It’s an irresistible premise. A virtual pet – a puppy, no less – that responds to your touch and the sound of your voice. All the enjoyment of owning a real dog, with none of the associated annoyances or worries. Along with an unusually amusing advertising campaign and a couple of attractive game/console bundles, it’s little surprise that Nintendogs’ commercial success is such that it’s become remarkably difficult to find a shop with copies still in stock.
It’s a shame, therefore, to find that the game has been neutered.
First impressions are promising. Visit the dog kennel and you get to see various breeds of puppies – the type available depending on the version of the game that you own – cavorting around in a garden. Choose to buy one and you’re given a description of each dog. They’re individuals, apparently (although in reality you’ll be hard pushed to notice this) each with his or her own personality. Make your selection and the two of you are magically transported back to your house.
Now comes your first taste of the voice recognition system. Come up with a name for your new pet, then say and repeat it a number of times until the dog learns it. It’s also at this point that you’ll start to realise that things aren’t quite as natural as you’d expect or want them to be. Recognition depends on intonation – your dog may not respond if the way you say its name is different from the way you said it initially. The easiest way around the problem is to remove all trace of emotion from your voice in this first stage. If you find yourself in a situation later on in the game where it doesn’t appear to be responding because it doesn’t understand what you’re saying, you won’t have to try and remember how you said it originally.
Suspension of disbelief, ruined. You’re no longer playing with a virtual pet. You’re now second-guessing the technology.
This is an issue that pops up throughout the game. Teaching your dog a trick is done by making it roll over, jump, sneeze and so on by interacting with it through the touchscreen. If you make it do something that can be taught as a trick, a microphone icon flashes up at the top of the screen – tap this, then vocalise the command that you want to associate with the trick. Do this enough times and the trick is learned. Simple enough, until you get to a point where your dog refuses to perform and you’re left with no indication as to whether it’s refusing because it’s tired or annoyed, or because the software doesn’t understand the command as you’re saying it. Guaranteed to eventually become the cause of much irritation.
Nintendogs’ biggest problem, however, has nothing to do with the implementation of the technology. It’s that the player has remarkably little to do within the game. In fact, ‘game’ is something of a misnomer – playing it is as much a passive activity as it is an interactive one.
Take the competitions. Obedience competitions require your dog to obey a set of spoken commands. The longer you play, the more times you repeat those commands to your dog outside of the competitions, the more likely it is to respond. There’s no skill involved – it’s all down to how much time you’ve spent doing the one thing over and over again. The disc competition has you throwing a disc for your dog to catch. Again, repetition brings greater results and your ability to do something – anything – is never called upon. The final of the three (three!) competition types is the agility test, where you lead your dog over jumps and through tubes, simply by tapping the screen.
Then there’s taking your dog for a walk. You draw out your planned route on an overhead map and… well, that’s it. Sit back and watch as your pet makes its own way around, only very occasionally having to interact with it when it takes a dump on the pavement or decides to eat something from a bin.
This lack of player involvement extends to the very core of the experience. Your dog will never change in any appreciable manner. It will never grow, its personality will never alter. Leave the game unplayed for a month and when you eventually turn it on again your only punishment will be spending five minutes giving the animal a wash. And you don’t even have to that if you don’t want to.
Virtual pets live or die based on the connection they allow their owners to form with them. At their best, they work as an extension of the player’s personality, altering in subtle ways depending on their treatment. Nintendogs’ fundamental failure is to not realise this. If your interaction with your pet has no significant effect on its behaviour, its appearance, its development, then what’s the point in spending time with it? Even Tamagotchi, despite all its simplicity, provided a more rewarding experience, evolving according to how much care it received from its owner.
You keep expecting the game to open up, hoping that you’ll find some hidden depth the longer you play, but it never happens. What’s there is all laid out in front of you right from the start, and there’s depressingly little of it. Sure, you gain access to an increasing number of small toys as you progress, but they’re not anything you won’t already have seen done before (and done better) in other DS games.
Puppies are lovable. They bounce, they bound, they fall asleep and slobber. They grow and learn, and the most rewarding part of dog ownership must surely be that you play an active part in that process. The puppies in Nintendogs, in comparison, will remain as they were the day you first met them, ‘learning’ only in the most shallow sense, and are permanently kept behind a glass plate, forever out of reach.
You come to Nintendogs wanting and expecting to find a lovable bundle of fur wrapped up in an attractive and complete package. No matter how deep you try and dig, all you find is an empty shell.