Unconditionally on Your Side: A Conversation with J. Bowers

J. Bowers is a fiction writer based out of St. Louis, Missouri, where she is an Assistant Professor of English at Maryville University. Her short stories have appeared in The Indiana Review, StoryQuarterly, Redivider, The Portland Review, and other journals, in addition to being anthologized by Ashland Creek Press, Sundress Publications, and Zoomorphic. When not writing, teaching, or playing video games, she can be found riding her horse.

Before she joined the Cartridge Lit editorial team this year, her essay, “A Horse Draws Near,” appeared in our Unforeseen Consequences Temple Issue. Below, she talks with fellow editor A.A. Balaskovits about the roles of animals in video games, our relationships with humanoid NPCs, and more.

A Horse Draws Nearis so compelling because it highlights the emotional connection between the player, and what is, essentially, a game mechanic. Do you think games are unintentionally creating this tension between the player and their steed, that you can stash it away and forget about it at any time, but it also is so vital to the quest?

Almost every in-game “mount” experience (think Inquisition, Witcher III, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Warcraft, etc.) acts as if the horse is a key part of the adventure, but you don’t need the horse to complete the game, or even to traverse maps efficiently. The mount mechanic is used to create a feeling of vastness, or add to the fantasy or Western aesthetic, but it might as well not exist, apart from a few optional “race” quests. Whether an emotional attachment to the horse develops or not has more to do with the player’s feelings about animals than anything happening in the game itself, which I’ve always found interesting. Of course there are exceptions, such as Shadow of the Colossus, where the subjective connection the player develops to Agro is an integral part of the emotional effect, and also of the gameplay. You need Agro. But that’s so rare to see. They’re usually a game mechanic that you play with a little early in the game, then abandon once fast-travel is unlocked.

Do you feel that the way we treat animals in games is reflective of our real-world view of them? They’re sort of integral to the story at times, but most games have us slaughtering them en masse, especially if we do the crime of triggering their aggression state, such as standing too close to them.

I think there’s definitely a parallel, particularly when you consider how, when there is an animal at the center of the game narrative, they’re either anthropomorphized beyond recognition or relevance to animals (Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Animal Crossing, etc.), or the focus is placed on their surprising humanity, not their animality (Red XIII), or they’re more character accessory than full-fledged character in their own right (Ser Pounce-A-Lot in Dragon Age: Awakenings, Rush in the Mega Man series, Rinoa’s dog Angelo in FFVIII). The division between “friendly” animal and enemy animal is never discussed, and when it is, “friendly” is the exception for most game animals, not the default state. And it doesn’t matter how you (mis)treat a “friendly” animal or a mount: their loyalty is a given, just as the enemy animal’s aggression can’t be tamed, only confronted or avoided. Animals in games are there when you as the player “need” them, conveniently absent when you don’t, yet always summonable at the touch of a button. I think, in a way, that’s humankind’s dream state for animals. We want control without consequence; IRL you see this in people’s willful obliviousness about factory farming, animal testing, puppy mills, and other well-known industrial practices that are harmful to animals (or rather, I see this, not you).

Do you think we do this with our human companions as well? I just finished a second run of Mass Effect and everything you said about the above seems pretty applicable to all of my companions. Same with Fallout 4, except I guess you can agro Garvey if you kill enough settlers. Do you see much of a difference between animal and human companions in games?

I feel like more recent RPGs (Bioware and others) are working hard to simulate a meaningful, real-time relationship that grows between the player and NPC humanoid companions through narrative and interactivity. Because they can’t speak, animal companions aren’t ever given substantial side quests, so there’s not any progression in the player’s emotional connection with NPC animals outside of his/her own imagination. Also, human(ish) companions often “turn” and attack the player based on story choices. Triggering a kill switch by disobeying certain game parameters is, as you mentioned, even an option in games that treat human companions more like items (or talking backpacks, in the case of Fallout 3 and 4, let’s be real here). But I can’t think of any instances where animal NPCs or mounts betray the player or react realistically to poor treatment. Animals are presented as emotionally inert, unconditionally on your side, which isn’t true for most human NPCs. I’d like to see games where players have to earn or develop a rapport with a mount or animal companion in order to unlock extra plot content, or even advance the story.

And you explore this in your own writing as well. Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Hmmm…animals are taking a more ancillary role in the historical novel I’m working on now. There’s a mule and a goldfish in it, but they’re not the “stars” in the same way horses were in the story collection I just finished, where each story centers on an obscure historical horse. I always have animals at the periphery of whatever I write, though—if they’re not characters or there “in person,” they come in through metaphors and the language I instinctively reach for. Even when I think I’m not writing about animals, they creep into the corners.

What game are you playing now / what game are you most looking forward to?

I’m still noodling around with Final Fantasy XV and Stardew Valley here and there, but Horizon: Zero Dawn is downloading on the PS4. I’m really looking forward to Mass Effect: Andromeda, too.