I was roughly two hours into Animal Well before I realized what was going on.

The game had opened simply enough. Four pixelated flames appeared and disappeared. My pixelated player character—a little Meatwad-esque blob of…something—popped out of a pixelated flower and landed in a pixelated labyrinth full of pixelated animals. From there, I hopped around and moved from one screen to the next. Sometimes I chased after a ghost-like squirrel. Other times I just wandered about. I slowly uncovered sections of the big-but-not-too-big map and collected mysterious-but-not-too-mysterious collectables. Occasionally a giant phantom cat, bird, or kangaroo appeared out of nowhere and scared the shit out of me.

There were cryptic statues. There were tricky puzzles. There were swaying vines and hidden passageways. There were rotary phones where I could save my game. There was no music and no tutorial and absolutely no explanation as to what the hell I was supposed to be doing.

And then, around hour two, it finally dawned on me. “Oh, THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing!” I haven’t stopped thinking about Animal Well since.

Animal Well is a new, long-awaited, and critically acclaimed game from developer Billy Basso, available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and PC. The reason a random indie game has found its way to the digital pages of Milwaukee Record is that it has a Milwaukee connection: the game is published by Bigmode, the fledgling company of wildly popular Milwaukee-based YouTuber Dunkey. Students of Milwaukee Record will recognize Dunkey as the winner of our 2022 Wisconsin-Born Celebrity Bracket. Dude has more than earned that title with this game.

Going into Animal Well, I kept encountering the same advice: do NOT read anything about this game. This advice went beyond mere spoiler warnings about plot points or whatever; apparently, the very POINT of the game was better left a mystery. I was intrigued. I followed that advice.

About the only thing I DID read about Animal Well before downloading it for my Switch last week was a vague statement from the developer. In it, he noted that the game had three “layers.” Layer 1 contained the puzzles you needed to solve in order to get to the end credits. Layer 2 contained the harder puzzles you likely didn’t understand the first time around. And Layer 3 contained the puzzles you likely didn’t even know were puzzles at all.

Did I say I know what’s going on in Animal Well? I have a feeling I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

Both in its design and in its marketing, Animal Well encourages jumping into the game with as little information as possible. Items, for example, are bereft of instructions; how to use them and what they do in various environments is for you to figure out. This approach to video games appeals to me. Triple-A games featuring maps littered with “go-here-and-do-this” points are fine and dandy, but games where you’re asked to discover secrets and mechanics in real time—with no hand-holding or tedious tutorials—are truly special.

Perhaps I’m drawn to Animal Well because I tend to apply this “no-preliminary-knowledge” approach to ALL types of media and entertainment. I not only avoid spoilers for movies, I avoid any and all trailers and reviews. When I finally sat down and watched Martin Scorsese’s Killers Of The Flower Moon a few weeks ago, I only knew that it involved oil, murder, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro playing intrepid FBI agents. Imagine my surprise/delight/horror when a few of those things didn’t quite prove to be the case.

This approach works with music, too. Being a fan of local music means going to shows where my favorite local artists are opening for touring artists I’ve never heard of. Do I bone up on these unknown musicians before going to these shows? I do not. Instead, I simply show up and, more often than not, find myself blown away by music I normally wouldn’t have encountered. I saw and loved Long Mama last week at Cactus Club, and I was more than pleasantly surprised by the old-school country sound of headliner Todd Day Wait. (The pre-show Texas two-step dance lesson was a fun surprise, too.)

And yes, I’ve used this approach for books as well. A few years ago I noticed my in-laws obsessing over brick-sized fantasy novels that were part of something called “The Stormlight Archive.” Without doing any research or asking for any opinions, I tracked down the first 1,200-page behemoth in the series, The Way Of Kings, and began reading. Fast forward to 2024 and I’m a hopeless Brandon Sanderson fan who has hoovered up everything the man has ever written and bought everything the man has ever turned into a piece of merch and if you’d like to trade theories on how Yumi And The Nightmare Painter and Sixth Of The Dusk and The Sunlit Man relate to the greater Cosmere I’m available day or night at mwild at milwaukeerecord dot com.

As for Animal Well, I simply love it. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly surreal, slightly unnerving game that will temporarily (?) take over your life. Some basic video game literacy may come in handy—this is a “Metroidvania”-type game, and it’s nice to know what that means—but it’s not necessary. All you need to know is that you’re a cute little blob of…something, and that you can run around and collect stuff. Occasionally a giant phantom cat, bird, or kangaroo will appear out of nowhere and scare the shit out of you.

Oh, and the part where you have your own “Oh, THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing!” moment is what it’s all about.

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Video game YouTuber Dunkey tops our Wisconsin-Born Celebrity Bracket, baybeeee

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.