Tag: cats in video games

PITB Reviews: Ghostwire Tokyo: Cats Play A Central Role In This Japanese Horror Game

The premise of Ghostwire: Tokyo is simple: The entire human population of the city has vanished in some mysterious, cataclysmic supernatural event, leaving the heart of Tokyo silent, vacant and draped in an ethereal fog.

Instead of the bustle of humanity, the city is now populated by demons and yōkai, which are roughly equivalent to ghosts in Japanese folklore.

Only one human survives: Akito, our protagonist. He remains alive due to pure luck after a spirit named KK inhabits his body, intending to use it to fight the supernatural forces that have emptied Tokyo of its human inhabitants.

Akito and KK come to an uneasy truce sharing one body due to their aligned goals. KK’s presence not only allows Akito to survive the malevolent forces at work, but also imbues him with fantastic elemental powers to wield against the yōkai prowling the otherwise empty streets: He can summon wind, fire and water, and cleanse spirits and locations with Shinto prayer rituals.

Akito is set on rescuing his sister from sharing the same fate as hundreds of thousands of others, while KK spent his human life — and now his afterlife — trying to stop the mysterious figure behind the spirit invasion from harvesting human souls. For Akito to do the former, he and KK must do the latter.

Oh, and there are animals — lots of scared, confused cats and dogs who don’t know what to make of the city’s supernatural new inhabitants and don’t understand why the humans have gone missing. KK’s powers allow Akito to read animals’ thoughts.

“I can’t smell my buddy anywhere,” a confused dog tells me early in the game, whimpering as he wanders near the Shibuya scramble crossing.

It’s worth paying attention to Ghostwire’s lost pets. Feed a dog and the good boy could lead you to a cache of cash or a Jizo statue where you can say a prayer and augment your powers. Stop to pet and talk to a cat, and she might tell you a yokai is hiding nearby, disguising itself as an every day object.

True to a country obsessed with felines going back centuries, a cat isn’t always just a cat in the world of Ghostwire: Tokyo.

There are your regular domestic pets and strays, which are simply called neko, the Japanese word for cat. Akito encounters them often, comforts them and can read their thoughts with KK’s powers. Like the dogs, they’re confused, scared and hungry.

Then there are nekomata, which are the spirits of domestic cats who have become yōkai. Nekomata have made themselves at home in the absence of humans, showing their entrepreneurial spirit. The ghost cats have taken over every convenience store and kiosk in the city, urging Akito and KK to buy their snacks and supernatural wares to “be purrpared” for what awaits them.

“You’ve gotta spend money to make money,” one nekomata tells me, “so why not spend it here with meow?”

Nekomata are not to be confused with bakeneko, who are also yōkai but differ from their spirit cat cousins in subtle ways. Bakeneko can be friendly, mischievous or ambivalent, they can move without making a sound, and like nekomata they can speak and understand human language. Unlike nekomata, which have two tails, bakeneko only have one.

Finally, there are maneki neko. You’ve seen maneki neko even if you don’t realize it, probably on the counter of your local Japanese grocery, sushi house or Chinese restaurant. They’re the smiling, beckoning cats who are said to bring good fortune, health and other benefits. They’re based on the legend of a friendly cat who led a road-weary Japanese feudal lord and his men to a sanctuary just before a violent thunderstorm centuries ago, and have become ubiquitous in Japan and wider Asian culture.

For a game with a grim premise set in an empty but lived-in city, there’s plenty of bizarre humor as well. One mission has you delivering toilet paper to a human spirit who really, really needs to wipe after an epic bowel movement before he can move on and rest easy in the afterlife.

On another occasion I stopped to admire the detail and near-photorealistic beauty of a street bordering a shrine when I heard a nekomata hilariously meowing a cheerful song out of tune. When I turned toward the little cat, I saw him floating in the air and bouncing to his happy song.

As Akito, the player is tasked with lifting the fog from neighborhoods of central Tokyo, rescuing the spirits of deceased humans before they can be harvested by the demons and yōkai, and investigating the what, why and how of Tokyo’s takeover by malevolent spirits.

Akito and KK accomplish the former by “cleansing” Tokyo’s many shrines using a ritual performed at the shrine torii gates. Once a torii gate is cleansed, the fog around it subsides and more of Tokyo opens up for exploration and investigation. Meanwhile, Akito and KK must fight off yōkai to reach the floating spirits of Tokyo’s citizens, using a talisman to secure them. The duo can then “wire” the spirits to an ally outside the city, who helps return them to their bodies. The game keeps track of how many souls are saved, with the count rising to the hundreds of thousands for adept players.

The game remains true to Japanese folklore in the way it presents enemies, who are usually corruptions of human souls who have deep regrets about their lives. The spirits represent anxieties unique to, or prevalent in, Japanese society.

There are Rain Walkers, unnaturally thin salarymen toting umbrellas who advance on you inexorably, representing the angry spirits of men who spent their entire lives in service to a corporation, hardly spending time with their families or raising their kids because they work so much.

There are the Students of Pain and Misery, headless schoolgirls and schoolboys representing the spirits of teenagers whose grades couldn’t carry them into good universities, damning them to a life of tedious, low-paying jobs. Those are real concerns in a country where students spend in excess of 10 hours a day, six days a week in school. Teenagers are under enormous pressure to get top grades, and teen suicide is a major contributor to the country’s unusually high suicide rates.

Spirits of Lamentation are dangerous and move in sickeningly unnatural ways as spirits of people who were estranged from loved ones, while the small, raincoat-clad Forsaken are the spirits of abused children.

These malevolent spirits and others wander the streets, linger in alleys and leap across rooftops, but they also form groups called Hyakki Yagyo, which are parades of oni and yōkai who march through the streets of Japanese cities on summer nights, according to folklore.

Hyakki Yagyo
You’ll hear the Hyakki Yagyo before you see it, tipped off by the booming taiko drums that accompany the ghostly parade.

The arrival of Hyakki Yagyo in Ghostwire is impressively atmospheric: Lights and neon signs flicker and die out, while taiko drums boom from the mists. Then you see the spirits — yōkai with their umbrellas, massive demons, bizarre apparitions.

The first time I encountered a Hyakki Yagyo, I was so engrossed in watching the procession that I didn’t realize I was in its path until it was too late. I learned that if you get too close, the spirits yank you into an ethereal plane and surround you in numbers, determined to end your physical existence and make you one of them. Those encounters are among the most difficult in the game, but they’re also a fun test of skill.

Ghostwire gives us the most complete recreation of Tokyo in any game to date, and it’s magnificent. The metropolis extends seemingly forever in every direction, with 36 million people living a metro area that sprawls for almost 1,000 square miles. (That’s three times the size of New York with all its boroughs.)

Because of that, no game studio can handle the challenge of recreating the entire city on a 1:1 scale, and Ghostwire doesn’t attempt it. Instead the game world encompasses the famous Shibuya district and part of Minato City, two of the most bustling and famous districts in the heart of Tokyo. It’s a massive playground stretching from west of the scramble crossing, through Roppongi and all the way to Tokyo Tower.

Ghostwire is beautiful, polished and a hell of a lot of fun to play. You’re not going to find the gloriously intuitive combat of a game like Control, or even an experience like the fluid melee action of Shadow Warrior 2. Ghostwire’s combat is pedestrian compared to those games, but it becomes more fun and interesting as the game progresses and you’re given different powers and options to deal with a growing variety of ghastly enemies.

The lure of a game like this is its moody atmosphere, magnificent visuals, tense sound design and a plot that weaves hundreds of years of Japanese folklore into the mix, creating a world unlike anything else in gaming.

The writing deftly transitions between serious and funny, tense and lighthearded, and the partnership between Akito and KK allows for a running dialogue throughout the game, with the two of them asking each other questions, arguing over tasks and reacting to the craziness around them. What starts out as an uneasy alliance held together by necessity becomes grudging mutual respect and eventually friendship.

Rounding out the cast of characters are Mari, Rinko, KK’s friend Ed, and the masked protagonist. Rinko is the spirit of a woman who worked with KK in their human lives. Rinko and KK were killed for their determination, and in death they continue the fight against the malevolent spirits. Ed is a weirdo: He’s KK’s man on the outside, helping to reunite the severed souls of Tokyo with their human bodies when Akito and KK rescue them, but the only way to talk to Ed is by payphone — and even then, he only answers in recordings.

Mari is Akito’s sister, who was unconscious and helpless in a hospital when everyone vanished. More than anything, Akito wants to protect her.

Finally, there’s the man in a oni mask, the mysterious mastermind behind the supernatural takeover of Tokyo. Who is he? What does he want? Can he be defeated?

To answer those questions requires an adventure very much worth having.

Title: Ghostwire: Tokyo
Release date: March 25, 2022
Platforms: PC, Playstation 5
Audience: Mature
Cats: Many

Little Kitty, Big City: Play As A Cat In Tokyo

It looks like 2022 is going to be a banner year for the fledgling “play as a cat” genre of video games.

There’s the long-awaited adventure game Stray, slated for early next year, in which the player is an orange tabby navigating an eerie future Hong Kong with heavy cyberpunk vibes. Then there’s Peace Island, an open world mystery game that gives players the choice to switch between nine different cats who are tasked with finding out what happened to their humans and all the other people who have suddenly vanished.

Now there’s a third feline-centric game in the mix: Little Kitty, Big City, which offers players the chance to adventure as a playful black cat with bright green eyes. The goal of Little Kitty, Big City is to help the title kitty find its way home, but as the trailer below repeatedly points out, cats tend to get side tracked:

One thing that stands out immediately is the art style. Stray is all dark urban environs drenched in neon, with neighborhoods inspired by Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City. The title cat is determined, resourceful and adept at navigating dangerous situations, with a big part of the game’s focus not only on achieving goals, but achieving them the way a cat would.

Peace Island occupies a halfway point between Stray’s hi-fidelity noir realism and Little Kitty’s polygonal pastels. The titular island is picturesque and the game emphasizes beautiful sunsets, heavy undergrowth and local animal life. The environment itself is a character of sorts, as the players will have to mine their surroundings for clues about the missing people.

By contrast, Little Kitty, Big City offers us a heavily stylized Japanese metropolis with blue skies, bright colors and a whimsical narrative. The feline protagonist has a goal, but there are also so many boxes to explore, so many trash cans that might yield yums, and yes, plenty of laptops to sit on during grooming sessions. There aren’t mysteries to solve or enemies to watch out for, just a journey that rewards the player for doing what a cat does.

The game’s creators write:

“You’re a curious little kitty with a big personality, on an adventure to find your way back home. Explore the city, make new friends, wear delightful hats, and leave more than a little chaos in your wake. After all, isn’t that what cats do best?”

Above: Stray leans heavily into the cyberpunk aesthetic with Bladerunneresque visuals in a futuristic city.

Above: The cats of Peace Island investigate their eerily quiet home town as they piece together the mystery of the missing humans.

Stray was originally slated for late 2021, but has been pushed back to early 2022. Delays in the video game industry aren’t unusual, and as many publishers have learned the hard way, rushing to release a buggy, unfinished game is always a mistake.

Peace Island doesn’t have a release date yet, and as for Little Kitty, Big City, its Steam page simply says: “Planned release date: Cats don’t have deadlines.”

Stray’s Feline Protagonist Is Picture Perfect

Determined to get inside an apartment, the ginger tabby leaps onto the ledge of an air conditioner unit, then onto the roof, where he drags a piece of debris to the edge, swipes it off and watches it shatter a skylight.

Boom. Kitty door created!

The scene isn’t part of a Youtube video or a documentary about smart cats, it’s a gameplay sequence from the upcoming Stray, a game in which the protagonist is a lost cat who’s been separated from his family and dropped into an eerie, near-future Hong Kong.

The overlap (or Reuleaux triangle) in a Venn diagram of gamers and cat-lovers is pretty sizable, and for that enthusiastic cross-section, there’s no game more highly anticipated than Stray.

Stray
Our hero gets his sustenance from bowls, needs to pause for a scratch every once in a while, and likes to rub against the legs of friendly characters he meets.

Previously we’d seen a short trailer and still screenshots, and now a video from the developers shows off more than four minutes of glorious game footage following the feline protagonist as he explores Hong Kong’s streets, back alleys and noodle shops.

The developers are clearly cat lovers: The kitty hero of Stray moves with the grace, energy and caution of a real domestic feline, and the game forces players to tackle obstacles and challenges the way a cat would. The protagonist cat gains access to a vent shaft, for example, by swiping a coffee mug into fan blades to get them to stop spinning. In another scene, the cat is startled, jumps a full pace back and lands on all fours in a way only cats can.

Everything from gait to reactions is perfectly cat-like. In the opening moments, our kitty hero is clearly injured, nursing one of his back legs as he hobbles down an alley. In a later scene he bats curiously at a drone the way a house cat would with a new toy.

There are no magic abilities or impossible inventories here: As the player, you can only do things a cat can do in real life, although you’re given a boost later on when a friendly character equips you with a harness on which B12, the above-mentioned drone, can dock. B12 can interact with man-made inventions, understand your cat’s intentions and facilitate rudimentary communication.

If, for example, your kitty character is dehydrated and stops to paw at a vending machine, B12 can send a signal to the machine, order it to dispense a beverage, then open it for the adventurous cat. B12 also helps your catagonist fight off enemies. By flashing a purple light at hostile machines, for example, the little drone can render them harmless and deactivate them.

Ultimately, though, the game designers want you to think in cat terms to make your way through the game world, and that means considering feline physiology when encountering obstacles, and feline psychology when trying to solve puzzles.

Stray
“A new toy?!” Stray’s hero cat is curious as he meets B-12 for the first time.

The project’s lead designers are both industry veterans who decided to strike out on their own by forming an independent studio after years of working for UbiSoft, the game industry giant known for game franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs. Like those games, Stray gives players the opportunity to explore a highly detailed open world.

“Our goal is to create a unique experience playing as a cat. We are inspired everyday by Murtaugh and Riggs, our two cats,” creative director Viv said. “Most of the team are cat owners as well, giving us all a lot of helpful first-hand references. Cats are always so playful, cute and lovingly annoying that it’s an endless stream of gameplay ideas for us.”

Stray_gameplay

For the game’s atmosphere, the creators were inspired by Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, a former military fortress that became a slum in the days of British-ruled Hong Kong, with Chinese triad gangs serving as de facto authorities in the lawless zone. Today, the former Kowloon Walled City is a park.

“It is also a very unique point of view for an adventure game. Exploring the strange world we are building feels really fresh when you’re sneaking under a car, or walking the rooftops with the inhabitants below unaware of your presence. Or if you want them to be aware, you can just meow endlessly to annoy them.”

Stray was originally slated for a late 2021 release, but it’s looking more likely that we won’t see it until the first quarter of 2022. Given the recent history of highly anticipated and rushed projects like Cyberpunk 2077, few gamers would begrudge a development team taking its time and getting things right rather than going into a months-long crunch period to meet a holiday deadline. Good things come to those who wait, especially in the complex world of game development.

Cats In Games: Cyberpunk 2077

I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077 lately, as readers of this blog may have guessed by some of the references, and it is everything the hype said it would be: A dystopian story set in a grim, hyper-corporatized, ultra-capitalist future in which the masses worship the gods of consumption, virtually everything that humans come in contact with is synthetic, and nature is a forgotten dream that may or may not exist beyond the seemingly-infinite concrete and chrome of human sprawl.

It’s Bladerunner writ large and interactive, a retrofuturistic nightmare in which people voluntarily have their own eyes plucked out to replace them with brain-interfaced digital lenses and biomechanical grotesqueness is the societal norm. A future in which a person’s life amounts to the price their internal organs can fetch on the black market and the only civil liberties that exist do so by the forbearance of megacorporations.

Even if you’re not a gamer, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the game. It is, after all, one of the most highly-anticipated pieces of consumable media in modern history, and familiar actors have lent their voices and likenesses to the production.

One of the most depressing aspects of 2017’s Bladerunner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic, is the utter disconnect from anything natural.

Future Los Angeles is so choked with smog that the city exists in a perpetual twilight gloom. Animals have been purged from the Earth, and humanity has turned to farming insect larvae for protein in processed foods. Vegetation is so rare that the sight of a single sprout near the dusty carcass of an old oak tree fascinates Ryan Gosling’s antagonist character, K.

Drawing heavily on Bladerunner — as well as the seminal 1988 Japanese film Akira, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), and even the 1979 action thriller Warriors (which is itself based on Xenophon’s Anabasis from 370 BC) — Cyberpunk 2077 is about violence, hedonism and human greed.

There is no room for the beauty of animals or nature in a future like this.

That’s why it’s surprising to find cats stalking the dim alleys of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City.

Keanu and the cat.
Keanu Reeves’ character, Johnny Silverhand, is quite enamored with Nibbles the Cat.

Nibbles the Cat.
A Sphinx cat in Cyberpunk 2077.

The player’s character, V, can stop and pet stray cats he encounters throughout the game.

There’s even a hidden opportunity to adopt your own stray and take it back to your apartment in the game. Johnny Silverhand, the wise-ass character played by Keanu Reeves, is particularly fond of Nibbles the stray, who can be found amid piles of trash in the hallway outside V’s apartment.

Nibbles “doesn’t really do much besides lay around and take up space,” Screenrant notes. “Basically exactly what a cat does in real life. What an immersive experience.”

In another scene, V is conducting recon on a corporate target with Takemura, a Japanese ally, when a cat slinks by and lays down about 20 feet away.

Takemura says the cat is the first animal he’s seen in Night City, “except for the cockroaches, of course.” Then he wonders if the cat is a bakeneko, a Japanese spirit.

Night City is a technological achievement so impressive that it takes many hours just to get your head wrapped around how big and detailed it is. It’s easily the largest virtual city ever created, but it’s not just about sprawl — the city is truly vertical, from hidden subterranean depths and accessible street-level locales to highways, apartments and offices that claw at the sky, their peaks towering over ubiquitous flying car traffic.

The game is a form of entertainment, but it’s also a warning: This could be our future. Some would say it’s even likely to be our future.

Most of us are disconnected from nature. We’ve forgotten the stars and the night sky, which have been blotted out by smog and light pollution. We have wiped out more than two thirds of all the wildlife on the Earth and innumerable species teeter on the edge of extinction, including almost every example of iconic megafauna, from tigers and jaguars to orangutans, chimpanzees and elephants.

The interregnum caused by the global pandemic has reminded us that we share this planet with billions of other minds, with animals cautiously poking their heads out at the edges of civilization, wondering where all the humans have gone.

It’s fun to play in a dystopian future, but I don’t want to live in it.

cyberbud2077_webfinal

Real Life Cats Are The Villains of Nintendo’s Newest Game

Nintendo’s newest game has been out for all of one day and already cats are like “Nuh-uh.”

The idea behind Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is clever yet simple and seemingly tailored for the pandemic era: Using a Nintendo Switch, players control a tiny Mario Kart equipped with a camera and race it around courses they design in their homes. Because players are controlling the kart through a screen and seeing things from the kart’s point of view, the game augments the race course by generating obstacles to dodge, coins to collect and opponents to race against.

It’s called augmented reality, because it adds layers of computer-generated imagery over things we can see with our own eyes. It’s the same concept behind smart glasses and floating heads-up displays.

But there’s one wild card Nintendo’s designers may not have anticipated: Felis catus.

Nothing grabs a cat’s attention quicker than a small, fast-moving object, and the little karts have been triggering the predatory instincts of countless cats.

Some cats go all “You shall not pass!” Gandalf-style on the karts:

Others aren’t sugar coating what they think of the invasive little cartoon racers:


Finally, some cats just don’t know what to make of it:

The best part about this is that, from the kart’s eye view, house cats look like furry kaiju — giant, lumbering beasts hell bent on sending the racers careening off course.

It also begs the question: Is there anything in existence that cannot be improved by adding cats?