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.
Caution: This contains SPOILERS for Tokyo Jungle's Story Mode.
Dear diary, apparently I started this column at the perfect time. We accidentally breezed past Tokyo Jungle's 5th anniversary, and yesterday the game was announced as one of the latest "free" offerings for July's PlayStation Plus lineup. Tokyo Jungle is back, baby. (Well, not really.)
This edition brings me to why I decided to return to Tokyo Jungle's post-post-post apocalyptic concrete jungle in the first place. When I finished Nier: Automata just months ago, I was astounded by it. Not just by its story, but how it mechanized its emotions through every beat. Tokyo Jungle weaves a similar tale. One of the pitfalls of humanity, and what befalls those reside on Earth once they're gone.
Tokyo Jungle presents a seemingly worn down envisioning of Tokyo that's actually bursting with life. Just that life is no longer humans. The animals in Tokyo have their own hierarchies, families, generations to carry on their family name. Tokyo Jungle gives animals—all animals, not just the predators—a second chance at building their own society. One where they're not resigned outside of "civilization" or trapped in zoos. In Tokyo Jungle, animals have made their own civilization. (Of sorts.)
Tokyo Jungle's Story Mode is fragmented. It's technically only unlocked as you wade through the game's Survival Mode, where you pick up archival relics scattered around the map. At first, they tell hints of the future to come. Spinning tales of zoo animals growing hostile, and so on. Later, they become diary entries from panicked scientists, mysteriously receiving data "from the future." We don't get all the information at once, nor do we even learn it within the game's Story Mode.
While the archives feed us knowledge of the past, we experience the lives of the animals left to live in the wake of it all. We embody a Pomeranian wrestling with being wild instead of domestic. A top dog thrown off their pedestal. A lion protecting their pack. A robot dog completing their long mission. The stories of Tokyo Jungle's characters oftentimes feel more human than the humans that doomed themselves in the past. They're reckoning with their unfortunate situations, but finding ways to survive anyways. They persevere.
It's been a decade since the Transport AI Type D's forced transport disaster. In a scant 10 years, the world's population has been halved. We've tried everything imaginable to remotely operate the units that were inactive at the time of the event without result. Is mankind fated to simply die out?—Memory Log 1
We quickly learn that the remaining population of humans in the year 2215 are wildly selfish. Their big plan to "survive" and save humanity is an obtuse one: to teleport themselves back to the year 2027. This would inevitably replace them and push 2027's population to the future time. Thus dooming them, essentially. Or worse, dooming the animals we've come to know and love and feast upon.
The final chapter in Story Mode, Act 14, ties everything together. You're playing as a robot dog—something reminiscent of Tekno the Robotic Puppy. You're faced with a choice: to activate the time travel machine and bring back humanity, helping them restore a future retroactively. Or you can keep the planet for the animals. In any other story, the second option would be perceived as the bad ending. The bad guys—something alien, inhuman—wins control of the planet. But Tokyo Jungle doesn't want you to bring back the humans.
Tokyo Jungle's "good" ending is a bittersweet one. The robot dog fights of other robot dogs, security, mean animals, only to die at the end; short-circuiting as the robo-pup leaps to freedom from the facility. ERC-003 sacrifices itself so that animals like the ones who raised it can remain living in the new society they've built in Tokyo. After playing through Story and Survival mode, and living through the experiences of these animals (whether they're tales you create yourself, or careful stories in its scripted scenarios), the idea of humans returning to likely destroy all that is disheartening.
Because it's fact. It's the cycle of humanity, as evidenced by history. Even ERC-003's robo-dog companion (and foe) ERC-X states it so matter of factly. In the reality where humanity returns, it's probable that they'll slaughter the assumedly-feral animals in their quest to rebuild Earth. The robot-dogs would likely be okay, because they need maintenance. Though for everyone else, mass survival is increasingly unlikely. In addition, with some past selves going back in time, humans may even be able to rectify the apocalypse from ever even happening.
As Nier: Automata wrestled with sacrificial choices, as does Tokyo Jungle. Tokyo Jungle asks players to turn their back on humanity: seeing that they're prone to dooming themselves time and time again, and animals are doing just fine (even better) without them. It's the antithesis to what we mostly see in post-apocalyptic narratives, where saving humanity is the core of everything. Tokyo Jungle is the opposite, raising a middle finger to humanity as Pomeranians hunt domestic felines in the dilapidated skyscrapers of Shibuya "Woods." Sometimes, humanity isn't worth the effort.
Next time: Caty brings a new game to Field Notes. What will it be? Who knows. Maybe suggest something in the comments.