Review for An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
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Dogs are referred to as “man’s best friend” for a reason. But what if your dog was really into cages? If it sold mysterious dark orbs for a living? Or perhaps drank too much alcohol due to the crippling knowledge of the dark ways of the world bearing down upon it. And what if your dog, along with its entire species, was appointed by a race of aliens to run the airports in the galaxy, with all the bureaucratic chaos that would entail? An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, from indie developer Xalavier Nelson Jr. (narrative director of Hypnospace Outlaw), is a comedic first-person 3D adventure that features canines from a variety of breeds with different occupations, dispositions and even – strangely – philosophical outlooks. You are one of the last two humans left alive, and almost every task will have you exploring distinctly themed airports in an ongoing attempt to briefly rendezvous with your travelling fiancée. This is easier said than done, however, because each dog you encounter is fixated on its own distinct problem and many will need your help. The result is both entertaining and intriguing at first, though due to some repetition and a lack of meaningful challenge, adventure fans may eventually begin to wonder if they’re barking up the wrong tree.
Mankind has largely been wiped out by the time the game begins, leaving aliens to arrive, build airports, and leave them for dogs (the new dominant intelligent species) to populate and operate. Why you and your fiancée survived this cataclysm is never explained, but now you’re both doing the best you can to function in this strange new animal society. Despite its bizarre setting, the story begins after the two of you have had time to grow accustomed to your new situation, and thus you display quite a matter-of-fact attitude towards everything. The main narrative thread involves a series of deep multiple-choice conversations with your other half. Each in-person encounter asks and answers questions about the state of your relationship and provides insight into how you came to be together, though your fiancée’s responsibilities soon force you to part again.
To progress you will have to continually arrange new meeting places, meaning you will have to go through the somewhat tedious process of visiting different airports multiple times. First you must acquire a boarding pass from the appropriate desk by speaking with one of the attendees – all of whom have amnesia for some reason. Unfortunately, since the airports were all built by aliens, all signs and tickets are adorned with unrecognisable symbols instead of legible text. This requires that you at least partially decipher what the writing on your ticket means in order to find the correct gate. However, all you need is the gate number, and once you have figured that out it is quite easy to find signs that point you in the correct direction.
Finding your gate is not the end, as you must also make sure to arrive at the correct time. The game ticks along in real time, and giant clocks adorn various surfaces of the airport for you to check. The departure time will be displayed on your boarding pass, with a ninety-minute-ish (time frame varies at random) window between the gate opening and takeoff. Fortunately there are lots of optional places to go, things to do, and puppies to see while you wait. If you’ve done everything that interests you or simply want to get moving quicker, there are ways to advance time, such as a “time zone” where time passes very quickly if you are standing in it, and items that can immediately set the clock forward by an hour or so when activated.
Once you have reached your gate within the appointed time, you can hand in your boarding pass. But even then you’re still not done, as there is always another dog to satisfy at the gate. They will often require you to hand over a specific item before the gate will finally open, usually a bribe of some kind. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to these demands, as the requests can be money, medicine, or a massive coffee. If you miss takeoff, you will have to begin the whole process again. Not all airports are directly linked, so sometimes you will have to travel to an airport via another one to reach your intended destination.
You’ll freely navigate these airports in first-person perspective with a mouse and the WASD keys. Holding Shift lets you sprint, and speeding things up even further are options such as moving walkways (similar to real-world airports), jump pads, lifts, and in one specific place a cable car. Left-click is used to pick up items or talk to dogs. During conversation a text box appears with the canine’s dialogue and often multiple choices to choose from in reply. There aren’t any dialogue puzzles though, as each option is usually just an opportunity for more amusing banter or world-building. Store owners will offer up their wares, and if you request them in the conversation they will pop up right in front of you, allowing you to pick them up.
You will meet some very eccentric dogs in your travels, though they are not 3D models but almost all completely flat stock images that rotate to face you as you move. Safety Dog wants you to turn in any illegal items you find for a reward, Flower Dog will give you flowers, and Willy Dogka is a troubled and lonely soul who happens to share certain similarities with Willy Wonka. A feature in the pause menu called “pupperdex” serves as a log of all the unique canines you have met and contains reminders of any associated tasks involving them, along with their hobbies and locations. Many of these dogs are facing a predicament and will require your help to find specific objects. One dog wants wood to build a bridge behind a waterfall, while another is afflicted by a curse and needs a particular soda to lift it.
You have to hand it to the developer for not stooping to use the phrase “fetch quest,” but that is the crux of the gameplay here as most dogs with quests will require something from you, though they may have weird and wonderful reasons for needing them. Each airport is host to a plethora of shops selling everything from coffee to clothes to mysterious black orbs. These stores all project giant floating holographic symbols from their rooftops, allowing you to easily identify what you are looking for. Luckily the store owners are usually willing to give away their goods for no charge (even the money is free), helping you hoard as many items as you can lest you be caught without a specific object and have to backtrack later to pick it up. No matter how many items you acquire, the novelty gradually diminishes with each procurement until you feel like you are simply piling on the immense collection of trinkets to cycle through to find the one you want when you need it. (Q and E cycle through your inventory, and a mouse scroll function would have been welcome due to the sheer number of items you can obtain).
Sometimes a side quest will call for you to elicit a specific emotion or sensation from a dog. This can be a more involved task, because it requires that you find the correct item to throw at the respective canine and therefore evoke said feeling, adding an extra layer to the same basic process and prompting some fun animations, like a dog beginning to play the saxophone if you throw a record at it. Items display little animations when used, though these are generally quite simple, such as the skateboard doing a spin as you hold it, or a can of juice being lifted to the protagonist’s unseen face for drinking.
Some objects provide buffs when used (consuming said item if it is food or drink). Hitting the use button (right-click) with the skateboard in your hand, for example, will give you a temporary speed bonus, while the umbrella will let you jump higher and float. These are very useful when trying to traverse an airport quicker, but combining buffs can sometimes have catastrophic effects, as I discovered on more than one occasion. I found myself flying all the way up to the map’s invisible ceiling as a result of using the jump-boosting umbrella with a booster rocket. This was all fun and games, of course, until I ended up stuck somewhere. Fortunately there is a “teleport to safety” option in the pause menu if this happens, which sends you right back to the entrance of the airport.
All dog-prompted side quests are optional, and the rewards come in the form of unique items that are otherwise unattainable, or just some bonus flavour dialogue. The only compulsory tasks are the meetings with your fiancée and the airport hopping that they require. The majority of play time here consists of side content, as the airports are rife with nooks and crannies to explore and dogs to interact with. If you sped your way through, the game would be over in one or two hours. If you take your time and are thorough, it can take about four to six. Still, the inclusion of more unique and narrative-serving obstacles in between these rendezvous would have been welcome.
Even with all the optional content, I found myself becoming a little bit impatient with the lack of quest variety and the tedious process of travelling between airports, so I began to prioritise getting to the end rather than seeing absolutely everything the game had to offer. Airports all share the same stores, and any store of its type will always have the same dog, with the same conversation to skip through. And it can be difficult to keep track of which items you may have consumed or given away, so it is rather frustrating to be caught without something you need, forcing you to head all the way back to the shop or place just to pick up another.
That’s not to say that I did not enjoy my time with the game. The dogs are impressively varied, and the dialogue is always very funny or interesting. It’s not all silliness, either, as there are some darker undertones. The pilot dogs are all drunk, which at first seemed like an amusing nod towards the true-to-life issue of alcoholic pilots, but as you engage them in conversation you begin to understand that they drink to forget something very specific that only they get to know about. Others question their place in the universe, and wonder whether they will follow the fate of the humans. It’s an intriguing change from the usual whimsy that comes with talking to the dogs, and the juxtaposition between naivety and trepidation helps to build up the world in a deeper, more compelling way. It also added to my sense of existential dread that flared up now and again as I played, imagining how it would truly feel to be stuck in a world solely populated by flat images of dogs.
The open-world environments – as well as the graphics in general – are quite basic looking, but each airport has a very distinct style and if you reach a high enough point to see an airport as a whole, the view can be quite impressive. One has a beach theme, with a boardwalk and large pool in the middle; another has an elf motif, where all the dogs have elf ears sticking out of the sides of their heads and the multi-tiered airport is built around the trunk of a giant tree; while the noir-styled airport is a nighttime urban environment with maze-like alleyways. The presentation, particularly in the menus, reminded me of older pet games from the Nintendo DS era, such as Nintendogs or Dogz. This is not to the game’s detriment, as the design manages to achieve a playful and nostalgic feel.
There is no voice acting, but canine text boxes are accompanied by little bark noises for each word. The soundtrack is absolutely delightful; light-hearted but deftly composed, consisting of midi instruments that once again emulate older console games. All of these seemingly carefree elements contribute to an overarching uneasiness felt when playing. You never feel more alone than when surrounded by blissfully naive canine faces – all staring at you, one of two last surviving humans – as pleasant music fills your ears. It may sound perfectly nice, but the more you learn about the world, and the more time you have to think about the game after playing it, the less cheerful it all really seems.
An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs is an enigma of a game. It is a testament to the power of human imagination, and the underlying profundity of its themes is strangely never at odds with its simplistic, happy-go-lucky presentation, resulting in a highly unique and surreal experience. The repetitive gameplay begins to wear thin, but the amusing conversations and intriguing world-building more than make up for it, and you can engage in as much or as little of the optional content as you wish. There’s nothing to flex the ol’ adventure gamer brain here, so if puzzle challenge is a must for you, then maybe skip this one. If not, then this game is definitely worth at least a few hours of your time. And when you’re done, you may never look at dogs the same way again.