I can’t help but notice that funny video games are experiencing a sort of renaissance. It used to be that the only games trying to be funny were open world games and that’s about it. But things have changed, and now, more games than ever are trying to make us laugh. Goat Simulator, Kerbal Space Program, Saints Row, Dungeons of Dredmor, Hatoful Boyfriend, most of Zeboyd’s catalog, etc.
The inevitable downside to all these good humor-games is a glut of humor-games that just don’t cut it. Enter Domestic Dog Simulator, that darling indie game from last year that only started gaining traction this year. It’s better to understand this not as a game, but as a series of tensions that shouldn’t exist: game vs. non-game, simulation vs. absurdism. The game can’t possibly juggle these forces in tandem, yet instead of settling on one, it flounders about with both.
It gets off to a good start, though. The game opens to an egg slowly wiggling to life, an adult dog popping out seconds later. As you watch the egg shake about in this tiny window (that the game balloons to full screen, for whatever reason), it dawns on you that Domestic Dog Simulator is humorously satirizing the Tamagotchi toys from old. Examined on those terms, the game’s actually not that bad. The gameplay captures the mundanity of managing a virtual pet’s vitals, like food, water, sleep, and exercise, yet layers atop it enough silliness to make things palatable.
The problem comes the minute the game introduces anti-simulation features into the mix. By “anti-simulation”, I’m referring to games like Goat Simulator or I Am Bread; those games that satirize the stuffy realism of proper simulations by applying it to comical situations with no grounding in reality. I’m not sure that runs well with what Domestic Dog Simulator’s trying to do with Tamagotchi games. Despite their cartoony abstraction, these games don’t focus on outlandish, non-sequitur situations. They focus on what it’s like to take care of a pet. So if this game is going to satirize this genre, simply putting the dog in silly situations isn’t going to cut it. It has to work within the genre it’s chosen. It could make the dog behave in very undog-like ways, for example. Or maybe you could manage comically unrealistic statistics.
This game does none of those things. Instead, it tries to force anti-simulation into a Tamagotchi template, to mediocre results. While your pooch embarks on plenty of bizarre adventures, like robbing a warehouse or peeing on ghost dogs, his actions are surprisingly mundane. He eats dog food; he drinks water; he shits and pisses on anything that moves. (He especially shits and pisses on anything that moves.) These actions lack any goofy exaggeration that would make them humorous, and they’re your only way of interacting with the world. No wonder, then, that the game sometimes feels so empty and lifeless.
Worse still are the stat management and levelling systems. While they fit all too well with the game’s Tamagotchi schtick, they aren’t conducive to the purposelessness that anti-simulation games thrive on. And while the game’s tone would suggest you can ignore these as you please, the game’s structures do no such thing. Your dog can’t piss or shit at will, but only as far as the bars at the top of the screen will allow him. A sleepy dog (or worse yet, a dog on the verge of death) could cut your fun short at any moment. What’s more, the game gates some significant pieces of content behind the levelling system. In effect, Domestic Dog Simulator is gamifying a genre with no need for gamification. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, to say the least.
Even if the game had found the balance it so desperately needs, I remain unconvinced it would work out. The game would still have to rely on a sense of humor that can’t carry it very far. Most of the jokes in this game rely almost entirely on toilet humor, by which I mean half the jokes are some variant on “piss and/or shit on something.” I’m not sure if I find these jokes funny, but I don’t think that matters. What matters is that they can work in small enough doses.
Not that anybody told the game, judging by its achievements. It’s like they go out of their way to make the game as monotonous as possible. They go well beyond steering you toward the game’s funny moments, as they often ask you to repeat a task ad nauseum. Examples include making your dog eat its own shit ten times in a row, or making him KO 20 rabbits in a row. One could argue that because the point of the game isn’t purpose or achievements, I shouldn’t hold my own achievement-hunting tendencies against the game. While I want to acknowledge the very real value in such arguments, they do raise an important question: Why would achievements designed to facilitate humor end up so tediously boring?
Simply arguing that these are part of the game’s satire isn’t enough. Good satire is, above all else, clear. I should immediately understand what the work is lampooning, and every fiber of its being should be working toward that one end. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anywhere in Domestic Dog Simulator. Sure, it knows what it wants to satirize, but it doesn’t know how to satirize it. As a result, it ends up with this uncomfortable mix of tedious realism and absurd humor. I can’t say the duller moments factor into the game’s satire, either, as they lack grounding in what the game wants to parody. This game isn’t Kerbal Space Program; it isn’t My Lil Bastard; what the hell is it?