simplicity of the animal world is what’s attractive. It’s a world unaffected by economy and politics. The experience of suffering and survival becomes much more pure through the animal’s innocent perspective.” With the world the way it is right now, it’s easy to see the kind of appeal Richey is talking about. While Calliope Ryder from StarColt didn’t opt for ‘pure’ as their description of choice, their response struck the same chords, adding “animals are a great driver of empathy, because you’re hard pressed to find people who don’t like animals. Engaging with animals in games offers devs a chance to really hone in on tend and befriend mechanics, and in general it’s a nice break from standardized, action based gameplay.”

For Fisher Wagg at Pupperazzi though, it’s the struggles with animals, not the friendship, which perhaps makes them most endearing. “Animal companionship has been a part of everyday human experience for millennia. It may sound lofty, but the most powerful emotional connections are founded in conflict, and so as weird as it may sound, the player is in conflict with the dogs. In real life, dogs are pretty difficult to wrangle without explicit training, so we’ve tried to include that element as well. Maybe you want a photo of a dog with a badminton racket by the net, but the badminton racket is the dog’s new favorite toy and it has them excited and now they won’t stay still!”

Like any sort of development in games, creating an animal takes time. The models can be difficult to animate realistically, the textures are more noticeable when they don’t work, and they often require their own distinct AI. That’s just when they’re roaming around in the background though. Once you make them central characters, as these four games do, it moves beyond coding and programming, and needs developers to instill a sense of companionship and love into their creations. The love of a pet can be the strongest type of love there is, and like all love, it’s both complicated and simple. When it comes to replicating that love in video games, it appears the process is equally full of complexity and contradictions. It takes a lot of effort to make something so pure, and it takes a lot of work to make something look so easy.

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