I would love to talk about how great it is that games like Sun Dogs and Deus Ex are approaching transhumanism from an angle other than “cyborgs are cool,” but calling Sun Dogs a video game is giving it too much credit. In fact, saying it belongs to any form of entertainment media is giving it too much credit, unless “vastly incomplete second-person speculative memoir” counts as an entertainment medium. Perhaps its lack of a standard category is an intentional parallel – after all, transhumanism leads to posthumanism, which involves shedding our current notions and labels – but if so, it’s a misguided effort. Genres exist for a reason – to delineate a work’s general purpose – and any game that deliberately avoids them may as well have the phrase, “Because I can” and a shrugging emoticon in place of its Steam description.
The closest approximation of the Sun Dogs experience is a visual novel. Specifically, a visual novel reimagining of Elite with its scale shrunk down to the inner half of the solar system. Players drift between orbital settlements, hear snippets of life in a distant biopunk future…and that’s about it. It feels like playable supplementary material for a larger traditional story that the developer forgot to release. There’s no plot, no deeper meaning, and no attempt at engaging the player. It’s just a couple hundred unconnected blocks of text, some spartan visuals, and the unshakeable understanding that this setting deserved a much better implementation.
To add insult to injury, much of the presentation is designed to disguise the product’s irrelevance. Continuing with the visual novel comparison, Sun Dogs seems to have taken a few pages from Long Live the Queen: the protagonist adopts new skills as they advance, and is occasionally dropped in the path of an unforeseeable instant death event. Without an end goal, though, it’s all just window dressing. The most the protagonist’s skills can accomplish is unlocking new text events (very few of which are any more interesting than the default ones), and the death events have no purpose beyond temporary inconveniences. Additionally, in a bizarre twist, several abilities actually trigger the demises that they should logically prevent.
If Royal Polygon were to announce that they accidentally released an early build of this game, I’d believe it. There are a total of four “missions” in the entire running time, all of which end on such pronounced anticlimaxes that they could be mistaken for parodies. The outer half of the solar system is completely inaccessible, despite Jupiter playing a major role in the setting, and both it and Saturn being selectable on the map. There’s a sequence that plays out over multiple player deaths, wherein the protagonist recalls more and more memories that are not their own, only for a message of not-quite-gibberish to appear and reset everything…and I honestly can’t tell if it’s a bug or not. Finally, it seems no one bothered to proofread this text-based game, resulting in missing words and glaring grammatical errors that undermine its quietly beautiful imagery.
The nicest thing I have to say about Sun Dogs is that it’s thematically strong. It’s stumbled into a strange kind of hard science fiction – one defined by social realism rather than technical. The future is depicted refreshingly as neither dystopian nor utopian. Thus, while violence is still present, and Earth is a flooded wasteland, the clinical immortality of the rest of the system’s artificial bodies affords them a slow-motion lifestyle that seems altogether quite pleasant. Furthermore, the protagonist is acknowledged as a Sun Dog, a mercenary information broker (I’m basing that on inference; concrete explanations aren’t this game’s style) who seemingly learns vicariously by observing others – a curious parallel to the player’s role in the game itself.
Unfortunately, slightly intriguing allegory and thematic resonance aren’t particularly worthwhile without some engaging content to direct it, and the best Sun Dogs can hope to be in that regard is a passable aesthetic distraction. It’s aggressively minimalist, to the point that it becomes almost silly. Each astral body is depicted with a coloured circle, and each location of interest is just a dot next to it, even if it’s representing a moon or colossal artificial complex. Despite this, it’s surprisingly pretty as programmer art goes, and it pairs well with the sparse electronic sound design.
“Sparse” is a perfect description of Sun Dogs as a whole. It’s not just incomplete; it’s barely been started. It’s a $10 smokescreen obscuring the cavities where its gameplay, narrative, and atmosphere should have been. Every enticing prospect in its description – the promising subject matter, the skill accumulation, the sharp colours – exists to postpone the realization that the game is as fulfilling as stargazing on a cloudy night.