In the past few years, I’ve noticed a recurring theme in a lot of single player RPGs. When humans fail, dogs win us over. If your story isn’t progressing quickly enough or lacks empathy, throw a dog in there. It gets me every dang time.
Most recently, this hit home when I played through Maid of Sker. The family dog, Calliope, is a background prop that pops up every so often throughout the mansion and eventually saves your life from a terrifying cult. My heart sank the moment that I saw there was a dog in the game. I’ve been burned before, and I didn’t want to be hurt again. Often we’ll see animals be used as plot devices, or a way to pull at the heart strings of the player. There’s nothing that hurts me more than seeing a dog die in a video game and not being able to do a damn thing about it. Movies are especially fond of doing this. As a result of this, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from I Am Legend.
So, why do they do it? Dogs are easily loveable. They’re man’s best friend after all, and often act as guides or protectors on our journeys. They’re innocent, loyal, and fiercely determined in the face of any kind of danger be it supernatural, or natural. Because we saved Calliope from a bear trap, she recognized the humanity in our character, and without knowing much about our history just sensed a kindred soul that needed protecting. Without a second thought, she threw herself into harm’s way to protect that last bit of hope and goodness in her world. Likewise, we want to protect that innocence we see in her. I agonized over Calliope’s fate until the secret ending of Maid of Sker, when I learned what truly happened to her.
Another subtle trope is the pupper that’s just there. If you do the side-mission in Far Cry: New Dawn, you can get a dog that returns to your base who does nothing but look absolutely adorable and receives pets. He gives us unconditional love, and I can’t help but pat his little head before and after every mission. He gives me nothing, absolutely nothing for it. But, I want to love and protect him all the same. This little fella had a terrible life that we see play out in the side-mission, and we just want to provide a safe haven for him after everything he has been through.
There’s so many examples of this in RPGs. Dogmeat, from Fallout 4, is your forever loyal, truly neutral companion. No matter what decision you make, he will love you all the same. You can find a variety of accessories and armor for Dogmeat that make him look oh-so-handsome. Tell me, what is the purpose of the game letting you dress up and accessorize your dog? WHY are they letting us spend time picking out the perfect bandana color for Dogmeat, when it has absolutely no effect on the game whatsoever? Because the game designers have us, hook, line, and sinker. We love Dogmeat. He’s adorable. If there’s nothing else that is guaranteed in this godforsaken wasteland, we know we have his love.
I haven’t noticed this trend much in MMOs. Maybe more-so because the MMO is focused on a much greater narrative, but every so often I’ll find a sneaky side quest that has you save an animal from a dire situation. World of Warcraft actually has both cats and dogs spread all across the world that you can pet. Just a pet. That’s it. Nothing else to see here, move along. Though there was a notable sidequest in the region of Drustvar that had you looking for a chonky kitty, only to find out that they had been sacrificed in a terrible, dark ritual. Of course. Why did I expect anything different?
While I love dogs (sometimes more than humans) I’m just tired of seeing them used in the media as an easy way to establish an emotional connection with their audience. They should add something of value to the plot, and not just be thrown in there all willy-nilly just to make up for your lack of ability to create a compelling narrative or interesting protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to use animals to establish some kind of empathy with your player, it’s one of the easiest ways to do that, but it should be meaningful. It should add to the story, not be the core reason we play it. Unless the story is centered entirely around the sweet doggo- then, play away.