In January 2020, players of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time stumbled on a buried spaceship: a fully functional “Arwing” fighter from another classic Nintendo game, Star Fox 64. The Arwing was added as a programmer’s shortcut to, essentially, teach a dragon how to fly. Once the dragon was airborne, the ship was hidden away in Ocarina of Time’s source code, where hackers unearthed it 22 years later.
“It’s amazing to me that it was there all this time – it just took a lot of digging to find it,” says Billy Basso, a game developer from Chicago. “It’s completely inessential, but it helps people bond with how games are made, the creators behind them and the time and place. It connects you to history in a way.” Basso hopes to foster similar connections with Animal Well, an eerie pixel-art cave system which its creator hopes will have plenty of secrets left to uncover a decade from now.
In Animal Well you play a squishy emoji-style critter in a world of “ambiguously hostile” larger organisms that range from giant ghost dogs to extremely creepy flamingos. There are no level-ups or traditional weapons, as in a horror game such as Resident Evil, “you never feel able to dominate your environment.” Rather, progress is about using deceptively homely cartoon objects such as Frisbees and yo-yos to interact with other animals and avoid becoming their dinner.
While Animal Well’s winding subterranean geography recalls Metroid, interactions with creatures riff on the whimsical item puzzles of point-and-click adventures such as Monkey Island, albeit with several different solutions per puzzle. Some are fairly obvious: dogs go well with Frisbees, for instance. Others, Basso hopes, will take years to unravel. Animal Well is a single-player game, but players may still need to collaborate, even if it’s only by trading theories on forums and social media. Basso also plans to encrypt the source code so that players can’t hack out the secrets, as they did with Ocarina of Time.
This obfuscation isn’t just for the sake of challenge. Animal Well is a quiet protest about the dismal state of video game preservation in an online age, aimed especially at live service games that are playable only as long as publishers keep the servers running. “Even with the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, I’m running into issues logging into those accounts, downloading games or patching them,” says Basso. “It’s already an issue, and it’s going to be so much worse for the generation following that.”
Animal Well, by contrast, is built to last. “If I’m doing puzzles that maybe take 10 years to solve, I want the game to be playable 10 years from now.” The game doesn’t rely on third-party tools such as Unity that may lose compatibility over time, and Basso may ultimately host it himself rather than leaving it at the mercy of a digital store such as Steam. Animal Well is also designed to run more independently of your PC’s operating system or configuration than other games, to get around compatibility issues.
Basso plans to release Animal Well in a finished state, with no updates or downloadable extras to boost sales after launch. Like games from before the broadband revolution, he wants it to feel “like this physical artefact that already has everything hidden in plain sight”.
Where Ocarina of Time’s fossilised Arwing was an accident of circumstances, Animal Well is a deliberate time capsule, a refuge for its creator’s daydreams and nightmares that invites further discussion about the video game community’s struggle to safeguard its own history. It’s a fascinating project, and a poignant one. “The world will change around the game, and the way it interacts with the game will change,” Basso comments. “But the game itself won’t.”