itch.io. You know, itch.io? The website/shopfront which has in the past two years become the de facto home of stylish, expressive, and usually extremely personal independent games. A site with a hyper-curated front page, proudly showing off a range of subversive experiments which straddle the line between playthings for 20-somethings and interactive conceptual art pieces. Where new talents like Robert Yang have made names for themselves. Take a look right now if you’re unfamiliar. You’ll get the gist of it. It’s gaming’s very own Greenwich Village.
Well, almost. For months now, the most popular game on itch.io isn’t some visual tour-de-force incorporating procedural technology to catapult interactive storytelling into new heights, nor is it a metaphor for the developer’s struggles with chronic mental illness masquerading as a finely tuned twin-stick shooter. No, the most popular game on itch.io, according to the raw numbers of user purchases, is WolfQuest, an edutainment game where you live the life of a wild wolf. You do wolf things, like hunt, raise pups, and piss on trees. There’s a lot of repetition and watching bars fill up. It looks a bit like all those games that were rushed out the door when World of Warcraft was released in 2004, in terms of both its visual style and its rudimentary gameplay. Identikit trees refuse to sway in the wind as drably textured elk gallop unconvincingly over flat landscapes.
WolfQuest, despite having received no discernable press coverage or accolades of any kind, is seriously popular. It’s more popular than Void & Meddler, a beautiful adventure game with a coked-out cyberpunk aesthetic. It’s even more popular than Dr. Langeskov, the Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald, a game that is not only completely free but stars the actual, real Simon Amstell, a man who was once worshipped as a kind of Supreme Hipster King, via a bizarre ritual once known as Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Dr. Langeskov got a lot of press, even, and Simon Amstell is the snarkiest man of them all! That’s right up itch.io’s street! WolfQuest still overwhelms it in sheer numbers. Order every game on itch.io by popularity, and it’s right there at the top.
The entire itch.io project, in its endeavor to give a platform to the fringe, artsy side of independent gaming, is undone by a simple truth, the kind of homespun internet folklore that’s toughed it out since the young days of dial-up:
A lot of people on the internet are obsessed with wolves, and will happily pay $10 for any experience which allows them to pretend to be wolves with other people who are also on the internet.
Or is that all there is to it? Seeing WolfQuest there, its clumsy logo sat precariously atop the itch.io download rankings, I found myself consumed with curiosity, or at least, self-smug pretention. I had to see this game, if only to sneer at its fudditude. Time to light a candle atop the Buzzcocks shrine (a first-gen iPad playing that clip of Preston being laughed offstage, looping forever, unyielding) and summon forth my inner Simon Amstell.
I boot up WolfQuest. A 3D wolf howls as the game updates itself. When the process completes, there’s this little twang of an acoustic guitar, bluesy, but also warped and abrasive. It feels kind of charming, in fact. This could be a problem for the article, I think, as I see the readings on my smarm-o-meter begin to drop.
I jump into a game. The mode I have chosen is ‘Pack Life’, which compels me to hum Blur lyrics as it loads. Plus one to the smarm-o-meter. When the game is loaded, there’s a prompt warning not to engage in any funny business online. Don’t be rude, don’t be creepy, and don’t break the immersion of living the life of a majestic wolf for other players. Well, okay. That’s also kind of charming. The smarm-o-meter begins to cool down.
I create my wolf. The editor lets me customize his appearance, as well as a few stats. I decide to defy the laws of nature by giving him a rather serious looking limp but dumping all my points into ‘speed’. After spending an hour trying to think of an oh-so-clever name, the story of BarkTwain finally begins.
Initially it’s, uh, yeah. One of those games. It has more keyboard controls than most flight simulators (‘V’ for scent view! ‘P’ to piss on things! ‘H’ to howl!), and most of the buttons only actually make some number, bar, stat or score go up.
As far as I can tell, I have to go hunting? I think? I follow a mysterious marker on the map, and BarkTwain sprints across the lifeless vista (on only 3 legs, no less!). There isn’t much to do besides hold down the ‘W’ key at this point. Most popular game on itch.io, I think to myself.
I reach the elk hunting ground. There’s another nice guitar twang and a prompt telling me to slam my real human finger onto the ‘Scent View’ key, which I do. It brings up a first-person Terminator mode that kind of surprises me. ‘Scent View’. Wind direction needs to be taken into account to track the elk herd, and the scent trails of other animals make it even more difficult. Could this game have… depth?
It is at this point that a bona fide wolf person appears in my game. Another actual player. I try to bring up the chat, but it turns out you can only use set phrases from predefined categories. Most of the options just communicate game objectives – location names or in-game verbs, but scrolling through them I find myself smiling with affection. One of the phrases is ‘I know you from the forums!’, another is ‘Stop running off!’. And then there’s the ominous, bone-chilling ‘Don’t drown pups.’ I whisper a faint ‘Sorry’ to Simon Amstell. I have nothing cruel to say.
So the other player and I do Wolf Stuff for a while. You know how it is. We hunt elk. We eat their carcasses. We press the ‘howl’ button a bunch. They even lead me to an overlook, where we both sit and watch the low-res skybox hang over the world. At one point, more wolves join us. We run around, hunt elk, and everyone presses the ‘howl’ button even more.
In hindsight, I found the game dreadful. But you could see, even through the wafer-thin gameplay and clunky controls, that the wolf people, with their serious-sounding wolf names, like ‘Luna’ or ‘Shadow’, seemed really into it. Just before I logged out, the whole pack led me off to some corner of the map, where we found a little campsite. Everyone sat round the campsite, and, you guessed it, pressed the ‘howl’ button a bunch.
Who was I, with my hipster snarl and overdeveloped sense of ‘good taste’, to make a mockery of this?
In the coming days, I put a little more time into WolfQuest. There’s another mode where you find a den, settle down, and raise some pups. But because BarkTwain had all his stats in speed, he wasn’t strong enough to take down elk on his own. Another player joined, and helped me set up the den, but she jilted me as soon as our pups were born. Other players would join the game, immediately notice BarkTwain, deadbeat dad, failing to provide for his family, and leave instantly. I am not a wolf person, I thought. This might not belong on itch.io, but I might not belong here.
It’s not that WolfQuest is a bit too shit for itch.io, even though it feels like something you’d find on an aging secondary school computer, something you’d only find fun because you take what you can get when on lunch break. It’s that WolfQuest is a bit too earnest. And maybe that’s just it. Where itch.io’s other offerings wink at their audience, indulging in self-reference because they know that you know that they know what’s really going on, daddy-o, with a wry smile and lashings of cultural context to be repurposed, derided, nudged at, WolfQuest is a game without allusion. You will learn how wolves hunt, how wolves raise their young, and why they piss on trees. Give us your tenner and you will get to be a wolf on the internet.
Sorry itch.io, but the number of people who want to explore an intersectional masterpiece using the unique narrative space offered by the medium of games to unpack personal stories of past trauma is vastly outweighed by the number of people who just want to be a wolf on the internet. Even via a shopfront like yours, explicitly put together to celebrate the elaborately artsy. There was a time where the very thought of that would make me angry, a damning incitement on culture writ large. I guess things are different now. Now, I’m just happy that the wolf people have a place where they can piss on things and press the ‘howl’ button a bunch, till their lupine hearts’ content.