Everybody loves animals that think they’re people. Seriously, everyone. Think about it. You watched Disney’s Robin Hood when you were little, with the foxes, bears, lions and chickens running about like they’re humans, or the Fievel films with mice and cats wearing clothes and living their lives under the human’s feet. If you’re a bit younger, you watched Zootopia, where a bunny and a fox solved the crimes of the nefarious carnivores in a whole world of human-like animals, or Kung Fu Panda, where a panda learnt kung fu, need I say more?
When something is given the traits of a human like this, we call it anthropomorphism. An anthropomorphised animal (usually a character within a media source) has some combination of human traits, speech, mannerisms, or body shape. Sometimes they wear clothes. Anthropomorphising animals has roots far back into mythology. Think about the hieroglyphics you learned about in school; Anubis, god of the dead with the head of a dog or Horus with the head of an eagle. The Chinese Zodiac features twelve animals who can talk and compete. Some modern religions like Hinduism, have many gods sporting the heads of elephants, monkeys etc.
Fast forward and throughout the twentieth century we’ve had Brer Rabbit, Paddington and Beatrix Potter the writer of Peter Rabbit and 50 other animal stories. Animal Farm, Watership Down, the Animals of Farthing Wood were allegorical tales using animals as a proxy for humans in order to explore human nature rather than animal and are often cited as the beginning of its more modern age.
So its safe to say we’ve always had them.
But anthropomorphism is experiencing something of a renaissance. It’s always simmered below the surface with sporadic releases featuring animals in the human roles, however the resurgence I’m talking about really began about five years ago with Bojack Horseman. Bojack is a critically acclaimed Netflix property that has just finished a six-season run, quite a feat for a series about an alcoholic and drug-addled former sitcom star with a horse’s head. Many other characters on the show are animals, including Princess Caroline, a feline movie agent, and Mr Peanutbutter, Bojack’s dog-headed frenemy.
The success of the show has captured the imagination of media creators all over, suddenly getting the green-light for their strange animal stories in its wake. Zootopia, The Lion King and the Jungle Book remakes all suddenly released from Disney where they hadn’t had an anthropomorphised animal release in a decade previous. There’s more on Netflix with an anthro anime series called Beastars, which you should check out. And even mainstream money-makers like the MCU are happy to take a chance on a character like Rocket the Raccoon.
And this renaissance is nowhere clearer than in gaming. Gamers love a metaphor and exploring and accepting the weird and the wonderful. We have a long and proud tradition of anthro characters throughout gaming’s rich history. It’s been rife in platforming for decades – Donkey Kong, Gex, Crash Bandicoot, Sonic, Spyro, Ratchet, Daxter, Banjo, Sly – the list goes on and on. There’s entire franchises such as Starfox, Animal Crossing and Kingdom Hearts that use anthros extensively.
In the last few years, the number of announced and released games featuring or entirely centred around Anthro characters has jumped considerably, enough that at least one will be on everyone’s radar. Already released gems include the poignant and emotional Night in the Woods in 2017, the tactical RPG Mutant Year Zero in 2018, the 2D Metroidvania Ori games in 2015 and 2020, cat detective tale BlackSad in 2019, and most recently of all the life-stealing Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Blacksad and Night in the Woods are good examples or the current trend. They move away from the platforming anthropomorphic characters of our childhoods and into the 2020s realm of adult narratives. Those of us who grew up on the well-known franchises are now late millennials and we want our Anthros to grow up with us, like Bojack. They are becoming relatable to adults as well as children. Hard-boiled detectives who just happen to be cats, space-faring monkeys, killers with the faces of cute mammals.
Anthros are back and better than ever, and these five games feature them heavily and are hopefully just over the horizon.
Developed by a little indie team called Egg Nut, Backbone is a side-scrolling 2D pixelart noir detective tale (that’s a mouthful) starring Howard Lotor, a Raccoon private-eye. From what’s we’ve seen so far, the game has some beautiful atmospheric pixel-art graphics, evocative of 1940s seedy inner-city brothels, theatres and dark alleys. Expect a very narrative-driven game with a huge amount of freedom in dialogue options, and gritty urban story of murder, sex, gangsters and anthros. It’s got a little bit of the flavour of a point and click adventure too, with plenty of Chandleresque inner monologue about items and broads alike.
In my time with the demo, which is still available on Steam for the next few days, I tracked a cheating Otter spouse to a sleazy dog-n-cat nightclub, got kicked out by the bear bouncer, and had to find a completely alternative way back in. That’ll teach me to choose the smartass answers, but it also shows a game that is complex and full of freedom to explore other routes to your goal. We can’t wait.
The most well known of the bunch, Beyond Good and Evil 2 from Ubisoft is a prequel to their 2003 game of the same name, and leans heavily into Anthros across its ambitiously enormous world. This is promising to be a huge game, spanning multiple planets, spaceships, races and cities. It’s an action adventure RPG that Ubisoft claim will take you from a rough start as a pirate to commanding your own vessels, participating both in hand-to-hand combat and space battles as you go.
Anthros feature as hybrid slaves, animals gifted enough intelligence to work, but not enough to question their human overlords. Of course, some rebel and escape including the lovable space monkey that most will have seen on the trailer two years back. BGAE2 has unfortunately been plagued by development hell. Work began back in 2007, was delayed for Rayman Origins (that’s great though) and is supposedly back on track as of 2018. We await further information.
Developed by THQ Nordic, the team famous for the Darksiders and Red Faction games, Biomutant is described as a post-apocalyptic open-world Kung-fu RPG with unique combat and from the trailers looks to be heavy on platforming of the Zelda variety. It’s got a fantastic Horizon: Zero Dawn vibe in the remnants of a past civilisation peppering the landscape and used as tools and weapons as well as in its robotic drone companions.
The star of the show is a sort of half cat/half raccoon hybrid, who is a dab hand with a shotgun and a very large Final Fantasy style sword. Not all animals seem to be intelligent in the same way in this one, as there have been videos of riding jellyfish, birds and bat-like creatures and well as influencing other animals to help you complete quests. This is one kung-fu anthro adventure we are looking forward to with anticipation.
Detectives again for this one, but further back into the roaring 20s. Indie team Cave Monsters have created a point and click adventure in true Monkey Island style with a witty script, puzzles to solve and a mystery to get to the bottom of. It has a lovely hand-painted art-style that gives it a unique storybook feel. The detectives in question are Lord Winklebottom, gentleman giraffe and his hippo companion Dr Frumple and the plot revolves around a mysterious invitation to an isolated island for our heroes resulting in a closed room Agatha Christie murder mystery.
A few weeks back we had Charlotte Sutherland from Cave Monsters on our podcast, talking about the origins of Lord Winklebottom Investigates, you can have a listen right here.
Described rather beautifully as a cosy management game about dying by its developers Thunder Lotus, Spiritfarer puts you in the shoes of Stella, the ferrymaster of the deceased, giving the last voyage into the ever after to a lovely cast of animal spirits. This is not some dark underworld; Spiritfarer is lush with colour, hand-drawn animated sprites and a beautiful watercolour inspired art-style.
Construct your own ever-evolving ferry and befriend and care for the spirits on board. You will need to farm, mine, fish, cook, and craft in a peaceful and vibrant management game filled with emotional stories and poignant moments. We hope Spiritfarer will be the type of game an Animal Crossing/Harvest Moon type player could easily get lost in, because let’s face it, that’s what we want. It’s also a game about grief and we hope the developers manage to do justice to their unique and difficult subject matter.
Animals can be a wonderful foil for humans to process emotion; it’s one of the reasons anthropomorphism began in the first place. Whether its poignant games about grief dealt with using animals, seedy detective tales about our darker animal natures, or science fiction ideas about giving animals human intelligence, these stories look at the human condition by using animals as a mirror by which we see ourselves reflected.
These five are just the tip of the iceberg, and we hope there are many more to come. What could the future hold for Anthros in gaming? Final Fantasy 7 Remake will enter its second and third outings in coming years – the biggest games on the planet – and they feature not one but two anthros, Red XIII and Cait Sith. The success of the five games mentioned above, and the next chapters in the FF7 Remakes franchise could well mean we need to extend the renaissance further.
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