Last time, you decided (by an overwhelming majority) that heals harming the undead is better than voice chat. I cannot say I’m surprised by this outcome, yet nor can I say I’m not wistful thinking about how much I now hate a feature which had brought me so much joy across the years. Ah well. Onwards! This week, I ask you to choose between a simulated cute little moment and a simulated whole new layer of reality. What’s better: petting the dog, or entering cyberspace?
Petting the dog
Once, we ached to flush toilets. If we found a toilet in a video game, we would be sorely disappointed if we couldn’t flush it. Developers who also delighted in the flush would put surprising amounts of time and effort into flashy flush effects and hearty flush noises, which then fed desires for more flushing, which encouraged more devs to… it was a happy time. I still want to flush the toilet today, but what people most want now is to pet the dog.
Approach a friendly dog in a game these days and there is a high chance you be presented with a prompt to pet it. Maybe you’ll be treated to an elaborate first-person view of your wizard kneeling down, shaking a dog’s paw, then tickling it behind the ear. Maybe you’ll simply hear a happy little noise. Either way, you’ll know a dog has been petted. It’s cute.
Petting awareness exploded after Tristan Cooper started the smash-hit Twitter account Can You Pet The Dog? For years he has documented the games which do—and don’t—let you pet dogs and other beasties, and it turns out lots of people want to see this. Which means lots of developers have put more effort into petting. Which means more people like petting. Which means… these days you can pet dogs and cats and parrots and sheep and cows and dragons and lil robots and all sorts of aliens. I consider all of these to be ‘petting the dog’.
I know some people see petting the dog as a tired joke or a cynical box-ticking feature for marketing, but I still dig it. I’m always here for games adopting new verbs as standard, and especially affectionate verbs. Most of these games already had (or would have) animals, this simply lets us engage with them as we would if we could. The popularity of petting the dog has also let developers justify the cost and effort of putting more art and technology into good-looking animals and cute animations, which is great. If I can’t walk past a cat in the street without trying to pet it, no matter how important my mission is (I have missed so many busses), I don’t know why it should be any different in games.
This one moment of fidelity and affectionate does highlight how unalive and emotionless the rest of a game space might be, and that is strange. But look, if we can flush a toilet and pet a cat, how much more of the human experience remains unsimulated? We’re basically there.
The future of the infobahn, everyone knows, is a 3D virtual realm filled with colourful roaming cubes and tetrahedrons, low-poly giant leering faces, grid lines, vaguely Christian imagery, untextured avatars in fetishwear, chrome skulls, and fire sprites. I appreciate the games which let us enter a fictional cyberspace while we wait for reality to catch up.
For reasons unknown, the first game I think of is cyberpunk vampire adventure game BloodNet, where you occasionally jack into a cyberspace full of floaty shapes, hovering gems, and crystalline dragons. It looks like animated GIFs bouncing around a Litestep desktop wallpaper circa 2001, which is perfect. Or when the murderbabe AI Shodan tries to merge cyberspace and reality in System Shock 2, we enter her realm of clean grid lines with hostile shapes drifting about. That’s especially good coming in contrast to the previous section, set inside the meaty innards of a giant alien organism. More recently, Cyberpunk 2077’s brief deep dives into the Net are nice, with spaces built from glowing point clouds, people appearing as ghostly smeared avatars, wiggly close-up CRT pixel waves, and the mandatory swooshing through a landscape of cubes. Please do tell me about more of your favourite cyberspaces in other games!
I was always impressed by hacking in Dystopia, a multiplayer cyberpunk FPS mod built on Valve’s Source engine. While most players run around shooting each other in corporate offices and city streets and industrial facilities, its hackers duel in cyberspace. Hackers jack into terminals to bounce through a 3D world of neon grids, travelling to servers to hack doors and turrets and such, and fighting enemy hackers with cyberpowers. All the while, their meatspace avatar stands vulnerable at the terminal, making it a powerful cybersecurity move to hunt and assassinate unguarded hackers. Meatspace and cyberspace worked together wonderfully, each bringing new opportunities and threats to the other.
I also enjoyed Saints Row IV riffing on The Matrix by mostly setting the open-world murder simulator inside a janky cyberspace, complete with fake glitches of NPC animations bugging out and warping into the most mangled horrors this side of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Saints Row IV is more simulation than cyberspace but ah gwan, I’ll let you squeeze it in. Plus, you know, it’s still one of the best superhero games, pumping our avatars full of cyberpowers. The in-fiction veneer of entering cyberspace certainly can encourage video games to abandon reality and go wild.
I think I like entering cyberspace so much because it sits at the intersection of old visions of the future and old graphics technology, smooshing two histories together to create a striking new frontier. This feels very cosy in a time when megacorp CEOs inspired by cyberpunk’s cyberspace are attempting to create their personal ‘metaverses’ (still the less cool term) in the worst possible ways (and I’m not just saying that as the author of a soon-to-be-award-winning young adult novel series about saving the future with NFTs). In contrast to the loathsome metaverses of web 3.0, ye olde cyberspace still feels rooted in the good ol’ days of web 1.0. Its cyberstreets are still places of adventure, exploration, potential, and self-discovery. Cyberspace has that fragmented and anonymous vibe of IRC servers, homepages, webrings, in-game identities that are tied to no account and can be changed at will, forums that aren’t all on chuffing Reddit, discovery being personal and exciting because search engines were useless, becoming part of a community on a Quake 2 server (you know you’ve made it when someone tells you the password for when they lock the server at peak hours), and showing your pal a cool digiplace by writing the address on a scrap of paper. Cyberspace remains a dream of a wild frontier we lost long ago. And I’d rather meet a low-poly chrome cherub in cyberspace than Mark Zuckerberg’s dead-eyed digidouble in his metaverse.
But which is better?
While petting the dog is cute, I’d still rather flush the toilet. I bet cyberspace has entire halls of shimmering toilets to flush, probably as a flashy way to delete files or something. Look, we all knew I would say entering cyberspace. And I don’t even like dogs. But what do you think?
Pick your winner, vote in the poll below, and make your case in the comments to convince others. We’ll reconvene next week to see which thing stands triumphant—and continue the great contest.