Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane tugs the whiskers of ‘New York Rat Simulator’.
The video game rat is almost as maligned as its real-life counterpart. The lowest of the low in the ranks of virtual enemies, the rat is the butt of jokes about poor first-quest design, so ingrained as an example of design mediocrity that RPGs like Oblivion were mocking it back in 2006.
So it’s good to see a game finally give the black sheep of the rodent family a fair shake, to show us what a rat’s life is truly like. Wandering around the streets of New York, consuming floating slices of pizza and growing to the size of a Labrador, before running down shellsuit-wearing New Yorkers like an escaped panther. Wait, hold on…
According to my Steam‘s recommendations, New York Rat Simulator is ‘similar to’ Jonathan Blow’s brain-scrambling puzzler The Witness. I can only assume this is because rats also don’t believe in vaccines, because otherwise the two games couldn’t be more different. What we’ve got here is an incredibly basic Goat Simulator knockoff that is a fraction of the price and a fraction of the fun.
The game starts with your rat spawning unceremoniously in some nondescript alleyway. After learning the game’s three controls (movement, sprinting, and jumping) you emerge into a flat and boxy cityscape that, through a post-processing smear like someone’s rubbed Vaseline onto your eyeballs, vaguely resembles New York. Here, cars drive aimlessly around the handful of city blocks, while NPCs waddle along the pavements, shouting iconic New York catchphrases such as “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “This bagel is delicious.” One group of NPCs excitedly discuss “That new rat simulation game for the computer”, which is apparently going to be “the game of the century.” Hm.
As I mentioned, your goal is to collect slices of pizza, which hover on street corners and down alleyways. If you’re struck by a car, your rat dies and the game is over. The death screen explains the reason for your demise, which is odd as being hit by a car seems to be the only way you can die. It’s the absolute bare bones of what you could throw together to constitute a game. There isn’t even a dedicated quit button – you just hit ALT+F4 to stop the program.
Now, obviously, I wasn’t expecting greatness from an Early Access rat simulator that cost £2. You’d be hard-pressed to get a cup of coffee for that price, so I appreciate this isn’t going to be furry Uncharted. But I was hoping for some fun rat-based shenanigans, at least; scuttling up drainpipes and through sewers, making humans squeal and run away despite their vastly superior size. But New York Rat Simulator doesn’t facilitate any of that. Aside from the odd disgusted comment, the citizens of New York don’t react to your presence in any way, so the allure of being a tiny terror of the Big Apple is rendered largely null and void.
New York Rat Simulator does have one vaguely fun gimmick, which is that consuming pizza causes your rat to grow. The growth is fairly gradual, such that I didn’t actually notice it until my rat could stare directly through the windscreen of oncoming cars. Once you reach a certain size, you can then knock down pedestrians while sprinting, which is funny for the five seconds between gaining this ability and realising that simply touching an NPC will immediately cause them to ragdoll.
The developer’s Early Access brief promises several upcoming new features, including “a much larger map”, “potential rat zombies” and “a full implementation of the Eldritch Deity of New York City”, whatever the hell that is. Honestly, though, I think all this meme-baiting silliness misses the point of the appeal of a rat simulator. The reason Goat Simulator works as a joke game is that goats are boring animals. They just stand around chewing grass and staring at the world through their soulless eyes. The most interesting thing a goat has ever done is fall over.
But, contrary to their representation in games, rats are not boring. They’re intelligent and mysterious, animal pariahs living secret lives the cracks and crevices of the civilised world. I don’t think you could make a sincere game about the life of a goat, but you could definitely do something interesting about rats. I would genuinely play a game in which you scurried through the underbelly of New York, avoiding cats and traps and exterminators as you braved the surface in search of food.
Perhaps New York Rat Simulator will become that game, but it seems content to waste its potential on bad jokes and wilfully crummy design. I’ve heard that rats can make great pets, but in its current state, New York Rat Simulator would undoubtedly be classed as vermin.
Rick Lane is a freelance journalist and columnist at NME.