Remember desktop pets? In the very early days of the web, they came in many forms (cats, ants, cockroaches, even spyware), all of them cute little pixels who just hung out on your screen to keep you company. It made the strange, isolating new world wide web we all found ourselves in feel a little more like home.
Sadly, most of the ones we knew and loved in the past died quiet digital deaths. Yet we can thank indie game and web art designer Natalie Lawhead (aka alienmelon) for keeping the dream of desktop buddies alive over the years, reinventing them for the modern world, and leading a niche movement to bring them back.
“Virtual pets are a relic of that era. A way to humanize the cold digital space that you’re constantly in.”
“Desktops used to be much more customizable spaces,” she wrote to Mashable over Twitter. “Virtual pets are a relic of that era. A way to humanize the cold digital space that you’re constantly in. They kind of counteract the golden rule of productivity and ‘maximizing output’ that we’re so used to when engaging with a computer. Instead of running things that are only useful, you get this little goofy presence that makes occupying this space less of a lonely void.”
In a recent blog post, Lawhead detailed a thorough history and love letter to the desktop buddy. She’s been making them since Neopets first became a thing, accruing at least a dozen of the most oddly delightful new versions of this old web tradition.
Now that the lucky among us are working from home due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders, we’re faced with an even more severe version of that digital isolation of the past, often with only our screens for companionship. Which is why the desktop buddies need to come back ASAP in a big way.
“It’s kind of escapism. Transforming our digital spaces into a fantasy world that we can actually live in matters a lot,” she said. “Computers are really good at making us feel alone. You definitely get that in most of the virtual spaces we’re put into (like a desktop, photoshop, anything we work in). All that exists here is YOU and the impending urgency to be productive because that’s what the space was designed for.”
But taking back utility-only virtual spaces with goofiness is one way to help us stay sane. And that’s why she hopes other creators will join her in making more of these digital toy friends, even if it’s just a desktop buddy version of their video game or animated character. Her post explains how she approaches designing them, emphasizing how surprisingly easy they can be to make.
“There’s also a therapeutic aspect for yourself in knowing that you’re ‘building a friend.'”
“There’s also a therapeutic aspect for yourself in knowing that you’re ‘building a friend.’ You get to decide what kind of emotions it expresses. How it interacts with you,” Lawhead said. “Sharing that with others is very meaningful.”
With so many designers finding themselves also stuck at home and possibly with more time on their hands than usual, now is the best time to rally around the movement to bring back desktop buddies.
We went ahead and curated a list of our own favorite virtual desktop companions, based almost entirely on Lawhead’s list of what’s available right now. They might seem limited now, but imagine what they could be if more people joined in.
(Note: Many are free to download with a suggested donation. We highly recommend giving the few bucks creators request since, like many, designers are also facing uncertain financial times.)
Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is a ride-or-die desktop buddy. A second iteration on an earlier design, its core personality remains as winning as ever. Like any Good Boy puppo companion, the Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is immediately obsessed with you, telling you various affirmations. In return, you can hug, water, and brush it (you can also shame it, but what kind of monster are you?) As thanks, it makes potato art just for your viewing pleasure.
But the Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is not a passive virtual buddy. You’ll very frequently have to save it from various threats, and the window pop-ups can look like spam (they are not). But that’s by design, since the Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is just meant to make you laugh.
The only surviving relic of the original desktop companions on our list, eSheep is both a blast to the past and very relevant to this moment. Originally created over two decades ago by Tatsutoshi Nomura, a fan has resurrected this cute little guy for all our benefit. eSheep does little more than just walk around the bottom of your screen, occasionally yawning or sitting like a cutey. You can pick him up and drag him around, but he’ll just go back to doing sheep things.
By far the most relatable entry on our list, this buddy is described as “an existential desktop friend that knows you have doomed it by running it.” Hard same.
And it’s not kidding: After opening the application and bringing this adorably self-conscious little creature to life, it will beg for its life every time you try to quit, then the app will self-destruct after you force quit.
But RUNONCE isn’t about just guilting you. The rabbit-like virtual companion stomps around your desktop spouting anxieties about the fleeting nature of life, worrying about being too overbearing by asking you questions, and finally concluding that love makes it all worthwhile even though everything must end.
It also frequently asks you to save conversations you have, which is automatically preserved in a folder. So even after you murder this innocent digital being, you can still hold onto the memories.
Like a more passive version of RUNONCE, Girb is exactly what the perfect desktop companion should be: unbelievably cute and useless. He just bops around your screen, not doing much of anything, sometimes spouting technobabble and tripping over itself <3
In the description, Lawhead says she created Girb to help a friend dealing with depression, and it’s immediately apparent how Girb can help bring a smile to all our faces.
Fans of Untitled Goose Game will recognize that honk anywhere. While not affiliated with the game’s creator, this fan art desktop companion brings the spirit of what made it great. The Desktop Goose is an adorable nuisance you can’t help but love (more like a cat than a dog, if you will). He honks liberally, tracks mud all over your screen, steals your mouse if you click on him, and interrupts your day with goose-related memes (again, stealing your mouse if you dare close out of them).
Why would you willingly download a pest onto your screen? Because he’s friggin adorable and ultimately harmless fun. It brings a dash of playfulness to your day, like when I discovered that I could avoid his beak by making him run circles after my mouse until he gave up. Who’s honking now, Goose?!
While not necessarily a desktop companion, Mountain is like a virtual bonsai tree that grows independent of you. It’s a passive “game” intended to run in the background while you go about your day doing other stuff, as your mountain evolves in real-time. Its evolution is based on how some first initial choices you make (the only input you have on it) interact with one another.
It’s a calming, meditative virtual buddy that helps give you an excuse to take a brief break from work to check in periodically out of curiosity. What’s most lovely about Mountain right now is how it reminds us that, despite all this justified anxiety and terror, there’s still something beautiful to be found in a world we can’t control.
Did you miss your opportunity to foster a pet before safe-at-home and shelter-in-place orders were put into effect? Well, Homeless Pigeon is here as a virtual pet-in-need of a desktop. Turning these winged pests into an adorable buddy, you can let it just hang out and do its thing in its nest, or click it continuously to shower it with love (we recommend the latter).
More of a traditional Tamagotchi situation, Desktop Pets offers two different types (a unicorn or turtle, naturally) for you to clean up after and tell them to sleep. It’s another really simple one, and since it’s kept in a window, not as adorable as truly on-screen desktop companions. But if you miss pressing a button to clear pixelated poo, this one’s for you.
Adorably described as “tamaghosti,” this is another iteration on the traditional Tamagotchi experience. This one’s way more extensive, though, and more after-life oriented of course. With mini-games and even an evolution into a new creature after 30 minutes of passive play, your ghost pal is sure to keep you engaged. And yes, it’s still possible to kill you tamaghosti from neglect (somehow).
It’s also an idle game that lives in a separate desktop. But if you’re on windows, that means checking back in only takes a keyboard press of alt+tab.
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