Sim-plicity: I am a wolf

Christopher Livingston

The world, right? It's always in peril, always in need of saving. I've answered the call countless times: slaying dragons, fighting armies, battling aliens, banishing demons, assassinating Mecha-Hitler... frankly, I think I'm done. It's time to take a well-earned retirement from saving the world and try to simply live in it. Luckily, there are a number of down-to-earth simulation games that will allow me to do just that.

I'm starting with WolfQuest , a free, downloadable wildlife simulation developed by The Minnesota Zoo and eduweb , which lets you play as a young wolf in Yellowstone Park. The goals: hunt, explore, survive, find a mate, and start a family. And, as this is an educational game, I'll be passing along some interesting and completely true wolf facts to you as I play, unless you've already let out a screech and closed this article the second you saw the words "educational game."

I begin by customizing my wolf's appearance and adjusting its speed, stamina, and strength. When prompted for a name I immediately choose AirWolf, which probably says something about me and how much TV I watched as a kid. As AirWolf, my most pressing need is food, which I can track by scent with my Predator -like vision mode. I follow some smells to find grazing elk, but as it happens, I've set AirWolf's speed slider to the setting that can only be described as Exactly The Same Speed As An Elk . This means I can chase an elk for three solid hours and never actually catch him.

Quest arrows will direct you to the nearest animal's butt.

Luckily for velocity-challenged Airwolf, who is getting annoyed with spending all his time staring at fleeing elk-buttocks, there are plenty of dead elk corpses lying around. Tons of them, in fact: it looks like Corvo Atano has been through here on his way to assassinate the High Elkseer. Unfortunately, it turns out eating dead elk is a challenge as well: to bite something, a tiny "bite" icon has to appear on screen, and I can only get it to appear by sidling slowly up to the corpse from precisely the right angle to precisely the correct distance.

My belly (eventually) full, I'm on to my main objective: tracking down the dastardly serial killer who is murdering all these elk. Wait, no. Tracking down a mate! To do this, I must first visit three different wolf territories and interact with one wolf from each area. After doing some running, resting, catching rabbits, and dining on unending mounds of dead elk, my keen wolf senses pick up the scent trail of another wolf. I follow it until I come across a male, and determined to make the first move, I try to approach him from behind to do some friendly butt-sniffing.

These are either scent markers, or I've entered Pac-Man territory.

The game, however, doesn't allow for such a thing, instead putting us into a conversational face-off, where we can "talk" with body language. The wolf asks me what my deal is, and I can respond aggressively ("I want to be boss"), or submissively ("I'm not boss"), or decide to flee, or wait for him to make a move. Most of the wolves I meet want to be boss, but I kinda don't. Who wants to be boss of the wolves? The hassle of young wolves constantly trying to overthrow you, the responsibility of managing the elk hunting committee, the phone calls, the paperwork... it's a headache I don't need.

"I'd like to apply for the wolf position. My prior experience? Being a wolf."

After visiting each wolf territory, I finally manage to run into a friendly female. I tell her I like her, we play, lick each other's faces, we decide to elope. It's a story we'll tell our grandchildren before eating them because I can't hunt elk worth a damn. I'm prompted to name my mate, and while I intend to call her SheWolf, I find myself typing in SheHulk instead, which probably says something about me and how many comic books I read as a kid.

Now, it's time to find AirWolf and SheHulk a wolf den to live in, to protect us from the elements and to hopefully to give us privacy from the game camera so I don't actually have to sit here watching myself hump a wolf on my computer. The idea is to find a den that is close to a food source, but a safe distance away from other wolf packs. It requires a thoughtful strategy that carefully balances personal safety with hunting convenience, so I just move into the first den I can find. Luckily, it's a den surrounded by dead elk corpses, so we should have plenty of rotting, maggoty meals to sustain us.

Now that I've got a territory, I've got to make sure everyone knows it, which is best accomplished by distributing gallons of urine. I run around lifting my leg all over the place until my territory is marked. Having soaked my new home with pee, it's time to start a family, and thankfully, the game spares me the quivering haunches and thrusting pelvises of simulated wolfsecks, and just tells me four pups have been born. I name our pups Cerberus, Poochie, HulkWolf (after both my mate and I), and leave the fourth pup named as nature intended: Puppy4. My revised goals: hunt food and regurgitate it for them, make sure they don't wander off by picking them up and bringing them back to the den (which also builds a trusting bond), discourage predators by keeping the area around our home ankle-deep in urine, and fight off any persistent invaders.

What follows is one of the most tense, anxious, and frustrating hours in gaming I've ever experienced, as I have to find a way to find and eat dead elk, vomit up food, corral the pups, pursue and attack predators, and piddle over every single square inch of frontier, simultaneously . It's harrowing. No sooner am I running off to find a fresh decomposing elk to gulp down than I get a message that I haven't marked enough territory. I start peeing like crazy and a nosy wolf or coyote shows up, and the minute I chase it off, I get a note that the pups are hungry. I dash off to find more elk corpses and return to see that HulkWolf or Puppy4 has wandered off. While I'm collecting them, I get another notice that I'm way behind on my task of urinating all over the planet. It's like a to-do list filled with vomit, wee, neighboring jerks, and misbehaving children, so, like regular parenthood, pretty much.

No dessert until you finish your vomit! Also, dessert is vomit.

Adding to my stress is the continually twitchy bite icon, which I need to use to pick up my kids, and the equally unreliable vomit icon, which I use to empty my stomach in front of them so they don't starve to death. Thankfully, SheHulk is a huge help. While I am too slow to catch and kill predators, she's a rocket, tracking down and biting encroaching coyotes to death, so I can get back to spraying down the landscape and trying to bite my children properly.

While we've all had days like this, where everything needs to get done at once and so nothing seems to get done at all, rarely does an enormous grizzly bear show up in the middle of it and try to eat part of your family. While I'm busy darting around, frantically barfing and peeing all over the mountain, the bear begins nosing around little Puppy4. I drop everything (everything, in this case, is Poochie, who is dangling from my mouth) and chase after the grizzly. I can't catch him, as once again I am exactly the same speed as my prey, and worse, he's wily. He runs in a straight line while I chase him, leading me far from the den, then executes a hook pattern, taking a long curving route back toward my pups. Meanwhile, I need to rest, which is a nerve-shattering thing to do when you can see a bear running hard for your babies. My only hope is SheHulk, the hunter of the family, but when I get back to the den I see she's stuck inside a log, slowly walking in place. I hope she hasn't passed down her poor pathfinding genes to our kids.

My one mistake: bringing a wolf to a bear fight.

I chase the bear away before he can eat anyone, but he keeps returning. I can't catch him, and every time I leave to fill my stomach for my kids, the bear is back trying to fill his stomach with my kids. With SheHulk still stuck inside a log, I feel like my only option is some sort of grisly truce. Look, bear, I'm a reasonable wolf, and I recognize a stalemate. Let's deal. I will voluntarily give you one of my young, provided you vomit some of him up for the others to eat, or at least piss on a couple acres of mountain for me on your way out .

Sadly, before I can negotiate this reasonable deal, Bear shows up outside our den and just stands there. I move in to attack, getting in one bite before the bite icon vanishes forever, and Bear swipes me into wolf heaven. My last image is of SheHulk, free from her log, walking away. Avenge me, SheHulk. Avenge... m-m-me...

Airwolf died like he lived: with vomit breath in a puddle of urine.

Conclusion : I don't think I want to be a wolf. A wolf's life seems way too busy, too complicated, and is quite vomit-intensive. I enjoyed most of this simulation, though the biting/barfing mechanic needs to work a little better. Frankly, I'm surprised a video game industry titan like The Minnesota Zoo didn't beta test it a little better.

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