Laika was a Russian mutt, shot into space with no hope of returning. The first animal to orbit earth, in a time where there was no technology to deorbit. Laika was fated, from the moment she launched, to die. Whether by a failure of an oxygen module, or by the 1,650 degree Celsius of reentry, Laika would die. But before that, before a countdown in a familiar but unintelligible language, before G-forces sustained by no other dog in the history of dogs, Laika was someone’s friend, and was part of a family. One of the Russian scientists, Dr Vladimir I. Yazdovskiy, took her home to his children, showed her some kindness, and did “something very nice for the dog. She only had a very short time to live, you see.”
Laika is also an analogue RPG by Melody Watson (@magicspacegirl) that seeks to replicate the love and loss felt by Dr Yazdovskiy as he watched Laika shoot into the sky. It shares emotional goals with the scene at the end of Toy Story 3 where we watch Andy hand Sheriff Woody over to a young girl (“He’s been my pal for as long as I can remember. He’s brave, smart [and] he’ll never give up on you. You think you can take care of him for me?” I’m not crying, shut up, you’re crying). It is a game about finding something already precious to you, spending a little time telling it how precious it is, and then releasing it into the world forearmed with the knowledge it will be lost forever. I immediately fell in love with the concept, with the idea of exploring loss and love, but I didn’t know how to best generate that catharsis. It is a shame, then, that beyond the fantastic idea, Laika didn’t help me as much as I needed it to.
Play began with Laika, my Precious Thing. I was to choose something to represent her, something that mattered to me. A love letter from an ex-girlfriend, your last picture of a deceased friend, my childhood cowboy toy. I selected my Witcher pendant, a symbol of the friendships I’d built while working for EB Games a few years back. This is the moment of buy-in for the player. What you choose has to mean something for the game to have any emotional impact, and considering the intent is to send it away forever, that’s a hefty cost to the player. The cost isn’t shouldered alone though, the game’s description of this is astoundingly beautiful, and allows Watson to assist the player in creating the emotional weight of Laika’s play.
However, Watson’s assistance is limited, at best, because of some issues core to the game’s construction. The text constantly conflates Laika the dog and Laika the Precious Thing. It muddles the metaphor and the history in a way I found more confusing than evocative. Demonstrably, the line “Is it really just a garbage bin, or is it Earth’s orbit? Maybe something altogether stranger” is attempting to offer expressive fantasy to the player, but in reality it confounds what the game should be. If I am, as the text says, sending Laika-the-Space-Dog away, how could I be sending her anywhere other than space. And if I am sending something other than the for-real-historical Laika why does the text keep telling me it’s her. Should the player be engaging with this as playing the role of a doctor shooting a dog into space? Or should the player be engaging with their Precious Thing and how it important it is to them in reality? The game text is incredibly unclear on this decision. If the game is designed to blur those lines and allow players to work in both worlds, then we should facilitate that through clear writing. The lack of player-facing clarity caused me to get lost in the levels of metaphor where, instead of revelling in the bonds and loss that I’d signed up for, I spent my time wondering whether I was playing the game right.
I did do some revelling though, oh boy, did I do some revelling. I made my Sputnik 2 out of a biscuit box and paper clips, with some string trailing as low-frequency antennae. I cannot express through these words the joy that comes from building a spaceship out of things found in my kitchen. The text was clear here: I wasn’t just building a cardboard box for fun, I was building a spaceship that would Laika’s home, her lifeboat, and her coffin. I put effort into adding a few extra paperclip antennae on the off-chance she found a way to transmit some data home. I padded the inside with tissues so that Laika would be as comfortable as she could be against the oppressive G-forces and debilitating cold. It was built less from my hands and more from my heart.
I really felt like I’d made something wonderful of which I could be proud, and more importantly something which would keep Laika safe. The whole time I built, I talked with my Precious Thing about the experiences we’d had and the launch that was to come. I ducked in and out of metaphor here again, sometimes talking about the black hole we’d be heading for, and sometimes discussing what my Precious Thing represented. It was difficult to maintain a consistent emotional tone, and more than once I found myself focusing more on the tactile joy of building my spacecraft than the joy of bonding with my Precious Thing. I think that’s my biggest problem with Laika: The conflation of metaphor and history is at the core of the game, but never clearly expressed by the text.
Laika is a game of haunting beauty. It has some elements that blow me away. The minimalist pixel art lends so much to the experience. The final steps being likened to a countdown adds some much needed thematic weight and stability. That this stability is restricted to the final two pages of the work unfortunately limits its effectiveness. The heaviest emotional punches of the entire experience land in these short sentences. “8. Strap Laika in and calm her. This is a big day for a dog so small.” is unambiguous, heartfelt, and hit me like a truck. “4. Ready yourself, and open the door. Are you doing the right thing?” gave me chills. Though these sentences are buried so deep in the text and so late in the gameplay that by the time I get there I’ve been floundering for forty minutes around mixed metaphors. An idea so beautiful, an experience so precious, an emotional path so treacherous requires clearer assistance to the player.
Melody Watson is undeniably a powerful author who proves in Laika her ability to find the emotional core of a story. I would see her work benefiting from clearer authorial instruction, to assist the player in generating the kind of story for which the game is made, but I won’t hesitate to pick up any of her other work. Laika, and Melody’s other work is available at https://melodynova.wordpress.com/. Laika is available as a “name your own price” title, for which I recommend a contribution of at least $5(AUD).