I like cats. I like collecting things. I like exploring new types of gameplay. So when the English language version of Neko Atsume popped up on my radar (thanks, Athena!), I knew it was something I had to check out.
I generally steer away from mobile games, since I don't currently have to endure a lot of subway travel (thankfully), and what little phone-only downtime I have is dedicated to books and Reddit. I figured I'd download the free game, get a few laughs and squees, and immediately uninstall.
Three days later, I'm still playing. Why? It's hard to say, exactly. Sure, the cats are adorable (graphics and sound effects are on point), but you don't exactly do a lot with them. You only interact with your kitties through proxy - buying toys, refilling food bowls, taking pictures - no petting or prodding allowed. The 'collecting' mechanic is loose at best - you don't actually get to keep, control, or use any of your new-found pets; they're free to come and go as they please. The connections between the various toys and food you can buy and the cats you'll end up attracting are vague and tenuous, so that you basically end up buying and placing things at random, hoping new faces will grace you with their presence.
The game does successfully capture the unique personality of cats without trying to shoehorn them into anthropomorphic actions or motivations. True 'cat-ness' is not sacrificed for the benefit of gameplay. They're cats. They're not impressed by your fancy sliced fish, and will turn up their noses in favor of nibbling on fresh cardboard. They'll leave random items on your doorstep entirely at their own discretion, not caring one way or another how you'll receive their generous mouse carcass donations. They'll ignore the expensive scratch-tower you busted your butt putting together, instead cavorting lovingly with the box it came in.
As an added benefit, the app straddles the fascinating line between 'game' and 'interactive experience' that I frequently find myself discussing with fellow designers and players (often as I try to unpack why lovers of digital gem-organizing or bird-flinging don't identify as 'gamers'). There is no obvious method of points acquisition, leaving players open to choosing their own success metric - perhaps 'winning' to you means largest amount of golden fish currency acquired, or cutest photo collection. New cats show up on their own schedule, so a good portion of the game is played when the app is closed. There isn't much to do in-game once you've collected gifts and taken pictures (unless you buy out the store and obsess over the perfect placement of cat pancakes and leaf piles). Which leaves much of the game an exercise in patience, waiting for the cats to appear at their leisure.
Neko Atsume entertains me. It also gives me hope. I found it delightful, and happily paid money to enhance my experience (and to thank the developers for adding something new and interesting to my life). I'm excited to see how I can put the broadening of the definition of 'game' to use in my own creative endeavors. Like Extra Credits put it in their YouTube video - we shouldn't let our attempts to seek out firm definitions limit us from discovering and enjoying new forms of entertainment.
Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't share the video of the eleven hour live-action stream of kitties in a room with toys. Enjoy!
Have thoughts about cat-collecting games? Or ideas related to the game vs. activity debate? Share below!