The thoughts and conversations developers Scott Mulligan and Matthew Ventures wish to evoke through their just-released game Do Animals Dream? are self-evident from the title’s big question. Is the wildlife that we farm, slaughter, and shrinkwrap subconsciously aware of the system’s inherent cruelty? Do the hens clucking away in their grey prisons understand that their brethren are being systematically butchered for meat? Do the cows corralled by electric fences sense a happier existence deep in their frayed genetic memory? There are no clear answers, obviously, and while it’s not a pleasant premise to consider, that’s the point.
So, when a juvenile whaler washes up ashore on a mysterious island populated by fully sentient animals at the start of Do Animals Dream?, the player gets the sense the story might quickly take a violent turn. Ventures said he wants to knock players off their guard, and it did just that as I settled into my first session of Do Animals Dream? after chowing down a frozen prosciutto pizza. Within a few trips around the island, I began to reconsider exactly what went into my Tuesday dinner.
“We started writing by thinking about different elements about animal welfare — like the environmental impact, or the suffering — and wrote dialogue that explored those themes,” Ventures explained. “Where we ended was a game that didn’t have any definitive answers. Some of the characters might lead people to become vegan, but we also have characters that challenge some of the assumptions around veganism. There’s not one message, and hopefully you can find the answer on your own.”
Mulligan and Ventures believe in their cause so much that they’re willing to hand out Do Animals Dream? for free — so long as you, the customer, takes a vow of veganism for at least a week. Mulligans and Ventures know there’s no way to enforce that restriction (they won’t be investigating your grocery bag for any stray eggs and cheeses,); instead the developers are relying on the honor system. If you retweet this link on Twitter, (or repost on Facebook or Instagram,) you’ve taken the challenge, and the team will send you a free code. Intentionally break your new animal-free lifestyle? Well, that means you lied on the internet, a crime without equal, but one the developers won’t know you’ve told unless you own up to it.
Do Animals Dream? Screenshots
“You’ll be accountable to all your friends, which I think is our metric there. With going vegan, the hardest step is the first. If you get through one week, maybe you’ll do two weeks, or three weeks,” Ventures said. “That means more to me than the $5 I might make off the game. That’s a win-win to me.”
Waste not, want not
Ventures and Mulligan understand veganism isn’t for everyone. Some people with dietary restrictions might not be able to ditch the meat aisle while maintaining their health, and others live in areas that simply don’t support a vegan lifestyle infrastructurally. If you plead that case, the developers will bless you with a complimentary copy of Do Animals Dream? anyway.
So regardless of your inclination toward veganism, the developers hope Do Animals Dream? may be worth giving a go. It plays a bit like a slightly off Animal Crossing — as if an eldritch shadow passed over your peaceful island and imbued existential crises into the lives of its critter citizens. Like in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you can stroll along warm, tropical shores and meet a troupe of cheerful creatures sunbathing in what seems like paradise. The key difference is that instead of teaching the player how to excavate fossils or plant mango trees, these animals are making direct references to the real-world atrocities they’ve endured at the hands of the human race. Early on, I met a chicken who asked me to apologize to her peeping hatchlings for the immobilization of her legs due to hormonal injections. It wasn’t a pleasant interaction.
If that example doesn’t make it clear enough, there’s an explicit darkness here, and that’s because Mulligan and Ventures make no effort to obfuscate the truth. Do Animals Dream?’s Steam page hosts an ominous warning along those lines: “This game contains extremely disturbing content and explores themes of self-harm, sadism, and death. This game is not suitable for children of any species.”
All of these elements, from how Ventures and Mulligan introduce players to the experience to their unique way of handing out copies, ties into their core philosophy; they aren’t intending for the experience to be a diatribe dictating how anyone should feel about the eggs or dairy in our kitchen. Their aim isn’t to shame or scold, but rather let players engage with topics rarely wrestled with in interactive media. Mulligan nor Ventures intend to be preachy. In fact, neither of them were vegan when they started making it. That dietary shift occurred in the midst of development, as the themes seeped into their own ethical dispositions.
“We both became vegans as adults. And we understand that a lot of people have never tried. This isn’t a game about trying to make more vegans, but it’s a game about making people take a second look,” says Ventures. “Maybe that’s trying to dine on more ethically sourced food, or to start a garden in their backyard or a couple flower pots. Just think about what you put in your body a second time.”
These two designers are not inspired by the desire to lecture or shame their audience. They simply want to provoke the same journey they embarked on in good faith, and lead their audience to investigate the relationship between their diets and the natural world. If a brief conversation with a cow or chicken can spark that reckoning, then Do Animals Dream? Is succeeding at the developers’ main goal.
Luke Winkie is a freelance writer for IGN.