Friday, 4 June 2010

Guilt Trip in my Pocket

Summer is here, and I have spent the last two weeks alternately procrastinating and talking about economics, so I think it's probably about time I listed the top ten best virtual pets.

I've never really enjoyed playing with virtual pets. This is not because I'm a gaming snob who feels that virtual pet games don't constitute proper video games, it's just that I've never come across one which has really held my interest.

Consequently, I have had to storm Wikipedia for many of the "facts". Although I have played with each of the games below at least once, my contact with them has been patchy at best. I hope my attempt to use sarcasm to distract you from my lack of "real" knowledge isn't too insulting. All outrage should be directed towards the comment box.

Although flimsy taxonomy is a Well-Rendered staple,  I am conscious of the fact that the logic holding my definitions of a "virtual pet" together are paper-thin. Mostly, this was because I found it hard to come up with a full ten without bending the rules just a little, hence the inclusion of Furbies and The Sims. Just roll with it.

Well-Rendered's Top Ten Virtual Pets

10 - Nintendogs

Nintendogs is a good place to start this list because it is fairly representative of what a virtual pet game is. It is played on the Nintendo DS, which means that the adorable puppies within can be carried around in their owner's pocket so he (or more usually she) can attend to their every need. Cute. 

It includes most of the virtual pet game staples. The dogs complain when they are hungry/thirsty/tired/whatever, meaning that the player has to administer food/water/a bed/squeaky toy where necessary. Failure to comply with the Nintendogs' demands results not in their deaths (which you could be forgiven for considering a mercy after a while) but in them running away, so the game is potentially less traumatising than a Tamagotchi.

Interestingly, open any magazine aimed at pre-teen girls in the UK (trying not to look too suspicious in the process), and you will be confronted with countless adverts for Nintendo products. The fact that Nintendogs is the bestselling game on the DS suggests that such advertising is responsible for a large proportion of Nintendo's revenue, and that perhaps the market for virtual pets is more important than I give it credit for.

That's very nice, but I can't help but wonder if these games are more parent-friendly than little-girl friendly. After all, Nintendogs does encourage a certain level of responsibility, which is perhaps more than can be said for Super Mario (collect coins, exterminate wildlife, exploit dinosaurs), even though Super Mario is approximately 25,000 times more fun. I'm not going to argue with the numbers - 23,260,000 people (yes really) can't be that wrong - it's just that I have played a bit of Nintendogs and it is, well, pretty dull.

The success of Nintendogs seems to this biased observer to be a case of sheer inoffensiveness being used as a sort of battering ram against parental resistance. That said, there's nothing inherently wrong with it, and it's probably better that children are playing this than neglecting real-life puppies. Moving on.

9 - Furby

Furbies are the not-so-loveable fluffy robots with an apparent mind of their own. Despite their diturbing resemblence to the titular monsters in Gremlins, these gruesome little entities were the must-have toy of Christmas 1998.

Their major selling point - bafflingly - was that they could not be switched off, and were programmed to burble away for hours, "learning" English. Fresh out of the box, Furbies only spoke "Furbish", but prolonged exposure to human conversation would result in them learning English words and phrases. This lead to a much-publicised rumour that it was possible to teach Furbies to utter obscenities. Although this rumour probably contributed to sales, in actual fact Furbies were pre-programmed with innoccuous English phrases that would become "unlocked" after hours of play.

Although Furbies do not, unlike many other virtual pets, "die", neglect only prolongs the agony of the mindless babbling phase, so the most sensible option is to spend weeks "tickling" the furby, clapping in its presence and generally trying desperately to stimulate it into silence.

In Bret Easton Ellis' surreal novel Lunar Park, one of the primary antagonists is an evil furry toy called a "Terby". Ellis' dark imagination might have given the world Patrick Bateman, but it turns out even he couldn't come up with anything more horrific than a Furby.

8 - The dog in Fable II

Again, this is stretching the definition of a "virtual pet" a little far. The dog doesn't actually require any attention to keep it alive and at your side. But you can train it to sit, roll over and wee on your enemies (yes really). It is also able to smell gold, which as you might imagine, comes in handy.

The best thing about the dog is that its appearence changes depending on how nice a person you are. Behave nicely, and your dog resembles a glossy golden retriever. Fart on children and your dog's eyes turn red and he develops fangs. It's a lesson to us all.

7 - Viva Piñata

Viva Piñata is a lovely game about cultivating a little patch of garden in order to attract piñata to come and live there. Once a piñata is in residence, they can mate and make baby piñata. This is a nice twist on the "god" game in which players create virtual world, and one that is rather less distubing than The Sims.

Player focus is on cultivating the garden rather than controlling the life of the piñata, so it's rather more restful than many virtual pet games, in which the "pets" require constant attention.

6 - Babyz

Babyz is a profoundly disturbing game in which players can adopt and raise human children. It was created in response to the phenomenal success of earlier games Dogz and Catz, which suggests that after caring for a virtual cat (which entails squirting them with aphrodisiac love potions, amongst other things), you're probably ready to take responsibility for another human life

5 - Neopets

Neopets is both a virtual pet game and an online community that my Year 7 library teacher hadn't blocked from the school computers. It takes place in the candy-coloured world of Neopia (or something), and it involves adopting various species of Neopet, buying them hamburgers and playing cute little mini games with them.

Alright, so I'm not making it sound that exciting, but it was more fun than geography homework (sorry Mrs Turner).

4 - The Sims

Like Babyz, The Sims is infinitely more disturbing than most virtual pet games because the pets are people.

It is one of the most successful game franchises of all time. Make of that what you will.

3 - Tamagotchi

90% of Tamagotchis were bought by adults for children of people they didn't like.

I can't really explain them any better than that picture. There's this silly little blob which bounces around the screen, and it bleeps every hour or so, and you have to feed it or it dies and you have to start all over again. Any teacher's drawer in 1996 contained, on average, seven confiscated Tamagotchis, desperately bleeping for food.

In Green Wing, Caroline Todd goes on a date with with a man who has kept a Tamagotchi alive for twelve years. She drops the Tamagotchi in a glass of wine, and the relationship never really recovers.

2 - Pokémon

The game was one thing. It was sort of a cross between Zelda and Top Trumps. Jolly good fun.

But the cultural phenomanon was something else. It introduced Japanese animation to an entire generation who would otherwise have had to wait for smokey student parties to watch a pirate dvd of Akira. Probably.

I've heard tell of the Pokémon centre in Japan (why isn't there a Tomb Raider centre in England? Actually, don't answer that), but I can really only discuss Pokémon with any authenticity from my pasty western perspective. My single favourite childhood cartoon experience was watching Pokémon with my sister on SMTV (Saturday Morning TeleVision) Live.

At the end of each episode, Ant, Dec and Cat (for those outside the UK, these three are famous primetime television presenters whom the British people regard with the special kind of simmering resentment we reserve for all people who appear to enjoy success) would wear matching knitted Pikachu jumpers and do the Pokérap.

Look, all I'm saying is that Baby Boomers can go on about The Beatles until the cows come home, but you couldn't ever really "Catch 'em All", so as cultural zeitgeists go, I'm afraid Jigglypuff takes the proverbial biscuit.

Or Pokéfood.

Moving on.

1 - ihobo

This is basically just a Tamagotchi, except it is a homeless man who lives on your iPhone for three days.

When he askes for help, you have to be quick to offer him either food or a sleeping bag, or he will run off to go and steal some money for drugs. If you neglect him for long enough, his condition will deteriorate to the point where he will reject everything except cash, which he will then proceed to spend on his habit.

I know this sounds fairly sick, but it's actually a free charity application to alert affluent young people with iPhones to the plight of the homeless (yes really). The idea is an admirable one: by harnessing all that is awful and irritating about virtual pets, Depaul UK have managed to demonstrate the complexity and contradictions of the situation facing thousands across the country. The ihobo is obstinate and frustrating in his refusal of help, and only constant attention will keep him clear of drugs. If you have an ihobo on your phone, expect to be woken up several times during the night.

Whether or not it works as a fundraising tool is another matter. The affluent young iPhone users I spoke to seemed more amused by the politically incorrect name and the various scenarios cooked up by Depaul UK than they were moved by the hobo's plight. They tended to download the application for comedy value before becoming annoyed by the hobo's consistant pestering and then switching off their phones.

I'd like to think that there are some users out there who actually take advantage of the direct donation option on ihobo's main menu, if only because Depaul UK seem to have devised a practical application for the Tamagotchi.

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That's it really. I hope you enjoyed the second post this week. What does everyone think? Can Furbies really be classified as virtual pets? Did you donate to Depaul UK? Are there any other uses for a Tamagotchi?

Answers much appreciated.


  1. I had to switch to Internet Explorer to comment on this; that is how dedicated I am. Or possibly technologically incompetent.

    Nice list but I'd add Black & White/B&W2.
    As a god you get to control a creature which you can teach to be benevolent or murderous (or somewhere in between), partially depending on which leash you put it on. It also changes in appearance depending on how evil or good you are. It is the ultimate virtual pet, and it can eat people, which is pretty awesome.

    Also, I haven't visited your blog in a while and it is very shiny and cool.

  2. Thanks for that.

    Is commenting on firefox (or any other browser) a problem for anyone else? Other blogger blogs or just this one?

    I don't know whether it has anything to do with the fact that comments now have to be moderated. Sadly, I get too much bot-posted porno spam to not moderate comments now, which is a shame. (Ratio of porn spam to actual comments currently about 3:1)

    Black and White did actually cross my mind when I was writing, I don't know why I didn't put it in, especially considering the loose definitions of "pet game" I adhered to when writing.

    Interestingly, Peter Molyneux (Black and White) is also responsible for Fable, which features a similar idea about a pet being a physical manifestation of your behaviour, and undergoing physical and tempramental changes accordingly. I could get quite theological at this point, but it is quite early in the morning.

    And thanks for the complement. Shiny and cool are both things I aspire to be at all times.