Feeling Numb in the Tokyo Jungle

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Originally published on 12 August.


I felt terrible the first time and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Watching this adorable Pomeranian, that little golden plush of a dog, like a cushion come to life, suddenly wrap its jaws around a rabbit’s neck as the screen yells ‘CLEAN KILL’ dramatically across the screen. I just had to laugh at the horror of it.

The same Pomeranian chomps into the rabbit a few times until – ‘playful’ being the best word to describe it – the corpse bursts into a smattering of loose, clean bones like a Dry Bones.

Tokyo Jungle is shocking at first – partly for opening on small, realistic animals hunting each other for food, but also for just how sudden it all is.  You control a tiny dog for about a second and a half before it’s tearing through another adorable animal from the bushes like it’s wearing a hockey mask and wielding a machete.

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The true horror of the animal kingdom.

It’s all intentional of course – it’s too effective and blunt not to be. By saddling you with a handbag dog from the get-go, Tokyo Jungle’s fundamental premise becomes horribly clear with the white, blinding luminance of a spotlight in your face. It’s the do-or-die world of the animal kingdom with the variety of a zoo, crammed tight into a small map of Tokyo. It’s simple, straight-forward, black and white. It’s not a nice place.

In fact, in line with the brutal reality it depicts, where small dogs can come face-to-face with a tiger (with realistic consequences), Tokyo Jungle is a straight-up arcade game. It boils this grim world down into score attack, rankings, the whole deal – it’s an almost perfectly symbiotic video game concept.

Depending on the animal, the player searches for food on whatever little map they’re on – subway, shopping district, forest. Randomized, the amount of food available changes map to map – the idea is to roam across the same handful of maps as more food becomes available in different places. As you’re doing this, you can ‘mark territory’ on these individual maps – by tagging four flags a la King of the Hill. After marking territory, you can start a new generation of the species with reset stats and more ‘lives’ via a new litter of 2 to 4, before the current generation gets too old – essentially reloading ammo to keep the game going.

Finding food and staying alive has the same swift, decisive brutality regardless of whether you’re an herbivore or carnivore. Carnivores hunt other meaty animals, either sneakily or in sudden duels, to eat their remains; while herbivores sneak and sprint around the predators to eat plant-life scattered throughout the world. Either way, death and loss is always sudden.

It’s a brutal world of animal instincts, placed rather perfectly inside a pick-up-and-play arcade game. By using an arcade setup – a static camera angle, constant scoring and objectives, basic and direct gameplay – the brutality and savagery of Tokyo Jungle’s animal kingdom is almost immediately normalised for the player. Almost every action is gratifying, progressing you through the game as a rung of the ladder. The context behind those actions – killing other animals or constantly evading your demise – is pushed hard into the background, soon to become distant memory. Progression and survival is all that matters.

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Hotline Miami (also a 2012 title, coincidentally) does a similar thing, even using a static angle for a similar detachment from the player.

Alongside heart-pumping synthwave, you’re a silent hitman sprinting through a series of rapid, intricate rampages, using an eagle-eye perspective as you very messily slaughter every gangster (or otherwise) in the vicinity, based on the instruction of a single phone call.

It’s essentially a puzzle game wrapped around an arcade game. Each level is intricate and specifically designed, but is built around repetition and perfection. Each kill awards points, with more for combos, specials and speed.

In a similar, disturbing vein of Tokyo Jungle, Hotline Miami critiques the player’s desensitisation through repetitive but gratifying gameplay. Hotline Miami specifically targets and comments on the player’s own role, their own desensitisation critical to the game thematically and mechanically. Like Tokyo Jungle, it uses detached visuals that keep the player far from the action: instead of watching it all behind the hitman’s eyes and experiencing all the gory details, they’re high above, omniscient; instead of realistic visuals, its pixel art is simplistic (though still disturbing, maybe even more so). Kaleidoscopic colours pulse around the screen along with its music to create a drugged haze of focus and detachment – a virtual psychosis.

Tokyo Jungle, however, is more of an arcade game with a particularly inspired premise, and doesn’t have anything to really ‘say’ beyond its premise.

It’s a game where the brutality of a Pomeranian slaying a wandering beagle wears off and is sanded down until just the gears, levers and pulleys underneath it are all you can see. Damage numbers, resources, stats, growth. Furry little Excel spreadsheets. Cute piles of math and codestuff, puppeted by sticks and buttons. The same result as Hotline Miami, just with a different objective.

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Tokyo Jungle is an inspired piece of cold reality that also happens to be a solid arcade title. Its commentary might be blunt and limited, but it’s as fantastic, effective and wonderfully executed a theme as they come.


John Reeves writes about gaming and some other stuff sometimes. Follow him at his blog, TwitterMedium and Tumblr.

Images attributed to Sony Interactive Entertainment and Devolver Digital. 

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