Question: if an independent games studio releases a game that prominently features a forest or woodland creature, is it truly an indie game? Obviously, no – but if you’re a cynic like me with any semblance of an online footprint then you know what I’m getting at.
Take a look at the current indie game landscape and you’ll find a lot of animal protagonists these days. Case in point: here’s a list of 111 games on Steam where you can play as a fox. And for those of you that watched the Wholesome Direct this summer, you may have noticed a huge amount (at least 13) of frog-based games.
So foxes and frogs are popular. Sure, anyone could have told you that. But how did we get here? And where do we go from there? After spending more time than I’d care to admit consciously thinking about the future of animals in video games, I have devised a scientific metric to help figure that out. I’m going to definitively tell you what the next big animal to take the indie world by storm will be.
Case study: The fox
Before diving into my criteria, it’s important to study what’s working in the current indie animal landscape. Let’s start with the fox. Since 2017, it seems there has been no shortage of video games determined to capture the call of the wild. Picture this: you, the player, awaken to find yourself in a foreign and mystical land (likely the forest or mountains). If nothing other than the vague concept of an adventure is meant to beckon you, the atmosphere should reflect that. Wild winds & rippling rivers populate the environment, and also there’s always ruins and treasure chests. The world is mysterious yet exciting and inviting.
You know what kind of animal thrives in this realm? The fox. Naturally curious yet cunning, foxes often symbolize survival and outwitting one’s environment or opponent, making them a perfect fit as the playable character for puzzle and exploration games. Tunic, Seasons After Fall and Endling – Extinction is Forever are perfect examples of this. Equally noteworthy is that literary history tells us foxes are often used as a surrogate for exploring human emotions, behavior and lessons in morality. This makes them a great companion to human-based protagonists for games like Rime and Never Alone.
Case study 2: The frog
“What’s NOT to love about frogs? They are so tiny. And cute. And helpful. And they just hang out and vibe.”
This quote from Jenny Windom, organizer And Host Of Wholesome Games, perfectly sums up why those green little guys are everywhere these days. Take a game genre or mechanic and put a frog in it, and chances are it probably slaps. Monster hunting? Check out Paradise Marsh. Skateboards? Keep your eyes peeled for OllieFrog Toad Skater. Hell, even the upcoming Shoulder of Giants, which features a frog riding a robot, is being developed by a Hard Drive writer.
Like it or not – and chances are you love it – frogs are in our games, and they’re here to stay. Frogs are both comic and relaxing in nature, which is why they just seem to make sense in the Year of our Lord 2022. In a geo-political, socio-economic and cultural landscape world where everything is constantly on fire, playing a video game featuring some kind of frog or toad seems to be just what the doctor (or vet) ordered.
Taking learnings from those two case studies, I began to build out a small set of criteria that our next big animal would need to fulfill. After lots of tinkering in the lab, I got it down to a slim three rules.
1. The Animal Must Be Friendly Yet Willing to Act Out
Ok, let’s talk about Stray. There’s a lot of buzz around BlueTwelve Studio’s critically beloved game about a stray cat finding its way back home. And for good reason! The feline’s movements and the world populated by robots looks both engaging and charming as hell. So how might the simple household cat tick the above box?
Let’s look at our last two mascots. The fox was otherworldly yet human. The frog was simple yet versatile. Both capture the attitudes of the online landscape during the last decade (uncertainty and escapism respectively). With that established, it’s apparent the next creature should employ a dichotomy prevalent to today’s culture.
Chaotic energy may be a term you’ve heard more than once these days. The new face of indie games is gonna be just that: an asshole. And to be fair, cats are total a-holes, but we love them. They’re domesticated, intended to survive by their proximity to humans who provide them with food and shelter. But they still act like they don’t need us. Some of them even roam it alone, and that’s what Stray seems to capture perfectly: the journey of a social creature surviving the world we’ve made for them on its own.
So if you’re an animal looking to spearhead the next big indie game, take note. You should be comfortable around people, but just chaotic enough to throw them for a loop.
2. It Has to be a Woodland Critter
This is where Stray loses its case. Cats sure are fun as heck to play as, and I have no doubts people are interested in seeing more games like Annapurna’s latest adventure release – but cats are not the future of indie games.
Sorry felines, but if you wanna be the cool kid in town, you’ve gotta come from the forest. Foxes and frogs? Both can be found in wooded ecosystems. And surprise surprise, so are other animals headlining more recent indie games. Take the bear, for example, who’s slated to appear in the upcoming Bear and Breakfast and Lumbearjack. Two juicy roles as a hotel manager and an ecoterrorist? Things are looking pretty good if you’re a bear right now.
Remember Untitled Goose Game? That sucker was huge. And it had everything: a fun premise, great reception (and better sales), and charm out the wazoo. Know what else it had? An animal commonly found around freshwater areas. Do you know what kind of biome features rivers, lakes, and ponds? That’s right, the freaking forest.
If I were a woodland critter, I’d be calling my agent immediately.
3. The Creature Starts with an F
Are you noticing a pattern? I sure am, and it’s that both of these animals start with the same letter of the latin-based, English-spoken alphabet.
I know what you’re thinking. This guy’s insane. Fuck him. Guess what though, I’m not. Trends can be difficult to explain, but most often the simplest explanation is the best. Make no mistake, between 2023-2027, you will see an increase of indie video games heavily featuring animal characters that start with the letter F.
And given our previously-established criteria, this bodes well for the Falcon, Finch, and Flying Squirrel. But ultimately, it’s the most promising for one guy in particular …
Result: The Ferret
Funny, furry, and furious, the ferret is an absolute slam-dunk for the next face of indie games to come.
Have you ever met a ferret, or seen a video compilation of one online? They’re adorable as pets, but they’re also huge dickwads. Constantly hiding and zigzagging around whenever they want to, ferrets roll the dice, and it’s their owners’ job to go along with it. And while ferrets mainly live in captivity, their close cousins known to us as the weasel, stoat, and badger do live in wooded areas. And if you haven’t noticed by now, ferrets begin with the letter F.
Can you imagine a woodland-inspired RPG featuring a determined yet easily-frightened ferret as the main character? Or a cooking simulator where you play as a grumpy old ferret teaching his grandchild how to run their beloved family restaurant? I can, and if you’re a game developer or publisher reading this, hopefully you can too.
Indeed, the world of ferret-based independent games is endless, but more importantly also makes sense. So the next time you notice a winsome little title featuring a black-footed ferret while perusing Steam, you’ll remember where you saw this before.