Just about everyone in the gaming world (and their cats) are enjoying cyberpunk-meets-kitty-cat video game Stray, but it’s not the only game that lets you play as a realistic animal. The sub-genre dates back to the early days of gaming and includes all kinds of animals, from mischievous geese and terrifying sharks to helpless badgers.
Below are my 13 favourite games with semi-realistic animal protagonists. I left off games with overly anthropomorphized heroes like Sonic the Hedgehog and his ilk — those are basically people in animal suits, the furries of the gaming world.
Untitled Goose Game (2019)
In this delightful game, the player is a goose in a picturesque, peaceful village. Like real geese, you are a right bastard. Your missions inevitably include wrecking everything, sowing disorder, and bedeviling everyone you meet — plus honking. The contrast between Goose Game’s twee, hand-drawn look and wistful piano soundtrack and the senseless chaos of your goose antics is hilarious.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, macOS, Microsoft Windows
Shelter is a survival game set entirely in the wilderness. You are a humble badger trying to feed and protect your five cubs in a pitiless world. You don’t have magic powers, a gun, or anything else beyond your drive to protect the ones you love. In other words, this game will make you cry. In Shelter’s sequels, you’ll cry over the deaths of baby lynxes and elephants, too.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Macintosh operating systems, Classic Mac OS
Tokyo Jungle (2012)
If playing as a single animal isn’t enough for you, check out Tokyo Jungle, where you can embody the whole damn zoo. In this one-of-a-kind game, Tokyo has been abandoned by humans, leaving zoo escapees and domesticated animals to fight over the scraps. There are over 50 animals you can play as, from beagles to hyenas, with each section of the main game putting a new species in the spotlight.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Endling — Extinction is Forever (2022)
Endling puts you in the skin of the last remaining mother fox on earth. Your task is to protect your four cubs and, by extension, your entire species. Like a real fox, you’ll have to hunt for food while avoiding predators, natural hazards, and the dangers from humans, who are obliviously working to destroy what’s left of the planet. It’s not an uplifting game by any measure — especially when all your efforts aren’t enough to save your precious babies — but it looks beautiful and is actually about something.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Shark attacks are the perfect subject for an asymmetrical multiplayer game. In Depth, one player is a great white shark, and four others are human divers, aka lunch. There are more humans and they have guns and other tools, but the shark is in its element — it can swim faster and farther, use sonar to track enemies over distance, and chew anyone apart with its powerful jaws. Overall, a classic confrontation.
Platform: Microsoft Windows
The original realistic animal game, Frogger wowed your grandparents when it hit arcades in 1981. In it, you pilot a frog across a busy highway and a crocodile and log-filled river in order to reach your frog home at the top of the screen. Like real frogs, you end up roadkill most of the time. Unlike Centipede, there are no unrealistic elements like missiles in Frogger. It’s just pure frog action.
Platform: Arcade cabinet, ports/clones on just about every system imaginable
Away: The Survival Series (2021)
Away: The Survival Series has its problems, but it’s such an interesting concept I had to include it. The idea of this kickstarter-funded indie title is to combine the vibe of nature documentaries with a video game, so a velvet-voiced narrator is your constant companion throughout Away. You play as a sugar glider trying to survive in a hostile world. Luckily, all the humans are already dead, so you’ll only have to contend with hunger, environmental dangers, and other animals, including the vulture who stole your mother.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 5
Ecco the Dolphin (1992)
Ecco the Dolphin’s plot, in which an alien invasion is thwarted by a courageous dolphin, isn’t very realistic, but the mechanics and gameplay are true to the dolphin-ness of the titular character. You won’t survive if you don’t come up for air, for instance, just like a real dolphin, and your special actions include dolphin stuff like using sonar and ramming enemies. If you’re nostalgic for the old days of punishingly difficult 2D platformers with maddening control problems, go back in time with Ecco the Dolphin or one of its four sequels.
Platforms: Game Gear, Sega Genesis, Xbox 360, Game Boy Advance, MacOS, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, iOS, Linux
Spirit of the North (2019)
In Spirit of the North, you play as a tiny fox in the frozen wastes of Iceland. Your unremarkable life is irrelevant to everything else on Earth until the guardian of the Northern Lights reveals your true purpose, and grants you the ability to fight the world’s corruption by releasing the spirits of the dead from their eternal prison — just like real foxes do.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 5
OK, the main character of Okami is the goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf, not an actual wolf, but I couldn’t make a list of animal-based video games without including this absolute classic. Told through visuals that look like Japanese ink-paintings and steeped in Shinto mythology, Okami is a one-of-a-kind game, even if real wolves generally don’t fight with swords and magic spells.
Platforms: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Wii, Xbox One, Windows
Bear Simulator (2016)
If your idea of a good time is hanging around in a forest doing bear stuff, Bear Simulator will be your game of the year. Your bear adventure begins when you’re a little cub. You’ll have to find food, explore your world, build a den, and face off against other animals to survive. I realise that actual bears don’t collect hats in nature, but come on. It’s just a game. Other “Blank Simulator” games include Horse Simulator, Dog Simulator, Cheetah Simulator, Deer Simulator, and many more.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS
In Maneater, you are a killer bull shark, bent on revenge against Scaly Pete, the heartless fisherman who killed your mother. You start as a baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) eating catfish and other small fries for food. As you explore the open ocean environments, you’ll eat bigger prey, and grow to the size of a leviathan, chowing down on seals, people, and entire boats. It’s like Jaws from the shark’s point-of-view.
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series S and X, PlayStation 5, Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft Windows
Goat Simulator (2014)
Like the life of an actual goat, there is little point to Goat Simulator beyond destruction, but it’s such hilarious destruction. Embodying an angry, surly goat and head-butting people, cars, buildings, and everything else the world presents to you is super fun, but the intentional glitches and over-the-top physics take Goat Simulator into the realm of hyper-chaos. It’s like watching a real goat: just so stupid you have to laugh.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Android, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS, Windows, macOS, Xbox Cloud Gaming