Of Rats and Revolution
In a dark, decrepit rail station, a group of anthropomorphised woodland creatures gather in a makeshift war camp. The home-base of the Commonfolk — a rebellious military group with aims to topple the current regime of power — has seen better days. Supplies are running low and its members find themselves living in squalor. At one end of the encampment, a burly warthog fries up meager scraps of meat for a growing lineup of hungry moles, ferrets, and lizards. At the other, a snake preaches about the “old ways,” drawing in a small crowd around his literal soapbox. Amid it all, two squirrels debate the philosophy of another one of the ongoing conflict’s major factions, the Longcoats:
Blue Squirrel: “I’m just sayin’, I think the Longcoat way helps everyone. We SHOULD eat the weak.” Red Squirrel: “You mean the poor.”
Blue Squirrel: “Hey, no reason the Commonfolk HAVE to be poor.”
In any other game, openly debating the merits of consuming the poor and/or weak would seem out of place, likely even horrific. But Tooth and Tail (PC, 2017) presents a nineteenth century dystopia in which previously herbivorous animals have developed a taste for each other’s flesh, splintering them into four warring factions that are willing to sacrifice everything to make sure that they get to decide who ends up on the dinner plate. Such aspirations may seem outright nefarious, but Tooth and Tail complicates the narrative through the clever appropriation of a revolutionary aesthetic and distinctly tactical gameplay. While dictating how their fellow animals are cannibalised is essentially the ultimate goal for all factions, the narrative and gameplay often evoke a revolutionary, even emancipatory feeling.
Tooth and Tail begins in the midst of a power struggle triggered by food shortages. In the years leading up to conflict, animals ranging from squirrels to toads have taken up a carnivorous diet primarily consisting of lowly Pigs — who are viewed as a cattle-like subspecies due to their herbivorous tendencies and perceived dimwittedness. The Pigs occupy strange dual roles as both farmers and livestock in this meat-centric society, cultivating wheat at gristmills to feed themselves before being led to the slaughter during the “harvest” season. The carnivorous shift led to the forging of an agreement between all animals that, should the world fall upon hard times (i.e. a shortage of Pigs) a lottery would be enacted to decide who among the general populace would be sacrificed to feed the others. In recent years, famine has forced the Civilized, the theocratic governing body of the world, to finally implement the lottery. However, many began to suspect that the Civilized were surreptitiously choosing lottery "winners" and not truly allowing for the fairness of chance. This suspicion comes to a head at the beginning of the game, as a wealthy mouse named Bellafide is horrified to find his son on the menu. Outraged by this perceived injustice, he leverages his vast resources to trigger a rebellion, eventually leading to all out war.
As tensions escalate, four factions emerge, each trying to install their system of governing and ideologies about who should end up as food. Rather than controlling a single group through the game, players spend equal time with each of the factions, guiding them through various struggles, alliances, and betrayals. The Longcoats, led by Bellafide and representing free market capitalist ideals, believe that food-selection should be chosen based on an animal’s merit. The Commonfolk, championed by Hopper and embodying social-democratic tenets, believe that every animal should have the right to vote for who becomes food. The KSR, commanded by the Quartermaster and serving as a sort of military police under the Tsarina, attempt to maintain order no matter the cost. Lastly, the Civilized, a theocracy administered by Missionary Archimedes, hopes to continue their rule and maintain the pre-war status quo.
While the Civilized are presented as the primary target of revolution throughout much of Tooth and Tail, and certainly do much to cement their villainous status, the other factions are certainly not without their sins. Despite being presented as revolutionary through their garb and rhetoric — tattered flags, revolutionary colours, transformative aspirations, and pleas for equity — both the Longcoats and the Commonfolk are quick to overlook their own hypocrisies. Bellafide’s motivations are explicitly spurred on by his own quest for vengeance and his uprising is only made possible through his vast mercantile and mercenary resources — including a personal collection of Pigs used as both slaves and sustenance. Hopper’s revolutionary ideals appear to be somewhat more genuine, but her calls for a vote-based butchering system overlook both the brutality of the practice and the continued subjugation of the swine. It is, in fact, this taken-for-granted assumption that Pigs exist as nothing more than slaves and, later, food, that undermines the ideals of all of the game’s factions. They are assigned numbers, not names, and are presented as a resource, rather than a faction, throughout gameplay. At various points in the game, faction members declare that they would rather starve than subject themselves to meals consisting of anything other than meat, showing an extreme animosity toward changes in the dietary status quo and an extremely entrenched speciest hierarchy. Even when the Longcoats, Commonfolk, and KSR band together to form a short-lived, allegedly utopian settlement in the later stages of the game, it is still built on the backs of these workers. Any emancipatory narrative is undermined by a dependence on an underclass of Pigs that is subjugated then consumed.
In addition to aesthetic and rhetoric, Tooth and Tail pushes a revolutionary feel through its tactical gameplay. Tactical takes on two definitions here: first, tactics as presupposed by the RTS genre, in which players must develop skills and approaches in order to overcome a game’s scenarios. Secondly, tactics as expressed by de Certeau, which are approaches defined by the absence of sustained power, their ephemerality, and their tendency toward opportunism (Certeau 37). Such tactical measures lend themselves well to an ostensibly revolutionary game, as they encompass a “victories of the ‘weak’ over the ‘strong’” within an imposed order, “clever tricks,” or even just “knowing how to get away with things” (Certeau xix). Regardless of what faction the player is controlling, they almost always begin from a position of weakness, whether that means inferior resources, technology, or positioning. In most scenarios, it is impossible to attain victory simply through brute force, and players must, instead, carefully gauge when to engage with the enemy and if they should initiate a skirmish or all-out-war. Perhaps most importantly, resources (the gristmills that supply the player’s army) are consumable, scant, and difficult to defend, making it impossible for players to entrench themselves for more than a few minutes at a time. Players must reposition their factions around the map, scrounging for resources, while attempting to defend themselves from a more established force. It is entirely possible that players will miss their window for victory without even realizing it, and even when they do succeed, whatever resources they gain do not carry over to future missions. This reflects another one of de Certeau’s key tenets — that tactical interventions are, by nature, ephemeral and opportunistic. Tooth and Tail further incorporates this tactical theming into the written narrative surrounding missions — often framed as raids, prison breaks, or simply “holding out” against a superior force — creating a revolutionary atmosphere despite the hypocritical motivations of the game’s factions.
With such revolutionary ideals embedded in both gameplay and aesthetic, it can be easy for many players to forget that — regardless of their faction — their entire war efforts are built on the back of the subjugated swine. However, Tooth and Tail’s final act presents an intriguing subversion. Throughout the game, players have the opportunity to briefly speak with the Pigs, which may lead to the unsettling realization that they may know more than they let on. They covertly serve as a whisper network, often providing false information to factions in order to turn them against one another. It is also suggested that they conspired to murder (poison) the Tsarina — an event that ignites the later stages of the war. Any suspicions the player may have are realized during Tooth and Tail’s ultimate mission, in which the Pigs lure all four of the weakened factions into an ambush, decimating their armies and quietly taking control over the food supply (i.e. themselves). Thus, Tooth and Tail turns out to be a game about true revolution, but one in which the player never has agency. While the four main factions clash over control of an inherently oppressive system, appropriating revolutionary aesthetics and tactics along the way, it is the lowly Pigs who eventually succeed in enacting class ascension through subterfuge, misinformation, and striking at their oppressors when they are at their weakest. As de Certeau notes, the tactics of the weak must:
“... accept the chance offerings of the moment… it must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse” (de Certeau 37).
Thus, while the four dominant factions brazenly clash over the power to enslave and consume the swine and cannibalize one another, the Pigs prevail by concealing their strength and operating opportunistically. It is not until the final moments of the game that their intentions are made clear, as they overthrow their long-time oppressors and end the war in one fell swoop.
Certeau, Michel de. “Making Do: Uses and Tactics.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall, Berkeley: University of California, 1984, pp. 29-42.