The difference between a roller coaster and a ring-tailed lemur is that when one has a problem it’s a mild irritation, and when the other has a problem it’s a cause of unbridled panic and guilt. There are stressful components to every management simulation game, but where Planet Coaster’s mechanical breakdowns make me worry briefly about profits, Planet Zoo’s biological breakdowns make me feel like a neglectful, abusive monster who should be dragged off to jail and never allowed near another living thing ever again.
Planet Zoo has several official modes: Career, Challenge, Sandbox, and Franchise, but its two actual modes are ‘Things Seem Fine’ and ‘Oh God What Have I Done?!’. My elephants, giraffes, orangutans, panda bears, and dozens of other furry friends can starve to death or die of dehydration if I’m not careful. They can contract diseases or get injured by fighting one another. They can feel fear and stress and the effects of isolation. They can overheat or get too cold. They can kill each other if you put the wrong animals together in the same habitat. At one point I saw protestors carrying picket signs in my park. It was because my giant burrowing cockroach’s glass box was slightly too humid for its liking. I couldn’t even keep an ugly bug that eats dead leaves happy, and I instantly felt terrible about it.
Planet Zoo isn’t just a management sim, it’s a survival game. In fact, forget that I just compared it to Planet Coaster. At its most stressful Planet Zoo is more like Frostpunk or Prison Architect. None of the lives you’re in charge of actually want to be there, and making a mistake puts those lives in danger. This is mostly a good thing—stressful experiences can be a weird sort of fun, and heart-wrenching guilt should be a feature in more games. But some of the stress of Planet Zoo is due to parts of the game not working that well.
Take my current zoo, which I’ve named Zoo Bisou. It’s still small with only a few habitats—two bears, two wolves, two nile monitors (giant lizards), one Galapagos tortoise, plus enclosed glass exhibits featuring two tarantulas and two snakes. I’ve been getting notifications for a while now that my bear’s habitat is a disease risk because it’s not clean, but repeatedly sending one of my zookeepers over to vacuum up enormous bear turds hasn’t made the notification go away.
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