Field Notes is a series of diaries by Caty McCarthy, exploring the personal stories that emit from the games we play over extended periods of time, and beyond. Currently, Caty’s revisiting Tokyo Jungle for the first time in five years, an arcade survival game that takes place in post-apocalyptic Tokyo.
When you think of the animals that will reign supreme when the apocalypse wipes out humanity, the last thing you think of is a small fluffy puppy. But in Tokyo Jungle, the Pomeranian is there in the post-apocalypse, just like every other animal. Surviving just fine among the loose tigers, domestic felines, baby chicks, and more.
When Tokyo Jungle first released in 2012 in Japan, it was one of the few games where I knew immediately I had to import it. And then as word of mouth and internet hype swamped the niche arcade title, the game ended up being localized for the West. I’ve been wanting to revisit Tokyo Jungle for a while now—especially after playing through Nier: Automata, for reasons I’ll explain in a future column—and realized, before E3 season kicks into full gear, it’s now or never.
The last time I visited Tokyo Jungle was five years ago. And while I’ve changed in virtually every way, Tokyo Jungle hasn’t. The city itself is still eerily quiet, with soft electronic music pulsing in the background as animals frolic around, usually minding their own business—or initiating a battle to the death. There’s something haunting about seeing the city overrun with beasts, where it’s deserted in the ways humans left it, but full of life for the first time for the animals’ once under the humans.
The animals, despite speaking no languages, have established their own hierarchies; some determinant on their position on the food chain, others in their sheer strength in numbers. There’s a baby chick running the neighborhood of Dogenzaka, and elsewhere down south, there’s an entire area overrun with vicious domestic cats. Tokyo Jungle presents a Tokyo that never really died: it just got new residents to replace the humans.
Post-apocalyptic settings are nothing new in video games. In fact, they can be quite tired. Even in Nier: Automata, which envisions a city of machines and androids battling for eternity, or The Last of Us, where humans battle zombie-like “infected” across a nature-overrun America. Even among the best examples, all the areas are intrinsically familiar. We’ve seen the vine-covered skyscrapers tilting in the distance as its structure falters. We’ve seen the once bustling towns now completely vacant. Tokyo Jungle, instead of relishing in the loneliness of its abandoned city, populates it with new life in its stead.
The game’s story, told via scattered archives in Survival mode and chapter-based missions in Story mode, presents a world where due to mysterious circumstances, humans died out. Or left. Or something. It all started with a zoo: as animals grew restless, and even domestic animals at home started acting more wild than usual. Slowly, animals turned more violent, ruthless, longing to take back the Earth that was taken from them by humans. And given the premise of the initial game at hand, the animals won.
Humanity in Tokyo Jungle is something the animals hardly bat an eye with. There are leftover items from when humans were around, like water bottles, magazines, miscellaneous canned foods. But the animals hardly miss them. Except for one overly pampered pup.
The first official chapter in the story mode for Tokyo Jungle begins with a Pomeranian. The poor Pomeranian’s run out of dog food, so it’s time to scurry off into the literal concrete jungle and fend for itself. You hunt small animals first—helpless rabbits, birds. Then the prey grows into felines, even other dogs. Eventually the Pomeranian establishes a home for itself. A small shelter out in the wild, as well as the now-abandoned apartment once shared with their former human owner. The apartment is where the Pomeranian’s world grows exponentially with puppies, living out the domestic fantasy of starting a family.
Before story mode, my first run on Survival mode was as a Pomeranian too. I claimed the territories of a run-down Shibuya as the fluffy pup. I hunted other animals, taking down multiple Golden Retrievers that were three times my size. My family of Pomeranians lasted 4 generations, until we met our end after 30 years when confronted with a bear. I could have probably leaped past the giant monstrosity, but with low hunger, and the next area with sustenance far away, I acted recklessly and set my devilish army of Pomeranians on the big ol’ bear. We all died quite unheroically.
That’s essentially the core of any survival run of Tokyo Jungle: you claim areas, hunt prey or eat plants to stay alive, mate to build a pack, and eventually, die in some stupid way. It’s a rinse repeat, common to any arcade game, but the random determinants (toxicity, heat) of it feel fresh every run. With 80 animals to play as (and 50 breeds overall), a playthrough’s strategy shifts with every turn. As a deer, I was stealthy, but fast. As a cat I leapt high, and took down beasts twice my size often. The actions feel brutal but necessary for elongating your own livelihood, and even species' survival. Tokyo Jungle's version of Tokyo isn't an idyllic society where animals live happily among one another: it's survival of the fittest, where only the strongest survive.
Not so different from humans after all.
Next time: As you may have noticed, I've shifted Field Notes to a bi-weekly schedule. In a couple weeks, I'll have raced to unlock as many animals as possible.