One of the fundamental truths of 21st Century society is that you are always being watched. Every key press is logged. Every purchase entered into a ledger at a nameless data mining corporation (or government spy agency if there is even a difference between governmental and corporate surveillance in this day and age). And more than likely there is a camera somewhere right now capable of watching you. I would say it would be easy to become paranoid under these conditions, but I’m not certain that the word “paranoia” has any validity or meaning in a reality where everything you do is being detected and inspected*. Paranoia isn’t a state we can can enter anymore, paranoia is the air that we breathe and as such has ceased to have any meaning. We all exist in a global panopticon never quite sure if we are being observed or by whom, but we do know that every single moment the possibility exists that we are being watched and probably by weirdos. Sweaty men sitting in darkened rooms (or government/nameless corporate offices) lit only by the glow of their computer monitors watching as you put on your socks in the morning unaware that the camera on your electronic coffee maker is unsecured. They get out a yellow notebook and write down “left first – then right” and move on to the next camera. Anyone who isn’t paranoid in this situation is probably a sociopath unable to even comprehend the basics of modern life. This is REALITY. This is also Do Not Feed the Monkeys by Fictiorama Studios.
Do Not Feed the Monkeys is one of my favorite games of the last few years because it combines my paranoid world view** with my love for LucasArts style adventure games with a healthy dose of actual real humor. It is a game unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and that, my friends, is why I do this.
The whole conceit of DNFTM is that you are one of them weirdos who watches people and makes notes about other peoples’ socks. You live in a dingy apartment and have access to a application that lets you watch feeds from unsecured video cameras from around the world. Some feeds are simply of nameless assembly lines or microwaves or other mundane tableau, but others are more interactive. Some of the feeds (“cages”) have people (“monkeys”) that you can observe and take notes about. Your notes generate search terms that you can put into a search engine to learn more about the situation in the cage. A shadowy organization will occasionally contact you offering cash for information (“what is the address for cage #4?”) or you can use your notes to manipulate and blackmail people (“feed the monkeys”). Obviously the name of the game is “DO NOT Feed the Monkeys” and your are warned about interacting with your subjects too much but it’s really hard not to when you know you could get away with it.
And that, I think, is the true genius of DNFTM. It is always presenting you with the option to cross the line between the observer and the observed. This is some Foucault Discipline and Punish type of next level smart game writing here. Where even at the digital distance created by computers there is still a relationship between the viewer and the viewed. And once you start interfering? What are you then? You become more like a jailer than a silent watcher, and you are changed.
The other aspect of DNFTM game-play is some basic life management. You can’t just sit and watch your computer all day as addictive as it is. You need to eat, sleep, and make money for rent and food. You can make money by solving puzzles and blackmail, but you’ll need to take time to do some menial jobs. Ideally you’ll time these so that you don’t miss anything important in your cages, but if you time it wrong you can render puzzles unsolvable. Does that make you paranoid? It should! You also have to purchase and balance your intake of food. Too many pizzas and your health will suffer, but healthy food is harder to procure and more expensive. Also, you need a lot of coffee. Ultimately, I didn’t find the management sim parts of DNFTM as engaging as the puzzle solving, but on the other hand, the sim portions serve to flesh out the world and make your whole experience seem more real. Again, if nothing else, this isn’t something I’ve seen before and I love DNFTM for that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great LucasArts inspired art style. Anyone who played Sam & Max Hit the Road or Indian Jomes and the Fate of Atlanta back in the day will recognize the 90s PC pixel art style. The art is simultaneously well done and references games that tell my brain that “there are puzzles to solve here and I must solve them”. There is also a robust soundtrack ranging from classical to slow old country tunes to Russian folk songs. The music is both incongruous and completely appropriate and had me nervously laughing multiple times during my play-through.
Laughing brings me to my final point. Which is that DNFTM is one of the funniest games I have ever played. So many little humorous touches are all over DNFTM. The morning newspaper has funny stories. Weird people come to your door with hilarious dialogue. Again, the LucasArts influence can be felt keenly here making me think of Secret of Monkey Island***** and such. With the humorous writing set against the pure absurdity of what you’re doing in the game, I was laughing through much of my play-through. That isn’t easy, and much respect to the writers here.
Do Not Feed the Monkeys isn’t a perfect game, but it is a great game. I have minor issues with some of the aspects of the game (the puzzles are somewhat inconsistent in quality and I found the life sim underwhelming) but it is much more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s a little bit jank, but it feels like it should be. It’s real. It’s creative. It’s beautiful. It’s unique. And somewhere someone is watching you play it and making notes on your progress in a yellowed notebook in the most meta of meta-game imaginable.
*But never rejected. No. It will be saved and used by someone for something at some point in the future. We are incapable of forgetting anymore. No forgiveness with out forgetfulness.
**Once again, I submit that I am not paranoid***. It is you who is not paranoid enough.
***I also feel like I should shout out to the old West End pencil and paper RPG classic Paranoia. Which is one of my favorite games of all time and did a lot to influence both how I run games and what I want to see from other games. Basically a combination of narrative freedom with crushing brutal consequences for that freedom. Hit me up if you fancy a game sometime.
*****Which is a connection I somehow didn’t make until writing that sentence. Derp.