Tokyo Jungle positions the player in a world in which humanity is extinct. Predators roam the empty streets of Shibuya, Yoyogi park and beyond. You can side-scroll through these streets, make your marks, mate and sleep. The game play is sweet and simple. As a carnivore, you can hide to avoid bigger predators and hunt down the smaller ones. If you’re a grass eater, you check for plants and occassionally get into a nasty fight. Tokyo Jungle is not an anthropomorph game but one that truly details the animal perspective: eat, sleep, struggle, fuck. But above all, it’s about survival of the fittest. The rhetorics is strong and the perspective innovative. Tokyo Jungle is not a pet legend but a story of animals in a world long-abandonned.
The game play motivates survival and the kick of hunting. The excitement of hunting is hampered fast though because of the lack of new techniques. It’s boiled down to occasion, timing and food, whereas actual hunts are also about smell, strategies and speed. Moreover, the animals grow hungry fast that killing becomes like grabbing objects and tokens. The lives of other animals are not more than coins or stars. Survival is mediated in a nineties way. If you die, you’re dead, no matter how old your beloved puppy has become. I was reminded of the old Sonic games, The Lion King game and other side-scrollers I played – and never finished – when I was young. Except this time, I didn’t let the game fool me. When you stop playing Tokyo Jungle, a save game emerges if you exit near your nest. The savvy gamer can copy that file on a USB stick and overcome immanent death through back-ups.
Though dying is part of the rhetorics of Tokyo Jungle and strengthens the survival argument, and though you progress a bit each time, after a few turns, it simply doesn’t do. Tokyo Jungle is disapocalyptic in its own right, and the peril of dying certainly helps. Peeking over the small grass, looking at green dots at the map, you wonder: is that a large wolf in front of me or a deer that I could kill off? The invisibility of the potential threads creates suspense and makes for good game play because there is much at stake. The life signs could refer to anyting. If you survived all of the perils and mate, you get a generation of dogs or deers that function as extra lives.
Ultimately, Tokyo Jungle provides an animal-centred world in which the player is not a care-taker (like in Dogz), or the animal is portrayed as a trivial object (like in The Sims) or a mascotte (like in Epic Mickey). Still, the game is not there yet: it captures animals, but not quite. Because the characterization’s rife with cuteness, it fails to draw an honest survival scenario. The extra option to dress up your bright-eyed bambi with funny hats seems almost morbid, but in a way, very loyal to Japanese culture. Playing Tokyo Jungle, I still wonder, am I the pet owner or the pet?