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Video Game Dogs: From Best Friend to Worst Enemy

The bestest (and ruffest) in gaming.



Video Game Dogs

Dogs are wonderful creatures. They are the only animal to love you more than they love themselves, and have no equal in terms of compassion and companionship. The same is largely true of dogs in video games. Protagonists and player characters often lead lonely lives, journeying from place to place and solving other people’s problems, often with the burden of saving the entire world weighing down on their shoulders. A weight that suddenly feels a lot more bearable when there’s a wagging tail and lolling tongue trotting along beside them every step of the way.

When you get right down to it, these dogs may only really be a handful of pixels and a few lines of code, but when done properly, they feel as real as any made of flesh and bone. And as I’ve only just recently picked up my own lovable little pup (a mini labradoodle named Wednesday, in case you were wondering), my mind has been turning back to all the digital dogs I’ve encountered in my many years of gaming – from the perfect pooches to the hounds from Hell.

Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio - Even Kratos learns to show these tame wolves some love and kindness.
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment – Even Kratos learns to show these tame wolves some love and kindness.

Man’s Best Friend

Dogs of any kind are always a welcome sight in games. Whether they be pixel sprites or fully rendered photorealistic 3D models, background NPCs or full-fledged characters, they are guaranteed to bring a smile to any player’s face. But while simply seeing a dog may lighten your mood, it’s in actually petting them that sees the release of all those feel-good chemicals in a player’s brain. Developers know this, and many go out of their way to ensure players are able to interact with every dog they see. Some even patch the ability in post-launch, while apologizing profusely for the initial oversight. The Last of Us Part 1 even added a trophy for petting Tommy’s dog that wasn’t present in the original version of the game.

Many fans have made it their mission to document such interactions in their favorite games, but none are quite as proficient or dedicated to the task as the mind behind the “Can You Pet the Dog” Twitter page. No longer solely dedicated to man’s best friend, this account is the go-to source for answering that one simple, yet very important, question, and almost every game featuring an animal is featured somewhere in their more than two thousand Tweets.

It’s a shame then when games feature dogs, but don’t let the player interact with them. For example, plenty of lovable hounds can be seen wandering around the villages and settlements of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but there is simply no way for Link to show his love with some good head scritches. Players can, however, befriend the wandering pups by feeding them raw meat and apples. Players who dedicate enough time and energy to their chosen dog may even be rewarded when it leads them to some hidden treasure!

Image: Nintendo - While you can befriend Breath of the Wild's dogs, you can't touch them.
Image: Nintendo – While you can befriend Breath of the Wild‘s dogs, you can’t touch them.

But the true reward comes when games treat dogs as the companions they are truly meant to be. In these games, our lovable canine friends are at the player’s side for every twist and turn, every frantic shootout, every stealthy escape. Sometimes these dogs join the player’s side fully grown, others, they grow and learn alongside the player.

Dogmeat from the Fallout games is a great example of a four-legged companion that outshines all of his two-legged counterparts. Rescue him while wandering the wasteland, and this daring dog will accompany the player anywhere, even fighting alongside them and locating hidden items and loot. The only problem is Dogmeat’s protective instinct can often get him killed, as he’ll rush headfirst into battle, heedless of danger and friendly grenades. Thankfully, Fallout 4 rectified this mistake by making the helpful pooch unkillable. He’s still just as reckless, however.

Image: Bethesda - A look of love before the journey begins.
Image: Bethesda – A look of love before the journey begins.

D-Dog from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain takes the concept one step further. In this game, players find this one-eyed wolf as a defenseless pup whilst out in the field, and if they take pity on him and Fulton him back to base, they can slowly bond with him as he grows up over the course of several in-game days. Once fully grown, DD is the perfect pet for any stealthy soldier. Padding silently alongside Snake, the well-trained wolf can locate enemies from a distance and pick them off one by one without ever making a sound. He can even be trained to carry a knife in his jaws for speedier results. Just make sure to visit him often as a puppy, as like in real life, the growing puppy needs plenty of attention!

Of course, not all dog companions are attack dogs. Some are simply pets, there for the player to return home to each night. Such as the dog in Stardew Valley, or the camp dogs you can buy in Red Dead Online. In fact, the very first thing I did when had unlocked the ability and saved up enough money, was purchase an American Fox Hound for my little camp. He didn’t do much other than sleep and beg for scratches, but seeing his tail wagging every time I returned from a long day of bounty hunting was worth every cent. And in the end, isn’t that just like a real dog?

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain D Dog DD video game dogs
Image: Konami Digital Entertainment

Man’s Worst Enemy

Not all video games portray dogs as the soppy furballs all owners know them to truly be. Sometimes, dogs are vicious. Sometimes, dogs are the enemy. And having dogs as the bad guys can prove difficult for players for two main reasons.

The first is that dogs are nimble creatures. Couple that with the sharp teeth, snapping jaws, and tendency to hunt in packs and most players are in for a bad time. In many games – like the wolves in Assassin’s Creed 3 – these dogs take the Assassin’s Creed approach to combat tactics. Namely, attacking one at a time and allowing the player to easily pick each one off without too much hassle. Then there are the dogs from the Soulsborne games.

These twisted monstrosities not only look scary – with their twisted proportions and mangy fur – but deal some serious damage, especially to early players. The worst part is, their attacks (awful snarling, lunging bites) come at the player with varying speeds and timings, making them unpredictable and frustratingly hard to read in the heat of battle. And, unlike dogs from many other games, they do not care if the player is already being bitten – they will all attack at once if provoked, or (more infuriatingly) stagger their attacks, leaving absolutely no window to counter or escape. Go in unprepared, and these death-dealing dogs of doom will whittle down a player’s stamina and health bars in a matter of seconds.

Image: FromSoftware - Even looking at these hounds from Hell is enough to send a shiver down your spine.
Image: FromSoftware – Even looking at these hounds from Hell is enough to send a shiver down your spine.

The second problem is that, well, they are dogs. They’re supposed to be man’s best friend, sweet and lovable companions, and it can be difficult not to see that side of them, even when they’re tearing at your throat. It can be heartbreaking to be forced to kill something so innocent, something that’s just doing as it’s told, or fighting for its own survival, just like the player is. I remember going out of my way to avoid killing the wild dogs in Fallout 3, simply because they were labeled as dogs, and apologizing any time I was given no choice.

But it gets all the worse the more detailed the character models and the more lifelike the animations. The Last of Us Part 2 is a graphical powerhouse, but its dogs are too realistic for me. Seeing them whilst wandering around the peaceful makeshift city of Jackson at the beginning of the game is wonderful, but it’s something else altogether when you’re forced to kill one with nothing but a switchblade several hours later. Developers Naughty Dog did a fantastic job in making me believe that these were living, breathing creatures, and causing me to wince and look away every time I had to dispatch one in horrible, brutal fashion. Killing people is A-OK. Killing dogs is not.

Image: Sony/Naughty Dog - Petting dogs = fine. Fighting dogs = not fine.
Image: Sony/Naughty Dog – Petting dogs = fine. Fighting dogs = not fine.

Another Kind of Stray

Finally, as brilliant as it is to explore lost kingdoms and irradiated wastes with digital dogs at your side, they’re really aren’t enough games that put the dog in the spotlight.

The success of the indie darling Stray shows that gamers love titles that put their furry friends front and center. And if it works for a cat, why not a dog? Of course, certain things would have to change – the movement for one. Dogs are decidedly less graceful than cats. A game starring a dog probably wouldn’t involve leaping from rooftop to rooftop or slinking along pipes. Dogs aren’t the best climbers, but they are great at running. A dog version of Stray would need wide-open environments that could allow players to pick up some real speed, really feel the wind racing through their fur.

Fetch quests and responding to NPCs in need of help would also make more sense for a dog protagonist. Cats are inherently selfish creatures; dogs love everybody they meet. They better fit the wandering hero archetype we’ve come to see in open-world RPGs like Skyrim and Horizon: Forbidden West – the kind of hero who drops everything they’re doing to help a stranger they’ve just met find a missing saucepan.

Image: BlueTwelve Studio - We've had an adorable adventure about a cat, now where's one about a dog?
Image: BlueTwelve Studio – We’ve had an adorable adventure about a cat, now where’s one about a dog?

A post-apocalypse would, I believe, work best, just like in Stray. As would the technology to translate human/robot speech to something an animal could more easily understand. Such a setting invites ideas of large open plains, scattered with ruins to run through and mutated creatures to avoid, as well as low-built, sparsely populated settlements filled with narrow back alleys to explore and survivors to get to know and love. But whatever this future developer of my dream game decides, just as long they give me the option to chase my own tail (and give me an achievement for catching it), I’ll be happy!

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.