So I really like dogs, right. It even says so on my bio on this stupid website, written long before we ever decided to do #DOGCEMBER. So while there are loads of dogs in games that I love and might yet find time to write about this month, first I want to talk about a dog who is a real arsehole.
I am referring to the mad bin-scouring hound in Contra III on the SNES. He’s a dick.
If you’re playing the game on Easy, which you probably are because this is bloody Contra, he’s not really an issue. You'll notice him as you’re gunning down countless aliens, he’s got his head in a bin and he’s having a right old time eating dirty nappies or licking out the last bits of cream from a discarded supermarket trifle. The latter wouldn’t be an option if it was my bin. I always lick the bowl clean myself with no canine assistance required.
Point is, he's moving, and everything else you've seen up to this point that moves is either you, or something you're supposed to shoot. He's got a bit of a mad face, too - is he an alien dog? A normal dog driven feral by the death of his owners in the alien invasion? Or just a nice doggy who wasn't drawn very well and wasn't meant to look threatening at all? The rad purple mohawk pushes us towards the first option, but still.
He seems a bit startled when you walk near him, and he turns around to look at you with his 'wait is that actually a dog or an evil alien dog' face. You wonder if he’ll attack, but he doesn’t. Just carries on wolfing down chicken bones or whatever. You fire a few shots at him, just in case, but you kind of hope they don't connect because he might still be a nice dog. The shots pass straight through him. Good!
Eventually, you start to be less shite at Contra III, and you figure it’s time to take control of your life and step up to Normal.
You start the game, and you see the dog. "Aye, alien dog," you think. "I know your game. I know you look a bit weird but you just keep on enjoying that week-old corned beef while I shoot the lads."
So you run past him. And before you know it:
The little prick abandons his meal and goes for you. And you, with your countless hours of experience playing on Easy, have no idea how to handle it. You start firing, but he's too low-down for you to hit - you've either got to jump up and shoot downwards at him, or lie down on the ground, impeding your movement when you've got three other guys coming at you. Whether the dog himself gets you, or he makes you panic your way into some other mistake, he is staggeringly reliable at fucking your day up.
He's interesting to me because he reflects the attitudes and experiences of those who have no experience with dogs, or possibly a negative experience of them. I grew up with dogs, so I can 'read' them pretty well - I always know if a dog is trying to tell me to fuck off, and I can usually calm it down. But if you don't have that ability, dogs can seem unpredictable and vicious. It only takes one to glare at you while he's trying to eat his dinner to make you wonder if you're in trouble.
The way the dog initially appears to be set-dressing and then suddenly looks at you as you walk past - that confirmation that he is reacting to your presence - plays into that paranoia perfectly. You hope to have an unspoken agreement with the dog that as long as you walk by and leave him to his meal, demonstrating that you've got no beef with him, he'll leave you alone. The fact that this does initially work until you put the difficulty up plays into that fear and uncertainty perfectly.
There's a steady escalation to the player's paranoia regarding the dog's intent that speaks perfectly to anyone who ever had a dog growl at them and didn't know what to do.
The solution is to spend more time with dogs. Or get better at shooting them :(