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To The Rescue! is a realistic look into animal shelter management

There’s no denying that visiting an animal shelter is a happy occasion for most people. Nothing compares to walking down the rows of dogs and finding the one that you know is going to be your best friend. Beneath the happy, tail-wagging exterior, though, animal shelters take a lot of maintenance and work to thrive. Caring for tens or hundreds of dogs can be hard, messy, tiring, and frustrating, as I learned when I worked briefly in a dog kennel earlier this year. Knowing exactly what it takes to keep a big group of dogs (fairly) satisfied, I was curious to see how Little Rock Games would approach shelter upkeep in To The Rescue!

To The Rescue! is a management simulation focused on taking care of both the dogs and the business of your rescue organization. It’s developed by Little Rock Games and published by Freedom Games, and it’s coming to Nintendo Switch and PC/Mac via Steam this fall. When the game starts, you’ve just settled into a new house in a new town when you find a stray dog in your yard. Upon learning that the local rescue is too full to take it in — and upon accepting a job with your friend at the rescue — you’re set up with your own shelter by the town’s mayor. After all, the only way to help the town’s influx of stray dogs is to open a rescue of your own!

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I was able to go hands-on with the game while speaking with Olivia Dunlap, the project’s co-lead developer, about her inspiration for To The Rescue! and what the team wants players to get from the experience.

The player vaccinates a dog at their shelter.

A not-so-ruff success story

In 2019, To The Rescue! was successfully funded on Kickstarter. The idea came from the team’s own dogs, Dunlap told me over Discord. None of the developers have shelter experience, but they all grew up with dogs that made a big impact on them. When Dunlap was in college, several of her friends were fostering dogs and cats, which taught her a lot about the animal adoption process. Besides wanting to make a great game that lets players pet all the dogs, Dunlap also wanted to convey the more difficult parts of working in a shelter: Taking care of needy dogs, managing space, and working with potential adoption clients. She wanted to emphasize that rescue work “isn’t all petting cute puppies.”

While the game does keep some of the hallmarks of management sims, the team changed a few aspects in service of its message. One of Dunlap’s least favorite things about management sims is the higher-level, godlike perspective. The team wanted to emphasize the relationship between people and their dogs, so they elected to include a player character rather than using the traditional floating hand or icon. The goal is to have players experience one-on-one interactions between themselves and the dogs rather than just treating every dog as a number. It’s great to hear that the team is preserving this positive aspect of shelter work.

The player tries to get a dog adopted.

Besides working to help in-game dogs, Little Rock Games is donating 20% of all profits to the Petfinder Foundation, an organization that gives grants to shelters and rescue groups throughout North America. As I spoke with Dunlap, I got the sense that helping real-life animals was just as important as making a great game. To The Rescueis a great example of how developers and publishers can do more good with the games they make.

Gotta pet ’em all

During my preview, I was able to play through the first half hour of the story mode. Dunlap walked me through the introduction, which includes the choice between a story mode and a more open-ended sandbox mode. The introduction presents a more important choice: Whether to include references to euthanasia or not. There’s no change in gameplay between the two; if the player chooses to turn off euthanasia, dogs will simply be “let go” instead. As I’m used to working in an animal medicine environment, I chose to include the references, but they didn’t come up in my demo at all.

After choosing my character’s appearance and friendly dog companion, I was placed into the very beginning of the story. The game isn’t story-driven, but the team wanted to include a story mode to provide context for the management aspects and to create a broader sense of community between the player, the dogs, and the adopters who visit the rescue from time to time. Dunlap shared that this was borne from the team’s discussions with shelters in the Little Rock, Arkansas, area. Many said that local community was important to them.

I choose my companion dog and name him Cloud.

After the first part of the story, I skipped ahead to the actual management part of the game. (Dunlap confirmed that the area that serves as the tutorial will be playable in the final release, but for brevity reasons, it was left out of the demo.) At the beginning of the in-game morning, dogs arrived in a holding kennel at my shelter. After spending some of my limited funds to build more permanent kennels for each one, I took the dogs to their new kennels using Leash Mode, the game’s way of interacting with furry friends. The dogs pull on you while you have them leashed, which is adorably lifelike.

Each randomly generated dog has a file that shows off what makes it unique — with their own age, size, breed, food preferences, and personality traits — and part of the puzzle is matching the right dog to the right owner. Dunlap shared that the dogs’ breeds are intentionally left vague because the team didn’t want people to think that they could go to a shelter and always find a dog of a very specific breed. They also didn’t want to accidentally promote any breed stereotypes through the randomization.

A doggone good day

In the last few minutes of my demo, I attempted to adopt a dog out to a new owner. It’s harder than it looks; each person comes in with a prebuilt resistance to adoption. As they see more dogs that fit their specifications, their willingness to adopt goes up, as shown by the bar at the top of the screen. If they build up enough willingness, they’ll take home a new dog — and it’s not always the one that perfectly fits their guidelines. During my demo, I wasn’t able to adopt out a single dog, but that’s the way it goes in real life, so I wasn’t too upset.

I attempt to keep all of the dogs happy and fail miserably.

While I was working with adopters, the dogs still needed me. If a dog becomes hungry, thirsty, dirty, or sick, a notification pops up on the right side of the screen. Keeping a dog satiated, healthy, and clean increases its adoptability, so it’s important to make sure they’re all feeling their best. I quickly found myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that needed to be done to keep the shelter running — which, funnily enough, was exactly how I felt when I started working at a kennel. The game runs on a day/night cycle, so I only had a few in-game hours to complete my tasks before it was time to clock out and take my own fur buddy home.

I came away from To The Rescue! hungry for more. Though Dunlap didn’t share a specific release date, the game is set to arrive this fall, and I know I’ll be playing more when it does. Earnest and colorful without being overly saccharine, challenging without being unfair, To The Rescue! looks to be a lot of fun. Now if you’ll excuse me, Zephyr needs his food changed.

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