Tokyo Jungle: The Ascent of Man


Shibuya is a place where humanities’ cement jungle clashes with the natural world. In Tokyo Jungle, humans have disappeared, allowing nature to once again reign supreme. The asphalt has been covered with long grass, skyscrapers hunch over as vines slither through their innards. Civilisation as we know it is all but dead. Though we play Tokyo Jungle from the animals’ perspective, the struggles that we face are no different from a humans’, the same struggles we faced as we wandered out of Africa to colonize the world.

First and foremost, we faced the elements. The small clusters of early Homo sapiens that managed to migrate north from Africa had to deal with the ever-changing climate of the Earth. Since the dawn of Man, right up until this very point today, we have attempted to stave of the harshness of nature. Those early humans dealt with the entire spectrum of weather conditions without the help of air-conditioning units or electric blankets. They adapted to the climate by using the landscape that surrounded them, or they simply kept moving forward, pushing onward. Climate change plays a key role in Tokyo Jungle too, and like the early humans, the player – as an emaciated Pomeranian or a starving Brown Bear – must adapt to those changes to survive.

Got my hat on to impress the ladies.

During the course of Tokyo Jungle, you encounter heavy rains which decrease your field of view and render your minimap largely useless. Conversely, you must face intense sunshine which tires you more quickly, dries up watering holes and makes food readily perishable. These two conditions no doubt mimic those our ancestors faced on their long trek north, and it was these conditions that hardened them as they adapted to changes in climate they couldn’t understand. As I wander the streets of Shibuya in the body of that emaciated Pomeranian, I have no idea when the weather will change. I try not to linger too long in any of the game’s districts, especially once the rain or heat hits, because I realise that food will quickly become scarce.

It wasn’t always that way; the game asks you to understand this process only by watching you struggle against it. A number of my early playthroughs ended quickly, at the hands of severe climate changes, because I was unable to adapt to those conditions quickly enough. Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of clicking start to replay the very same game of life or death, yet in a way those early playthroughs are the Homo sapiens that collapsed, exhausted, under the withering heat or froze to death as they endured the cold. Those early playthroughs are what allowed me to adapt.

My later playthroughs are the Homo sapiens that made it through – as Andrew Marr puts it in the fantastic BBC series History of the World:

“Each change challenged mankind to find new ways to survive. Those who did survive emerged tougher, cleverer and better organized.”

This is certainly true of how Tokyo Jungle climate changes challenged me over time, and it most certainly contributed to the increases in the amount of years I survived in-game. I realised that it was better to take my time to find a suitable mate so that the next generation I fostered would become tougher. I, personally, became cleverer and better organized outside of the game world by picking my routes through Shibuya with more care whilst trying to avoid climate changes that were detrimental to my Pomeranian’s health.

In this way, the in-game changes to the world affected the way I acted – just like early Homo sapiens, my survival depended on my ability to adapt to these conditions rapidly. If I didn’t, a Pomeranian carcass would lay silent upon the Shibuya streets and my game would end. I can’t ever control the weather, and sometimes, my game ends abruptly as a result. The weather teaches me how to react, but it remains unforgiving, no matter how skilled I become. Early humans were reactionary and understood that the elements were something they could hardly tame, even they though tried.

A more subtle gameplay element that also relates to the ascent of man is the ability to ‘dress’ your character. This is not simply aesthetic, but a mechanic that allows improvement of key skills such as Health [Life], Attack and Defense. You see, in prevention of the cold, our ancestors eventually discovered the ability to make what we, today, call clothes. They didn’t walk around naked, huddling together to avoid the freezing temperatures that confronted them, instead, they used a needle and thread to sew clothes together. This provided a crucial leap forward, as Andrew Marr puts it: “we could track animals further, hunting for longer … better predators”.

Of course, this is mimicked by the animals that the player controls in Tokyo Jungle. It is these incremental increases in the player’s skills that greatly reflect our own evolution, in terms of civilisation. Tokyo Jungle does not make you aware of these clothing options explicitly, rather, it allows you to uncover them yourself, after however many playthroughs. Sometimes, you don’t discover them at all. This is why Tokyo Jungle is so deeply rooted in the human condition and our ascent. Evolution of man required some level of luck and so does each round of survival mode in Tokyo Jungle.

Tread carefully, Pomeranians are no joke.

Actually gathering sufficient amounts of food for ourselves and the generations that followed us was a necessity for those that journeyed north across the African plains. It wasn’t until we began to cultivate the land that we were able to plan ahead – how much food should we produce from the earth to feed us? – that we truly could flourish. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked fine while we lived in small groups but our ability to plan ahead truly allowed the population to grow exponentially. It is this ability that took the guess work out of surviving. If we knew how much we needed to plant, how much we needed to grow and how much we needed to consume, we could (to the best of our abilities at the time) ensure that we always had enough food.

It is important to note then that planning ahead is incredibly important in Tokyo Jungle, especially in regards to food stocks. Although there is no ‘farming’ or cultivation of the land to speak of, the game design allows you to see an approximate level of food in each district of Shibuya. This mechanic is early Man’s farming: it provides the player with the ability to plan ahead so that the current generation can procreate and reproduce and the subsequent generations can survive long enough to do the same. It is yet another reflection of early man in a game that features only a vast array of animals as its major characters.

It is true that civilisation is born out of, among other things, some serious luck. Some of our ancestors got lucky a number of times, in quick succession. We were forced to struggle as we grew and forced to adapt to those struggles. It wasn’t easy for us to climb so far up the tree of life, it was a never-ending trek through the desert. Tokyo Jungle plays exactly like that. An endless journey that constantly throws challenges at you but providing little guidance. Each time you load up Tokyo Jungle it is as if you are beginning that torturous trek out of Africa all over again. Although the game features little input from the human race, it is a fundamentally human game, one that tugs at the very foundations of our own civilisation.

Fairly certain that either Square or Circle is ‘Mate’

It transmits this message through the broken world of Shibuya, a post-apocalyptic haven for animals that sit below us on that great branching tree of life. Its message is clear: our origins are born out of a great desire to survive. We are merely animals with a knack for surviving, for adapting rapidly to changes and moreover, we got lucky. We took our chances. Tokyo Jungle asks you to realise that yes, the human race has come a long way in a (relatively) short amount of time, but we have no real grasp over the planet we call home. We will die, leaving animals as leaders. The struggle to survive will continue.

As such, Tokyo Jungle asks if we can sustain the way of life we currently live. Can we continue to take from the planet? Can we feed the ever-expanding number of hungry mouths? If we continue to take without giving back, we have no hope of survival. Tokyo Jungle shows us a reflection of where the human race came from but it doesn’t pat us on the back. It doesn’t congratulate us for beating the elements, for designing our clothes from the pelts of skinned animals or for developing farming. It reminds us that we’re not that much different from the fauna that we take so much from.

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