Dinosaurs and lightsabers have two things in common: everyone likes them, and they make terrible video games. Jurassic World Evolution was just announced and I have to ask myself if management simulators are a good demonstration of this bold new console generation’s unbridled creativity, or a perfect one. But then I realize it may be the dinosaurs themselves prompting such a desperate design. The history of interactive dinos is a sordid one. As someone who played 3D Dinosaur Adventure on DOS, you can trust I know what I’m talking about.
So what’s the problem with dinosaur games anyway?
The way I see it, the problem is two-pronged. First, humans didn’t coexist with dinosaurs so there’s no template for how a playable humanoid might interact in that world. And second, games that feature non-human playable characters are also without a standard of design. With either choice, what kind of game might feature a dinosaur is always an unknown.
So there’s been no shortage of diversity in the genres of dinosaur games. Carnivores on PC was a hunting game, Turok was an action shooter, Primal Rage was a 2D fighter. Telltale made a story-driven Jurassic Park game, on top of the simulators and top down shooters that already existed. I’m not even sure what genre Ark: Survival Evolved is. I could go on.
All of these games have in common a generic use of the dinos (such as skins for a fighting game, or for the disposable enemies in a shooting gallery). There hasn’t been a shining example of how dinosaurs could work in an interactive setting. What would that even look like?
The best dinosaur game ever made, isn’t historically accurate exactly. But Monster Hunter features its fair share of primordial beasties in a setting that’s at least passingly familiar with them. Some are definitely facsimiles of the fossil record. It interacts with dinosaurs effectively because it generates a believable ecosystem for them in a fantasy: our idea of dinosaurs, rather than the cold reality of animal icons in a management simulator. It’s indirect, but it’s the best we have. The next step would be the unthinkably enticing prospect of playing as actual dinosaurs in a world that houses them effectively.
And soon we may have it. Saurian is an open-world survival game that shows the promises of a lot of broken dreams being realized with the freedom to do what dinos do best: enable our imaginations. Play-pretending is the element that’s been so sorely missing from their games, which take these awe-inspiring childhood things and reduce them to assets or shooting gallery targets. We need a game that values them. Saurian might be it.
But the question of what makes a dinosaur game good, and why there haven’t been any, has a broader application. How do you make a game that has no genre?
Almost all games rest on past designs. We may have thought God of War was a fantastical new invention, but it has a history from Gauntlet to Rygar to Devil May Cry. It has its own style, it makes its own additions, but it has a lineage. This is true of most games.
But dinosaur games don’t have a Gauntlet. In order to make a good one, a developer has to ask not how the asset could possibly be used, but what essentially about the asset makes its use desirable to players. This is more evident even than in the dawn of game design, when elements could never be as advertised, five pixels wide. Jurassic World Evolution will probably be functional, but it will not break the paradigmatic glass ceiling of dinosaur concepts because it’s just not the satisfaction implied by a dinosaur game in an age without limitations. It’s colder than that, like watching someone else play with your toys, or like the old games on Atari that were labeled as being about something that you couldn’t really make out.
This is the paradox of dino games: their interaction is desirable without being knowable. I used to line them up in my bedroom, classify them, and then have a trans-historical dino war. But even I don’t think that would make a great video game.
They are so curiously beyond the reach of games, for being something so familiar. I think they touch on the allure of video games to begin with: to interact with the un-interactable. By being impossible, they maintain a kind of sacred promise in gaming to continue striving for new worlds to inhabit. Even Saurian will probably be just a single example, not a replicable new standard. I believe proportional to our desire for them, dinosaurs in games will continue to pale in comparison to those in our imaginations. It’s strange to imagine this failure in an industry that has almost no restrictions, but great games always prioritize design, and no one’s come up with one for dinosaurs yet.
Some of you may think the Jurassic World game will find a way. But without a template, I’m not sure if even life could pull it off.