Recently, I had to put my cat, Ruka, down. She was a beautiful black cat and had been with me since I picked her up from the shelter seven years ago. It was a terrible, heartbreaking experience to watch her go and I alternate between missing her so badly that it hurts and forgetting she won’t be there waiting for me when I get home.
Ruka’s passing got me thinking more about animals in video games and the way that we interact with them. It’s a bit strange how we’ll treat animals when they’re in video games. Humans are easy to kill, but animals being killed is always a big deal. I remember when I was playing Valiant Hearts: The Great War I kept thinking that if they killed Walt, the helpful dog companion, I would be 100% done with the game. I would have been less upset if they had killed any of the human characters. Valiant Hearts is set in a war, after all, and humans die in war, but I just kept thinking that Walt had to survive.
So why do we get so attached to our pets whether they’re virtual representations or not? Aside from the fact that they’re cute and make us happy, pets often play an important role in our lives. It isn’t an exaggeration when people claim that pets are a part of our families. They are with us in times of trouble; they are steadfast and stay with us even as the humans in our lives come and go. If you have a cat or a dog and then go through a bad breakup, your pet will generally still be there with you. Your pets don’t judge you, or if they do, they’re unable to voice it, and it just seems like pets are the one place in your life that you can get that pure, abiding love.
Other people have argued that we have pets because “the desire to please others is as hard-wired into us as using tools or walking on two legs.” Pets are then easier to keep happy. Drawing on my experience with video games, Epona from The Legend of Zelda just seemed happy to have you riding her, and Yoshi is much the same. Walt and the Mabari Hound from Dragon Age: Origins (who I named Booker) can be interacted with during the game and you can praise/pet them. I would make sure to talk to my Mabari every single time I stopped at my base camp and would pet him even though it was the same reaction each time. With the other characters I wouldn’t stand and watch the same animations multiple times, but with my Mabari I would just watch him roll around with a goofy grin.
We want our pet companions to be happy. Think about the way that we react to Pokémon and how attached people can get to their little Pokébuddies. There’s also the safety factor. Pets in video games and in real life tend to make us feel safer. I’ve been playing Haunting Ground in starts and stops and having Hewie (a white shepherd, above) beside me has not taken away any of the scariness of the game, but has made me feel less like I’m going to be sick while playing it. For me at least, I think the reason that we get attached to our pets is that they’re reassuring.
True, there are definitely pets who are useful. All of the game pets that I’ve mentioned are useful in gameplay either by helping defend you, finding items, helping you to solve puzzles, or by transporting you places. When I found Epona in Majora’s Mask, I was ridiculously happy and that happiness helps to build bonds between you and your video game animal companions. In general, video games seem to be more careful with animals than they are with humans. Animal companions are less likely to die, which clumsily ups the stakes of the game—and that’s a good thing, because we love them.
Even in Pokémon where you’re basically making your pets fight other pets in a kind of dog-fighting league, your pets don’t die. When your Pokémon is hurt too badly, they faint and while they need to visit a hospital before they’re back on their feet, your Pokémon don’t die. Other Pokémon obviously have since there are Pokémon graveyards, but the ones that you’ve grown attached to don’t die while you’re playing the game.
There are different arguments for why we get attached to animals in video games and everyone who plays will have a slightly different experience and/or connection to their pets. Some will love them because they’re cute, others because they’re useful, and others because they’re able to lavish attention on their pets. Whatever it is, I think there should be more pets in video games just as cathartic little companions. Since 62% of American households have pets, I want a little in-game kitty that will follow me around and meow sarcastically at people.