It’s often said that raising a child is the hardest job in the world. This claim is further reinforced by parents of infants and 15-year-olds. In the case of the former, it’s an exhausting and thankless 24/7 gig that has been known to cause depression and existential crises. While even animals are not immune to baby blues, they handle rearing kids far better than I do.
Herobeat Studios’ Endling casts you as the final fox wandering the Earth. It’s a harsh reminder of just how frustrating, repetitive, and unfair the parent-child relationship can be through both the good and incredibly brutal times.
Survival games and animal sims featuring cute mammals struggling to make it have quite a loyal fan base. Was it any mystery why people fell in love with Stray? Coincidentally, another world’s-end mammal-driven vehicle was released on the same day: the lesser-known Endling. The two titles couldn’t be more different in their art style, objective and mood. While I enjoyed Stray immensely, I found myself relating more to Endling mainly due to the facts that I’m more of a canine kind of guy (sorry, cat lovers) and a parent myself. Also, foxes are awesome.
According to Herobeat Studios, Endling is a self-proclaimed “eco-friendly” adventure, but the tagline “Extinction Is Forever” gives it a much more ominous tone. It’s basically a worst-case hypothetical scenario for the future only a generation away. The game has been hailed—and criticized— for its not-too-subtle stance on human interference leading to major environmental issues, chief among them being the exhaustion of resources and extermination of wildlife.
The decision to focus on the plight of the Red Fox, that ubiquitous furry mammal found on every continent save for Antarctica, makes it all the more painful to imagine.
The intro wastes no time in setting up the mood for the entire game. You literally hit the ground running through the middle of a raging forest fire as the last living Red Fox on Earth. Judging by her swollen stomach, she’s due at any time. We maneuver Mommy as deftly as possible through a barrage of debris and flaming deer (seriously), and finally, after a nasty spill over a rocky ledge, we limp her back to her den.
The high stakes and proximity to death have already brought you and Mother Fox together, but tapping a button repeatedly to assist her in giving birth to a litter of four adorable pups completely sells you. It also helps that you can customize the puppies: fur color, spots or no spots.
The afterglow of birth fades quickly as one of your four pups is lured out by a gas-masked human and captured. From then on, the game’s maternal mechanics take over with the dual responsibilities of tracking your lost pup and keeping the others alive. On top of it all, pesky humans, like the rifle-toting Scavenger and cleaver-wielding Furrier, incessantly prowl the grounds, hoping for an easy kill.
The first few nights of motherhood aren’t too bad. You’re able to escape the den for a moment’s “rest” as you track the misty green scent of food for your pups back in the den, while following the trail of your lost one. Wispy pink streams will lead you to objects related to the kidnap of your pup, which also reveal ghost-like memories that form the sub-plot of the game. The scope of the map is vast and there’s a lot of ground to cover, but it’s no problem; a break from the kids will do you good. In times like these, the quest for food amid the quiet of the night is a welcome respite from the heaviness of the situation.
But then the pups get a little bigger and universal themes of parenthood begin to surface. No longer are the infants stuck at home, and the kids are restless. Remember that mobility you used to have? Forget it. Your nighttime solo retreats have been replaced by supervised walks with all three of your pups in tow. Not only do they tire quickly, which necessitates a constant supply of food, but you need to venture into more industrial areas crawling with humans and other predators in order to uncover the whereabouts of your lost one. Days and nights fly by, sometimes without any progress. You’ll retrace the same steps and exhaust all edible resources before heading back home empty-handed and exhausted. Thankfully, the pups dutifully refrain from the common complaints that accompany human kids after a long hike.
To survive in this harsh environment, you, their Mother, must impart the skills necessary to ensure the survival of your cubs long after you’re gone—which may be sooner than you think. Like any baby, the cubs pick things up at their own pace and not nearly fast enough for the adult in charge. Early in the game, your inept offspring will accompany you out of the den and lag behind to a degree that really puts a dent in your efficiency. But however far ahead of the kids you venture, you will conveniently—or maybe instinctively—know if your cubs are confused or impeded, as a series of question marks will flash over the heads of the cub avatars at the bottom-left of the screen. This notification also conveniently alerts you if your kids are under attack from any of the numerous threats in your habitat. Whether it’s confusion or danger, you’ll be forced to constantly double back in these early days just to see what the problem is. Usually it’s nothing, but as a responsible adult, you’ve gotta check anyway.
Thankfully, situations and experiences help to expedite the learning process, but, like humans, each cub learns different skills at different times, which complicates seemingly easy situations. Perhaps three of your cubs can hop down from a ledge with no problem, but that one little guy hasn’t quite figured out the “JUMP” skill yet. You’ll need to knock down surrounding debris to make a ramp just for him. Exhausting.
Over time, your cubs’ skills increase, and before you know it, they don’t need you for every little thing. It’s actually a pleasure to hang out with them now. You’ve taught them well and feel a sense of pride in watching them trip debilitating bear traps all by themselves, or claw their way up a tree to scavenge eggs for their siblings. These abilities become especially gratifying—and time-saving— when the cubs learn to use the “HUNT” skill. In addition to their on-screen alert avatars, a health bar depicting the cubs’ level of exhaustion oscillates depending on how hungry or tired they are, but now this isn’t really your problem anymore. Instead of you wasting time and energy, it’s refreshing to simply assign meals for them to chase down and consume, like a field mouse, bush of apple, or old meat in a trash bag.
You’ve been so busy handling your kids this entire time that when the ending finally comes, it catches you completely off guard. It’s also the moment when you realize that the game’s tragic human sub-plot also revolves around family. There’s a lot of pathos going on here, not to mention the overall gravity of the situation happening around you on Earth. However, this isn’t the end of your emotional journey. Endling is not a happy game, but it does seem to echo the uncertainty of life itself, as well as the pensive nature of beginnings and endings. That said, the last few minutes of the game are a literal rug-pull that you can’t quite believe is happening. It turns out that the game wasn’t about Mother Fox at all, and it sure wasn’t about me. It was always about the children.
Consciously or not, Herobeat Studios’ Endling has given each and every player a chance to experience the highs and lows of what altruistic parenthood feels like. It’s painful, unfair, and often boring, but there are also many moments of pure bliss. The quote goes, “We’re just here to be memories for our kids.” It’s trite and completely self-effacing, but it’s also accurate. Mammals have always known this, especially foxes.
NEXT: This 25-Hour RPG Is Just As Good As A 100-Hour One
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