Date: May 25, 2023
The first Do Not Feed the Monkeys is a cult-gem and a personal favorite of mine. While imperfect, it has a glut of indie charm, some very funny moments, and a pretty clever analysis of surveillance and security. It had bite, and I enjoyed it. It is one of the dystopian games which I recommend in the same breath as Papers, Please or Orwell, and it is by far the funniest and most satirical of the group; the absurdist’s answer to the question of increased surveillance.
On the surface, Do Not Feed The Monkeys 2099 is, essentially, the same game. The framework is the same, the gameplay is pretty much identical, the art is the same. The only difference is that 2099 is set in the year… Well, 2099, and as such has more futuristic scenes to sift through and characters to meet. In keeping with its absurdist leanings, this means that the most extravagant, ridiculous, Flash-Gordon-esque future has occured, one filled with aliens, space travel, and… reptilians? Beyond that, though, Do Not Feed the Monkeys 2099 is essentially just more Do Not Feed the Monkeys.
So why is it so much worse?
Well, let’s start with the gameplay. It is the same as Do Not Feed the Monkeys, with a few added doohickeys that do nothing of real note. And, unlike Do Not Feed the Monkeys, this sequel doesn’t earn the good grace of being the innovator: the first game came out in 2018, meaning this sequel should be following up after five years of development and thought. Five years to refine and reconsider, five years to change with the industry. Even if the active development time was the same or less, you’d think that time would result in some innovation with the game. Instead, it is, essentially, the exact same game as its predecessor, five years after that game already used its concept perfectly.
So what is the gameplay like? Well… For most of it, you watch security feeds, treating them as windows into the lives of other people (like looking through glass at a zoo onto some primates; hence the game’s title). While watching these cameras, you will see characters enter and exit with clunky animations while you vaguely try to keep up with their text conversations (while, in reality, just looking for the yellow text to click on). Sometimes, the yellow text will be generated by clicking on environmental objects instead. We will get back to the yellow text, but right away, I just have to ask…
Was the core gameplay loop always this boring? I remember being invested in Do Not Feed the Monkeys, mechanically. I remember having to bounce from screen to screen (called “cages”), unable to keep up with all the information being presented. Feeling like a fly on the wall to conversations I was never meant to hear, growing increasingly stressed as the amount of those conversations increased. Either I’m misremembering, or Do Not Feed the Monkeys 2099 really is different in that regard. Because, in 2099, all I felt like I was doing the entire time was patiently watching a repetitive scene each day (and they so obviously repeat that I rarely felt the need to pay attention to multiple scenes), collecting yellow text to use later.
And about that yellow text… It gets placed onto a “case” at the bottom of the screen, which gets filled with other important words that you “collect” through conversation and research. With these words, you can click on them — individually or in combination — in order to access pseudo-webpages that contain more information, including more yellow text. This was never the strong point of Do Not Feed the Monkeys, but it feels especially dumbed down now. I was “closing” cases, solving most of their mysteries, with essentially no effort by randomly attaching words that seemed like they might fit.
Sometimes, like the game’s overall ending, the mysteries felt like they ended prematurely; like I’d worked to understand something and ended up figuring it out halfway through. It ruined whatever satisfaction I might’ve gotten from solving mysteries, because… Well, there aren’t mysteries, not really. Not unless “What is this person’s name” or “Where does this scene take place” count as a compelling mystery. It’s a shame because there are real mysteries that could be made from what’s there. Instead, we get basically nothing, even in the deepest cages.
There are other gameplay elements as well. You have to make sure to eat and sleep, and you can’t eat too unhealthily. There’s a strange “investment” system now, which goes on in such an abstract way so far in the background as to not matter. There’s an online shop for some reason, though I never figured out what it was used for. But, like the rest of the game, there’s just not much there, and it doesn’t have the novelty to be interesting and pointed like the first game. Instead, it’s all just stuff to occupy time, and little else.
But, okay, so the game is the same. Maybe a little worse in the “puzzle” department, maybe with a few more things to occupy your time while you aren’t observing your cages, but the same. But I liked the first game, right? Well, you see, the first game had some sharp writing, clever commentary, and interesting characters. That’s where this game takes a real step down.
Let’s be clear: the writing in Do Not Feed the Monkeys 2099 is fine. Not bad, not at all. But, despite the most fascinating character designs and the potential for sharp writing with this new, futuristic lens… It’s just fine. The vast majority of scenes are still the same kind of mundane, everyday happenings as in the first game. There is a lot of talking. Most dialog repeats daily, meaning that it never feels very authentic, but it tends to get some sort of feeling or vibe across. I can’t say I got invested in any of the stories being told through the cages, but I wasn’t bored. They were just… fine.
But… There in lies the real problem. The first game, despite having a more typical, grounded, and limited setting, was compelling. Deeply. And, more, it was satirical. Its humor and writing quality was related directly to its premise, to spying on your primates. It was effective, and it had something to say, a sharp critique of surveillance and a few other choice subjects.
But in 2099? I struggled to find satire beyond the original premise. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the joke. What is being critiqued? What is being made fun of? What’s the point? There are a bunch of half points – things that could be used to make commentary or to create interesting stories – and increase they go nowhere. The strange fortune-telling scammer? Well… that’s pretty much her story. The struggling writer, trying to break away from working on a teen drama? He will have the same conversation with a producer every night about it, and that’s about it.
There are a few slightly more engaging examples: a woman working on seemingly illegal robots, who was involved in a mysterious accident. A hog-headed man stuck on a frozen planet which… I know is in the game, but I didn’t see him in my playthrough. But I played that one at PAX, so… It’s in there somewhere! That brings up a whole separate point about pacing and the order of the cages, but I think you get the point regardless: the best the writing gets is “okay mystery”, and the worse it gets is “repeated argument every day.”
Well, if we are being technical, the worst scenes are those which depict nothing of note and don’t even have a mystery, existing only to take up space. Or maybe the insanely abrupt ending that left me wondering if I’d done something wrong (I still don’t know). But I won’t get into those right now. You get the point.
At the end of the day, the writing is just not as good as the first game. This whole style of game – its absurdist framing and aesthetics, its very thematic premise, its mundane gameplay loop – demands good writing. Specifically, it demands humor and satire. And, while there are some hints at it, and while I absolutely know that Fictiorama is capable of delivering that, Do Not Feed the Monkeys 2099 fails to deliver it.
I’m not exactly sure what the point is, what is being said, or why I should care. This game is like someone’s scratch-paper premises made manifest. Not as a draft or completed story, but just as the scratch-paper premises themselves. Following up on the commentary of the previous game, this misses the mark.
If only to be fair, I should mention all the things that Do Not Feed the Monkeys 2099 does better than its predecessor. Its art style, while still not being much to look at (and, in my opinion, being a bit ugly), is better, with higher quality assets and a few more visually interesting scenes. And… that’s it. That’s all the things it did better than the first game. It’s really not very much, unfortunately, and what it is is not the most important part of the game.
And that’s the rub: I don’t know why this game exists. The first game had a very clear message and told it in a way that was unique and interesting even amongst the glut of “dystopian surveillance simulators” that were coming out around that time. It was well-written and smart. Its gameplay was, while still a bit dull, novel. Its style was all its own. It did everything to demonstrate it had a reason for existing.
And now, we just have that again. It being essentially a repeat removes all the novelty and originality of that first game – it is iterative rather than innovative – and so, it needed to be a lot better than the first game to justify itself. And yet… It isn’t. In fact, it’s worse in every way that matters. Gameplay, writing, message. It’s all a downgrade. And a fresh coat of paint is not enough to really save it.
I know the developers at Fictiorama tried their best here – I had the chance to talk to one of the three brothers who founded the studio while I was at PAX East – but it seems that innovation is their true talent, not iteration.