There's something peculiar about a zoo. You're a spectator of simulated slices of nature, and in case you forget about that fact, there are walls and fences to remind you and signs warning you not to feed the animals. It's easy to see where Fictiorama Studios' inspiration comes from, even if this game isn't about animals in a zoo. It's a sort of voyeuristic proposal then, one which puts you in front of a virtual mouse and keyboard where you consume the same sort of throwaway entertainment you'd find in your average reality show - only more extreme.
With its simple, pixelated presentation, this combination of thriller and point-and-click adventure just wants you to watch other people, and in the process allow your curiosity to get the better of you. A game in line with the zeitgeist then and one that offers some commentary as there's a certain critique behind every monitor and camera you operate. The difference here is that, instead of the often overly dramatised reality on television, you'll be looking at normal people living their normal lives, or assembly lines where nothing really happens, or wheat fields, or the basement of a house, or whatever.
You are the new member of the "Primate Observation Club", an elitist, clandestine, cult-like group, studying the behaviour of normal people, the so-called monkeys, through different strategically-placed or hacked cameras. These places or rooms or cages quickly become the thing you'll spend an increasing number of hours a day staring at while making note of every keyword and browsing the web.
In addition to this voyeuristic obsession you'll have to perform your everyday tasks. There is a landlady who comes by weekly to get paid, there's a stomach asking for food, and a body in need of some rest and care in order to avoid falling ill. Money doesn't grow on trees as we all know, and the only way to get ahead is to take on mundane jobs to cover costs, as well as purchase more cages to stare at.
You have a range of weekly goals with just one requirement to meet: acquiring a fixed amount of additional cages. That's how you unlock more possibilities as you keep levelling up, but at the same time you're spending part of the little money you earn on feeding the vicious cycle, which at the same time is forcing you to spend more and more hours in front of the monitor, neglecting everything else you need to do. And if you look at the clock, it's just to check what time Camera 7 subject should get back home to see if he or she has anything more to say.
The shadowy organisation tasks you with a range of paid assignments where you need to answer questions such find out the name of the guy on Camera 2, or the exact location of Cam 5, and so on and so forth. These emails gradually push you towards investigative work, and that's the final pillar of the game.
Besides its voyeuristic fix, Do Not Feed the Monkeys, slowly but steadily inflates an anxiety balloon that may pop in your face sooner than expected. As you keep adding more cameras, more tasks are requested, and with them, more surveillance is needed. But you also need to eat, you need to sleep, you need to make a bit more cash from the shitty jobs so that you can pay the rent and get the cameras you need so you don't get banned from the club, and all that swallows your time. Does it look like your own life in the real world? Reading the newspaper or even buying something translates into more time used to go to the market and back. Everything adds up and piles on the pressure to the point where you're overwhelmed and stressed out about all the tasks you need to juggle. And all while your addiction to the cameras grows.
It grows so big that, after a while, you start ignoring the postman who's always wrong, or the neighbour asking for money. You forget to eat, you double your coffee as you switch between the window with the cameras and the web browser to search for the keywords you just got from a conversation, from each comment or detail taken from what you're watching on the cages. You want to know more about every subject, every monkey unknowingly sharing part of their daily lives with you.
The feeling when you finally find the key to one of the mysteries, or that slippery fact you couldn't catch before, or even the disturbing notion when you uncover someone's double life, is something quite impactful. In those moments the game really shines, even though at first you may feel like an octopus on roller skates, not really knowing where to click, and which words to combine for the investigation. The mechanics can be somewhat confusing in the beginning, but once you've mastered the ones needed to find what you're looking for on fake Google you'll be well and truly hooked.
We started off talking about the titular warning message. Not feeding the monkeys is the first rule this exclusive club imposes if you are to remain a member. You're merely an observer, but the twist here is that, if you dare, you can actually interact with the monkeys. You can perhaps ship something you just bought to one of them, make annoying phone calls at inconvenient times, crossing the red line you agreed not to cross. It's your call really, but the consequences could be serious. Or perhaps not?
Every story happening before your eyes in those cages is unique and independent, and you decide which ones you'll pay attention to. Certainly, trying to keep track of all of them soon enough turns into a true chaos that would require god-like time management, something that could cause some frustration if you're not the most organised player. Even a tiny detail during a conversation could be vital, and the occasional, furtive move you manage to catch could mean the difference between life and death for a family. If you break that one rule, of course.
As such, Do Not Feed the Monkeys uses a very different formula, a unique premise that provokes your own instinct and curiosity. It makes you want a bit more, to be more of a Big Brother - until it suddenly it clips your wings just when you've fully familiarised with the game at full pace. That's the only major gripe we have with a game that surprised us with its brilliant ideas and its daring nature.
It somehow pulls the handbrake a bit too early and in an abrupt way, with an outcome that may leave you a bit cold when you were expecting a huge revelation after all you've been doing. But, at the same time, it reminds you that you're nothing more than another pawn, one among many just like you, and even if you might have some tools that nobody else does, you can't change things if you follow the rules. And then you start over and discover things you didn't manage to get on your first run.
So all in all, its chunky pixels are quite addictive, once first contact is left behind. Do Not Feed the Monkeys is a really nice surprise, as even though it might be short and leave you wanting more, it's really replayable and always has something hidden up its sleeve to keep you digging, to get you back into its vicious cycle. It's one of those little gems that you have to try because it does things differently and exemplifies the diversity and creativity on display on the indie scene.