PET THE PUP AT THE PARTY Game Review: Stress & Release

When social anxiety strikes, cute dogs strike back.

Anyone who's followed the games coverage here over the last few years knows that if there's one thing I find endearing in video games, it's patting animals. Many of the best games let you pat their animals; many of the worst games don't; and where some might see correlation, I see causation.

Few games, if any, however, make animal-patting their central mechanic. Few, that is, until now.

Pet The Pup At The Party* (available via itch.io) places you, as yourself, at a party in a labyrinthine house full of strangers. But just as you start to feel lost and alone, a distant “arf” alerts you to the probable presence of a nice little dog somewhere in the house. It's up to you to find that dog, and to pat it - before a timer runs out.

The core mechanic of Pet The Pup is simple and maddening. The game timer persists between rounds, with each successful round recouping precious seconds - but given how hard to find the pups can be, you’ll inevitably lose time as you progress. That only helps to make your next search more frantic. Offsetting that: as you find more pups, you unlock them to browse in the game's "good dog gallery" - an impressive roster of 52 pups altogether. Sadly, there’s not much you can do at that point - something like a patting range would have gone a long way - but it’s nice to be able to revisit fond memories.

Finding pups is no random treasure hunt: the game guides players with helpful “arf”s, deployed via advanced directional sound processing (you’ll want to play on headphones). The closer you get, the clearer the sound; get close enough, and you’ll be able to see the “arf” through walls. Personally, though I appreciate the help, I’d like to see modes that jettison the “arf”s - or at least their visual component. Though it’d border on sadism, a full-blown panic mode with no help whatsoever would be the most realistic option.

“Panic” is the operative word. As distressing as the pup-timer is, that's nothing compared to the simple, brutal social anxiety of navigating the party. Your fellow partygoers always face you, their judgemental stares accusing you of not being cool enough, of being an outsider, of not belonging. They eat their pizza, drink their booze, smoke their cigarettes, and strum their stupid guitars like they own the goddamn place, and if you try to speak to them - to enquire as to the whereabouts of a cute pup, perhaps - they unleash only irritated torrents of profanity. Every hallway, kitchen, games room, laundry, living room, bedroom, and dinette is a social minefield between you and your furry quarry. The character sprites might be cartoonish and two-dimensional, but the fear is rendered in HDR, 4K photorealism.

Now, look - I’m more of a cat-patter than a dog-patter. Cats are softer, cleaner, purrier, and more elusive at parties (thus presenting a more tantalising patting opportunity). But patting a dog still fills me with glee, largely due to their variety of character and the comical levels of enthusiasm they display for humans. Pet The Pup At The Party nails the satisfaction of finding a nice pup amidst a sea of boozed-up, "Hallelujah"-singing maniacs. You’ll find them hanging out for scraps in the kitchen, happily bouncing on a bed - and always waiting for you. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

Pet The Pup At The Party is not quite the animal-patting game I would design (that would be Pattin’, a game in which you, the eponymous World War II general, rescue animals from combat zones in order to comfort them). It's not particularly full-featured, either, though patches might be able to remedy that. But that's okay. As an illustration of a very specific aspect of the animal-lover lifestyle, it's pretty spot on. If we had more games like this, the world would be a better place.

* Is it “pat” or “pet”? The BMD staff is divided on this point, with me championing the correct side of the argument, Phil being wrong, and everyone else saying it's either/or. To me, “pet” is a noun, referring to the animal itself; when used as a verb, it's something that always leads to trouble and seat-wetting. “Patting,” on the other hand, is an umbrella term for the entire range of patting techniques: the gentle pat, the hard pat, the stroke, the scratch, the ruffle, and so on. You can also give an animal "a pat" - while giving an animal "a pet" just sounds weird. You goddamn weirdo.

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