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.
Dear diary, I realized that I flubbed last column. I did not open with a “dear diary” at all. I am terribly sorry. Anyways, upwards and onwards.
I'm a mammoth now. It took awhile to get here. I'm incredibly large, towering over everything around me, plus I'm incredibly slow. I'm secretely strong too—my tusks shine as an example—but I'm still just an herbivore. I have no need to kill to survive, and no one dares try and kill me. Until, y'know, a pack of wild predators does. Then it's back to where I started on the animal-select screen ahead of Survival Mode in Tokyo Jungle.
A couple weeks ago, in the previous installment of Field Notes, I recalled Tokyo Jungle’s unique post-apocalypse. A post-apocalypse that gives the rest of the world a chance for a change, rather than focusing on the few humans left in its wake. Tokyo Jungle establishes a hierarchies in its freshly renewed ecosystem for all the animals left in the wild: some are stronger than others, some roam in packs, but they all have their fair chance of survival from generation to generation. And that's the unreality it promotes: that every animal has an equal chance of survival, no matter the size. It mechanizes the idea of natural selection once ideated by biologist Charles Darwin, and simulataneously brushes it off in the same breath.
In the often-quoted, ultra-grim The Dark Knight, the once fresh-faced Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I see that mantra all across my playing of Tokyo Jungle. A game where certain animals—like dinosaurs—obviously fare better in the long-run than others. Animals, and the player, become greedy as they live across generations. Ultimately they become far more powerful in the game’s twisted, bleak society. It’s survival of the fittest, with the road upwards paved by destroying the weak in one’s path.
It mirrors the path of most games, honestly, the ones that are implicit in giving the player a power fantasy. In games, we start off as weak, but with a little finesse we grow stronger, more agile, more capable, smarter. By a game’s end, we’re champion. In Tokyo Jungle, becoming king comes in the form of unlocking more animals—from lions to tigers to other dinosaurs, oh my. One of the later animals, categorized as a “Grazer” (a.k.a. herbivore), is an animal that is frankly unfamiliar to our time. A giant mammoth, tusks browned with age. The mammoth is slow as hell, slower than the elephant even. But the mammoth is also seemingly indestructible because of their massive size. The mammoth is the type of animal no other animals bother to mess with.
But Tokyo Jungle also subverts the very hierarchies it establishes. A baby chick can grow into a chicken, and give birth to an army of those like it. The chicks can create their own battalion of sorts, the type that can even take down a predator or two along the way. Tokyo Jungle shows that sometimes it’s not only about being the bigger, seemingly “better” animal to survive, but sometimes strength in numbers and keener intelligence plays a significant part too.
Tokyo Jungle does well to embed hope in all of the many animals (and, uh, eventually non-animals) you control over its 100-year survival mode. From the tiniest deers to the most violent wild felines, all animals stand a fighting, or non-fighting chance. Even as I crawled my way to being a mammoth, part of me missed being the little guy. Like the pomeranian venturing on their own for the first time, or the army of baby chicks hunting for plants to eat to ensure further generations of survival. The stakes are greater as these creatures; we’re an unlikely species in this post-apocalypse, by far not the strongest, and definitely not cut out for this dog-eat-dog world in a Darwinian sense. But in Tokyo Jungle, you can make it through, no matter what animal you are, and pave a path to living in imperfect harmony.
Completely by coincidence (I promise), next week is the five-year anniversary for the original Japanese release of Tokyo Jungle. This ongoing column, I guess, can serve as a celebration of the game that I once never expected to adore. And I can’t blame it. On the surface Tokyo Jungle looks like another quirky arcade game, but once it sinks its claws into you and grabs hold, it’s hard to forget.
Next time: Tokyo Jungle’s Story Mode weaves a tale of humanity’s inevitable screw-up.