I have a confession to make. I have never played a management sim, and honestly never intended to. I’m more of a run-and-gun, yell loudly, curse-at-my-screen-when-I-lose type of person. So when I was scheduled to play Planet Zoo at Gamescom, I was sceptical that building and maintaining animal enclosures would deliver quite the same rush as flanking and wiping out a whole enemy team. All I knew was that I liked animals and that I was willing to give it a try. I was ready to embark on a journey to be the best zoo manager, builder, architect, and animal looker-after-er I could possibly be.
That journey begins with my introduction to Fearn Hilborn, senior artist at developer Frontier, and the person who will soon become my Holy Grail of zoo information. She informs me that there is a rhinoceros called Ryaan rampaging through our zoo, and I need to help him out.
So after getting to grips with the camera (which, coming from an FPS background, took me a lot longer than I thought humanly possible), I find Ryaan chasing crowds of people around the park. He seems to be having fun, but I’ here on official zoo business and he’s scaring the guests. Something has to be done.
I place a few zookeepers to sedate him, pack him up in a little box, and take him carefully back to his habitat. After fixing the gap in the fence I sit back and consider my new rhinoceros friend – flicking his ears, swishing his tail. It feels good to have him safe inside. I’m starting to get why people enjoy this: I, too, want to protect my animals, and for them to be happy in this world I’ve created.
I am now on a mission. Who else isn’t living their best life in my zoo? I turn to Fearn (heh), who tells me to find a gharial crocodile (a critically endangered fish-eating species of crocodile) who goes by the name of Rishi, and to check the water in his enclosure as it is getting pretty dirty. “That is unacceptable”, I find myself muttering.
After more lengthy negotiation with the camera, it finally agrees to reveal Rishi resting next to a water sprinkler. “I bet the sprinkler has clean water in it”, I grumble to myself, ashamed that my zoo has failed this beautiful scaly beast. I move the camera below the waterline to get a sense of the contamination in which Rishi is forced to swim, and on a murkiness scale of one to ten it is a solid nine.
Okay; that is not good.
I am advised to buy a water filtration system and place it nearby to clean the surrounding areas. I pop it down, wondering how long it will take: ten seconds? 30 minutes? A day? I’m beginning to realise how much I don’t know about games like this, but I’m willing to learn.
Some time later I return to Rishi wondering how he’s getting on, half expecting to see a dehydrated crocodile looking at me with sad eyes as if to say ‘how could you leave me this way Caroline, you arsehole?’. But instead I find him swimming in crystal clear water, clearly having the time of his life. Is that a smile I see on his face? A grin from one side of his huge toothy jaws to the other? Probably not – that’s probably just how toothy creatures like crocodiles look – but I swear I can feel his glee through the screen.
It has happened. I have really started to care for these creatures, and that’s by design. Love of animals, and the desire to impart it to the player, runs through Planet Zoo at every level. For numbers nerds there is a dedicated welfare tab brimming with stats to keep you informed of how your animals are doing.
But the care I feel doesn’t originate from quotas to hit, or from the well-being percentage charts I aim to turn green in order to satisfy my minor compulsive tendencies. It instead stems from the animals themselves, and from their wonderful models and animations. From the feelings I gauge in their eyes, to the way their fur picks up in the breeze, to how they interact with the environment and each other – it’s as if they are fully autonomous beings.
So am I now going to go forth and build the most spectacular zoo the world has ever seen? Probably not. Will Frontier call me to star in a YouTube video titled ‘how Caroline shocked us all with this incredible feat of zoo engineering and management’? Definitely not. I’ll be starting small, spending most of my time just looking at the fluffy critters (assuming I can train my camera skills beyond amateur level). But most importantly I’ll be making sure my furry friends are happy. Because while I may not be able to build the most impressive zoo, I can be damned sure I’ll have the happiest animals, and to me that’s all that matters.