With every new generation of consoles and components, video games grow closer and closer to replicating reality. From the glistening sweat on star athletes’ faces in sports franchises like “Madden” and “NBA 2K,” to the soft swaying of grass in samurai thriller “Ghost of Tsushima,” game-makers are always leveraging the latest in granular detail to sell the immersive power of the medium. But there’s a small, fluffy detail that’s increasingly finding its way into new ones: pettable pets. It’s all thanks to one popular Twitter account with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Tristan Cooper, who owns the Twitter account “Can You Pet the Dog?,” never set out to create a social media juggernaut. Rather, he was just trying to point out what he felt was a common quirk of many high-profile games: While many featured dogs, wolves and other furry creatures as hostile foes of the protagonist, those that did feature cuddly animal friends rarely let you pet them. Cooper says the account was particularly inspired by his early experience with online shooter “The Division 2.”
“’The Division 2′s’ apocalyptic streets were rife with frightened dogs that you could not console or help in any way,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Searching on Twitter and Reddit, I found a lot of people shared my frustrations. I thought of making the Twitter account in bed, moments before I fell asleep. I could have easily forgotten the idea by the morning, but I didn’t, and then it sort of took over my life.”
When Cooper created the account in early 2019, he intended it as little more than a joke at no one’s expense. It was simply a daily reminder: Here are the games that allow you to pet dogs, and here are some that don’t. The account has always maintained a comedic tone. One of its earliest viral tweets is an image of the Great Gray Wolf Sif, a boss from the popular action-RPG “Dark Souls,” who holds a gigantic greatsword between his teeth. Sadly, petting Sif is not an option for the player; the pup is more interested in separating your flesh from your bones.
However, as the account quickly began to grow in popularity, Cooper and others began to notice a subtle increase in the number of games that featured animals with which players can interact. To be clear, Cooper doesn’t wish to take any credit for the proliferation of the concept, despite the obvious popularity of the account. (“Video games had pettable dogs long before I logged onto Twitter, after all,” he wrote. “That’s the whole reason I created the account.”)
However, he and the account’s fans do sometimes note the timing of these additions, particularly when it comes to certain massive games. For example, he notes that battle royale phenomenon “Fortnite” patched in pettable dogs only a few weeks after the account tweeted about the game. And “The Division 2” finally let you nuzzle the city’s wandering canines in its “Warlords of New York” expansion, which came out in March 2020 — around the same time Cooper was celebrating the year anniversary of the Can You Pet The Dog? account.
As Cooper says, it’s hard to know which developers were inspired by the account’s social media presence or simply by their own love for animals. For example, the Kurosawa-inspired PlayStation exclusive “Ghost of Tsushima” added dog petting in an October patch. (The game’s hero, Jin, was always able to caress foxes due to their outsized role in the game, but canine companions didn’t make the cut initially.)
When asked about the addition, game director Jason Connell would neither confirm nor deny the influence of the Twitter account on the feature. “The Twitter account you referenced is just further evidence that people love animals, even in video games,” Connell wrote in an email to The Post.
However, there are several game studios that openly acknowledge the account as the key inspiration for the inclusion of pettable pets in their creative output. Dodge Roll Games, the team behind the hit top-down roguelike “Enter the Gungeon” and the follow-up, “Exit the Gungeon,” recently added dog petting in an update. Developer Dave Crooks is clear: Without Can You Pet The Dog?, the dog would probably remain unpetted to this day.
“At some point in Gungeon’s development we briefly discussed letting you pet the dog,” he wrote in an email to The Post. “But it was very much the Twitter account and the surrounding discussion that prompted us to actually put the feature in. One of our programmers specifically, David Rubel, insisted that it was a good idea and spearheaded implementing it. Turns out he was extremely right.”
In Crooks’s view, the reason that so many video games lack the ability to pet dogs is simple: For most players, it’s not an essential part of the game. He described the feature as belonging to the “nice-to-have” bucket; it contributes to the overall experience of the game, but its absence also wouldn’t make a player turn the game off in disgust.
“The higher fidelity the game, the more work is involved in creating the interaction; animating, scripting, etc.,” Crooks wrote. “Does the game already have a framework for these incidental behaviors? Can the player move while they are petting? Can they pet any time? Does the pet animation move the player or animal into place? What happens if the player is attacked, or otherwise influenced by another game system, while they are petting the animal? It is possible that the game was designed in a way that didn’t account for this special type of player state, and introducing it, especially late in development, could cause all kinds of unforeseen issues.”
For those players who still wonder why pettable pets aren’t the norm in every game, Crooks offers a zero-sum explanation. For every moment that a developer spends on a charming dog-petting animation that only some fraction of the playerbase will see, it takes time away from refining an enemy attack animation that every player will see dozens of times. (This is much the same logic that Supergiant Games offered when someone asked why only one of mythical dog Cerberus’s three heads is pettable in their Greek mythology-themed roguelike, “Hades.”)
While some developers describe the high expectations of gamers as the result of entitlement, Crooks ascribes it to a simple lack of knowledge of how much time and effort goes into implementing even a silly dog-petting animation into a game.
“As a game developer, I am generally of the belief that the average player has absolutely no idea how much effort goes into nearly anything involved in making a game, but sometimes when reading the comments I am pleasantly surprised at how reasonable and insightful players can be,” he wrote. “I think that some of the perceived entitlement surrounding players demanding things like petting the dog is a bit more tongue in cheek than it may seem if you aren’t a veteran of navigating game forums. … Despite players often describing the game as ‘literally unplayable’ if they are unable to pet the dog, I choose to believe that is playful hyperbole, at least in most cases.”
As for Cooper, while he continues to sound the horn for interactive pets on Twitter, he makes one thing very clear: While the dogs themselves are the focus, players should think of game developers as human beings, not walking fonts of endless content. Most of all, he’d like players to consider the hours that go into even minor details in video games.
“I appreciate when developers go out of their way to add little touches that might be familiar to dog owners,” wrote Cooper. “In ‘Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,’ the dog puts their paw on your shoulder while you pet them. In ‘Remnant: From the Ashes,’ the player character offers their hand to the dog for a classic sniff test before going in for the pet. In ‘Enter the Gungeon,’ the dog thumps their foot on the ground during extended petting sessions.”
Ultimately: “Every single pettable video game dog is equally worthy,” said Cooper. “They are all good dogs.”
Steven T. Wright is a reporter and critic based in the Twin Cities. He writes features examining odd and overlooked aspects of digital culture. Follow his writing on Twitter @MadCathedral.