I’m locked in a cage with my fiancee Krista, courtesy of an ominous-sounding pup named Cage Dog. In hindsight, meeting a seven-foot-tall dog that inexplicably loves cages should have been a clue for what was to come, and I probably shouldn’t have believed his promises.
This is An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, aka. Dog Airport Game, an absurdist walking sim/light puzzler from Xalavier Nelson Jr.’s Strange Scaffold studio. The premise seems simple as you and Krista, the only humans left after some universal cataclysmic event, find yourselves stuck in a network of surreal airports run by stock photos of dogs. There are even a few cats (and a bear), and yes, you can pet them all.
The human languages are pretty much dead, so while you’ll see English on vending machines around the game world, all the important signs are in an indecipherable alien language, which was extremely fun to decode. It’s a simple substitution cipher that involves a bit of pen-and-paper work, but it was easily my favorite bit of the game. The alien alphabet is surprisingly easy to learn and internalise – a few hours into the game, with maybe 90% of the alphabet translated, I could read all the signs with little effort. It was a nice throwback to old-school adventure games where manual decoding was a must (for instance, Sierra’s Laura Bow and the Dagger of Amon Ra and the first Broken Sword game have neat translation puzzles).
Dog Airport Game has Nelson’s signature sense of humour all over it. Once you’ve figured out the alien signs, you’ll realize that almost everything is a dad joke or a dog-themed pun. There’s a flower shop named Borkchids’, ‘Rainy Dane’ sells umbrellas, ‘On the Case’ sells luggage, and the kiosk attendant at ‘All or Doughnuthing’ invokes the age-old argument over ‘donut’ or ‘doughnut’. I had a palpable feeling of regret when I realised I’d translated pretty much all the things, which probably has something to do with the fact we’re in a pandemic and I desperately miss traveling to new countries and learning their languages.
Krista’s whole deal is a little more nebulous. She’s a hotshot scientist working on a mysterious project for R&Dog, so she’s constantly jetting off to work and making plans to meet you at various airports. The brief narrative glimpses into your relationship are endearing, and using her as a north star is a nice constant. Your brilliant fiancée really just wants you to meet and help dogs.
Here is where Dog Airport Game transcends its existence as a simple, lovably silly exploration game – Nelson and team have been working on this for a while (and have been posting rolling updates on Patreon), but I don’t think they anticipated that they would release an airport-themed game during an unprecedented global lockdown. I revelled in the mundane business of getting my boarding pass and finding my way to the correct gate, pausing to look at shops along the way, but as the airport designs became bigger and more complicated, it also became a much more byzantine process to get where I needed to go, along with the necessary objects.
A postmodern reading of the game might delve into the value of liminal spaces, the function and evolution of airports, and their impact on urban planning (there’s a whole book about this topic). After I left the starting airport on Phobos, I realised that every airport had duplicates and even triplicates of the same shops and amenities, mirroring the franchises and brands that inhabit real-world airports. If you lose a tennis ball, an umbrella or a bottle of artisanal toilet water, you can usually get another one at a shop around the corner, or if you’re unlucky, all the way in another terminal.
Making your way from one end of a terminal to another (the ‘run’ function is a blessing, but not nearly fast enough) is a winking bit of sadism from the game’s designers. It’s just like a real life, I thought to myself, painstakingly navigating through the Elf Planet (‘Doggdrasil’) airport for the third time because I’d forgotten something. There are clocks everywhere – airports are ruthless keepers of time, and the game won’t let you forget it. It can be a nightmare trying to find a ‘time zone’, where you can speed up the clock to get to the right departure time.
The Patsville airport was an especially maddening area. Encouraged by Krista, here you’re supposed to find Cage Dog and try to find some common ground with him. Patsville itself has a big noir city vibe with skyscrapers and narrow alleyways, through which you can explore the empty backstage limbo behind Patsville’s familiar storefronts. Elevators in the game are a hate crime. There’s no signage for them and they are shaftless floating cubes that are best spotted from a distance, often by accident – I didn’t even realise there was an elevator on Elf Planet until five hours into the game.
Frustrations aside, Dog Airport Game is pleasantly accessible in ways that mitigate its pain points. Each store has a big floating icon above it so you can see where you need to go for specific items, Krista is always marked with a huge yellow star, and there’s a handy ‘teleport to safety’ button in case you get stuck. It’s also handy as a quick teleport function, if you want to return to the airport’s original spawn point. Still, the treks between various airports and through them – Uranus is particularly tedious to get around, no joke – can get tiring if you’re not already a fan of low/no-stakes walking sims. If you’re not into translation puzzles, all of this walking back and forth might end up being a hellscape for you much earlier on in the game.
Dog Airport Game is best played if you don’t question anything. The sinister black Orbs, the physiology of pedogstrielfs (elf dogs), or why you can get a gun are best left unexplained. Just accept everything, and soak it in. The soundtrack is Katamari-level infectious, the music found in the airport at Marinara Trench (yes, like the sauce) having a great twist on a reggae beat that becomes a proper earworm. The weather on Doggdrasil is beautiful, its sunsetting sky a lovely testament to the sublime blues and oranges you’d see out of a plane window. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find Willy Dogka. Unlike real air travel, there’s no rush here – the boarding passes are infinite, the dogs are chill, the jokes are plentiful, and the drinks are free.