Though they’re almost as old as home consoles themselves, pet simulators have rarely explored their full potential. Some work well on a mechanical level, like the NES’s A Boy and His Blob, which has players solve puzzles by exploiting their gelatinous companion’s shape-shifting abilities. Other games, like those of the Nintendogs franchise, focus on the day-to-day care of a pet. But whether the final goal is conquering a complex puzzle or raising an animal into a prize-winning paragon, videogames generally make no attempt to explore the emotional side of such relationships.
Perhaps that’s why a 14-year-old relic named Secret of Evermore is quite possibly still the benchmark for games that wish to capture the bond between humans and their animal companions. Evermore‘s teenage protagonist and his dog look out for each other and never abandon one other, no matter what the boy’s pragmatism might suggest or what the dog’s instincts compel him to do. By stressing the equality of pet and human and encouraging both parties to rely on one another, the game delivers a very simple statement in a powerful way: Pets shape their masters even as they are shaped by them.
Evermore‘s narrative highlights this theme of mutual reliance. The game tells its story almost solely through the interaction between the boy and his dog. It is the dog’s curiosity that propels the two protagonists into the world of Evermore and the boy’s concern for the dog which provides a reason to explore. At no point does either hero place his own wellbeing ahead of his friend’s; whenever separated, their top priority is reuniting with each other rather than trying to escape on their own. Most crucially, they are not compelled to act because the fate of the world rests in their hands, but rather because of their love for each other.
In one particularly striking scene that suggests the real world legends of dogs that travel vast distances in search of their master, the boy crosses an entire desert on a vague rumor pointing to his friend. During his journey the game intermittently cuts to his dog, who is trying to escape a palace in order to reunite with his friend. Though a larger plot develops around this scene, the game devotes more time to the juxtaposition between the boy and his dog as they each make sacrifices to rejoin one another.
Evermore‘s visuals likewise heighten the pair’s kinship. Most obvious is the dog’s appearance, which dramatically changes each time the duo explore a new region of Evermore. First adopting the form of feral wolf in Evermore’s prehistoric region, the dog subsequently finds himself a classical greyhound, a Gothic poodle and, finally, a Jetsons-era techno beast. But despite these drastic cosmetic transformations, the boy is always able to recognize his friend at once.
This doesn’t mean the boy never worries about his friend: If separated from the dog for too long, he starts pacing, looking off into the distance and even shaking his head – no doubt to dispel some terrible scenario he’s imagined. The dog expresses similar concerns when apart from his master for too long: He whimpers, sniffs feverishly at areas his master recently visited and even howls when all seems hopeless. Whatever the situation, his inability to speak does not prevent him from expressing his distress fully.
While these touches might seem sentimental, they succeed at stirring up emotions in players because of how straightforward they are. Just as it is heartbreaking to watch an actual dog wander around a city in search of his master, so too is it distressing to watch the boy’s dog scrape around, sniffing pitifully for his missing friend’s scent. Likewise, it is hard not to feel empathy for the boy as he earnestly questions the clueless locals, his desperation recalling the missing pet posters that adorn city light poles.
Their relationship does not stop with the game’s narrative – it has a crucial role in the way Evermore actually plays as well. In both combat and exploration, the central modes into which the game is divided, the boy and his dog are as interdependent as a musher and his team. While the boy can handle himself in a physical confrontation, it is only because of magic; the dog is far stronger and far hardier, needing his master only for healing and support. However, each requires the other to constitute a real fighting force.
The two assist each other similarly in traveling: the dog is able to sniff out and navigate hidden passages off limits to his friend, but only his master can operate the machines necessary to progress through the world of Evermore. When paired together, these unique abilities allow players to solve particularly complicated puzzles. By forcing the player to manage both characters in tandem and with equal attention, the game brilliantly expresses the equal nature of their relationship.
It is not a perfect relationship, as a number of difficulties plague this duo. Like it or not, the dog is still a dog. If combat becomes particularly hectic, the dog may get scared and retreat. In fact, if you are not attentive to your companion’s health and forget to buff him regularly, the dog might grow scared of combat altogether and run away at the first hint of danger. When frustrated enough he will even try to break away from you, hiding behind rocks to slow your progress. At other times he may become distracted by a particularly canine longing despite more pressing matters: Certain spots of ground must be dug up, and some smells absolutely require investigation.
This behavior can be frustrating, but it accurately portrays how a real dog might act. Treat them badly and they will become quarrelsome, if not hostile; let them find something that catches their interests and they’ll take after it with abandon. But in spite of these quirks, dogs are invaluable companions. Capricious as they might be in laxer moments, frantic as real danger might make them, they will complete the course and defend their master because, more than anything, they trust him to take care of them. The sentiment is the same in Evermore: When the boy is in mortal danger, the dog will drop everything and return to the fight with renewed fervor. He and the boy are comrades, no matter the hardships they endure, and so they will look after each other to the bitter end.
Evermore is simply one of the best games at capturing the emotional core that exists in a healthy bond between people and their pets, yet few games since have tried to replicate this experience. Though far from perfect, the methods it uses to suggest this core relationship give the duo a quiet dignity that modern pet simulators lack. For all of its failures on other levels, it succeeds so well in such a novel category that its place in the annals of design history should be assured. Surely, it deserves a second glance – at least then some new dogs might learn an old trick.
Austin Price is a freelance writer and the author of the webcomic Garage Raja. Currently studying English at Centenary College of Louisiana, he divides his time writing, reading and squeezing in the odd videogame.