In a video game climate that bends over backwards to assure you the cute little creatures you play as or with cannot be harmed, it was shocking to hear the mother fox’s neck snap in Endling – Extinction is Forever. I was running with my trio of kits, trying to escape the murderous clutches of a furrier when he caught me. I struggled as he held me down before I heard the crack of the bones as the screen went dark, informing me I had failed as a mother and that my cubs were going to die. And while I thought that was a little too much, that kind of unflinching look at the reality of survival in a world ruined by climate change is exactly what the developers were going for.
“We wanted to put everything there,” Javier Romello, CEO of Endling’s developer Herobeat Studios, told The Verge. “Of course we have avoided adding violence or gore just because, but in the real world, these kind of things happens.”
In Endling – Extinction is Forever, you play as a pregnant fox that, after escaping her forest habitat that was destroyed by a rampant wildfire, finds refuge near an area populated by climate refugees. There she gives birth to four cubs, and, as their mother, it’s your job to venture out into the blighted landscape searching for food, avoiding danger, and teaching your cubs the skills they’ll need to survive as the last foxes on the planet.
Endling is really good at creating tension, which is extremely satisfying trying to manage. Early in the game, one of your cubs is stolen. As the days progress with you finding food for your remaining cubs, you pick up the scent trail of your missing one. Scent trails don’t last forever, forcing you to follow them as they appear, but in the meantime, babies still gotta eat.
Foxes are omnivorous and can eat anything from mice and fish to leftover human scraps and berries. But the world you inhabit is a desolate place, and areas where you once found food dry up. One neat thing about the game’s realism is that some food just doesn’t fill your hunger meter all that well, reflecting how climate change can make the food we grow have less nutritional value. I couldn’t find any food save scant bushels of berries that barely filled the cubs’ hunger meter before it got dangerously low again.
I had to search further and further away from my den in hopes of finding something that might keep the cubs full. But I picked up the scent of my missing cub. One of my cubs was starving — if it continued in that state for too long, it would die. I kept looking for food on the same trail as my cub’s scent and found nothing. By the time I finally reached the end of the trail (trails end and can be picked back up after a certain number of days) and could again devote myself to finding food, it was too late. My starving cub had died.
In a cruel twist of fate, my hunger meter filled up after it died. Not because of anything unsavory like cannibalism, but because my other two cubs weren’t as hungry and now I had one less mouth to feed. That’s life for you, baby. In an even worse gut punch, my cubs’ body didn’t dissolve the way dead creatures sometimes do in games to clear up visual clutter. When I revisited that area, its body was still there and when I passed it, my and my cubs’ tails and ears drooped in mourning for our dead family member.
Romello understands that kind of unhappy realism isn’t for everyone. “The name itself is telling you what kind of game it is,” he said. “It’s ‘extinction is forever.’ We are not trying to hide what kind of game we’ve made.”
Romello said that Endling was designed with three pillars in mind: authenticity, meaning the developers wouldn’t allow fox mama to do things a fox wouldn’t do; creating a bond with the cubs — when they’re born you can customize their fur color and face markings, when they’re scared or sad you have to nuzzle them to make them feel better; and an environmental message.
“A huge part of the gameplay was based on [the environmental] pillar, because we wanted the player to feel how the environment would get destroyed by humans.”
Endling tells the wider story of the world in its little moments. As your cubs grow, you’re forced out of one den into another in a dense forest. As time progresses, humans move into that forest and slowly cut it down until, at the end, it’s nothing more than desolate stumps.
But not everything in the game is designed to wreak maximum havoc on your emotions. There are kinder moments. There are humans that sing to you and give you food, and, if you play the game right, there’s a helpful animal friend that plays a big role in one of the game’s endings that I won’t spoil. But Endling isn’t a hopeful tale. There’s no moment at the end where the fox family happens upon some as-yet-unspoiled portion of the world where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort.
“What we are doing is showing you how things are probably going to look in the following 100 years,” Romello said. “We want everyone to think about that, to reflect, to make their own decisions and conclusions, and see if they can do something to change that.”
As much as that moment between the fox and the furrier turned me off, I was forced to reason with myself. The furrier is presented as an evil character. He chases you around, ostensibly to catch and skin you, possibly even to eat you too. But he, like the many humans you encounter in Endling, is just trying to survive, and sometimes, survival means something — yes, even the too-cute-for-words fox family — has to die.
I appreciated that the most about Endling. I sometimes get annoyed with animal-as-a-proxy games and stories. They’re meant to evoke the maximum amount of empathy from the player, as though a human wouldn’t merit or warrant or elicit the same kind of response. It reminds me too much of the particular strain of white supremacy in which my Black human life has less value than my dog’s. When I’m out walking my dog and a neighbor will address him even though he can’t talk, but won’t return my greeting, is it racism? Probably not intentionally. But damn does it feel like it.
It would have been easy for Endling to paint all humans as these wholly vicious creatures while upholding the fox family as moral and virtuous. Instead, Endling paints the picture, “nothing is good or bad when survival is at stake.”
“We have put a lot of effort into trying to make the refugees, which are climate refugees, into survivors,” Romello said. “They will do anything in their power in order to keep surviving in this dystopian future.”
So as much as the furrier is a bastard, I can’t fault him. Nor do I fault Herobeat Games for taking a less-than-hopeful tack with Endling. Nobody’s got time for the feel-good morality play Endling could have been. Shit’s dire now.
“I think it’s very important for everyone to be aware of what may happen,” Romello said. “It’s up to each one of us to decide how we can help save the situation.”
Endling – Extinction is Forever is out now on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.