The word ‘Endling’ refers to the last member of a species. When that animal dies, the species goes extinct.
Alright you vultures, laugh it up. While my coworker was playing that cat game that my social media feed is going completely feral over, I spent the past week screaming because my fox babies are hungry and I can’t find food, all while being hunted by scavengers and furriers.
You play as the last fox mother on earth, desperately trying to keep your four kits alive and fed in a world being consumed and destroyed by capitalist greed. Endling: Extinction is Forever is a game that when I first heard about it, I knew instantly that it was the kind of game that would make me cry, and I was right. What I wasn’t at all prepared for was the adrenaline responses this game keeps giving me. The game features no dialogue—you are a fox, after all—instead telling a story through background details and world design.
Endling isn’t a very long game for its price tag. HowLongToBeat lists it at between three to four hours long. I beat it in just over three and a half, and that includes the time I spent constantly reloading my saves to retry nights that went poorly. As always with indie titles, whether the price of admission is worth the time spent is much more subjective than AAA games.
Last of a Dying Breed
I was unprepared for how brutally hard Endling is.
Don’t let the visuals fool you, 90% of the time, Endling is a 2D game. How it works is that you are stuck on a series of trails and pathways, with the option of going left or right. While these roads can move around and twist and curve, you are stuck following them, so they’re functionally linear. There are certain places where climbing or jumping can put you on a higher or lower track, and these tracks can be perpendicular to your previous track, but you are still confined to left and right; the game has simply recontextualized these directions.
Every night, you leave your den with your kits trailing behind you. In the bottom corner is a green bar representing the collective hunger of the babies. Over time, this bar will drain, ticking ever closer to empty. Once it runs out, one of your kits will slow down considerably, with a timer above their head. This is your warning. Don’t waste it.
Some food is lying around for you to steal, like garbage or bird eggs. Others have to be caught, like mice, fish, and rabbits. Catching an animal requires you to sneak up on it while their back is turned. If they see or hear you, they’ll run.
How much a specific piece of food will fill the hunger meter is dependent on that food. Meat gives the most, but finding and catching animals is much harder than finding berries or fruit.
A video game protagonist wakes up in an on-fire science lab with nothing but an AI and a high-tech gun to…
But stalking prey is only one of the uses of your sneaking ability. You aren’t the only predator out there. Owls will snatch your kits if they hear you, and there are several humans who have it out for you. The Scavenger has a gun that instantly kills you if they shoot you, but I’m honestly more terrified of the Furrier. If he spots you, he will hunt you relentlessly compared to the stationary Scavenger, and evading him is extremely difficult. Figuring out a route to loop around him back to your den or hiding in a bush is basically all you can do.
It doesn’t help that there’s a time limit. I don’t know what happens at sunrise, but the game makes it clear that whatever it is, you do not want to be out during the day.
This is where the crux of the challenge comes from. You have to balance getting more food against your time limit. You can go out farther and see if there’s something to eat, but what if there isn’t? Will you have enough time to get back?
And as an extra wrinkle, some nights you’ll smell a trace of your missing kit, and you can try to track them by finding the three objects that smell like your kit. Following these trails can reveal new areas and even new dens that have some meat in them for your kits the first time you use them.
That hunger meter drains quickly, and sometimes will drain in large chunks while your kits sleep. While the game tells you if this will happen, I don’t know specifically what triggers it, and sometimes I had it go away after I went and stocked up on more food to compensate for the effect that was no longer there. The game autosaves every time you sleep in your den, and I personally abused this to keep all my kits alive, because a single bad night of hunting can leave you playing catch up for a while.
Endling looks gorgeous. I’m always a sucker for well-done cell shading, and Endling has that in spades. But it’s not just the aesthetic that Endling has going for it, the visual and sound design is absolutely on point.
The character design tells so much of this story on its own. Late in the game I spotted a protest sign about dwindling oxygen, but I already knew that was a problem because everyone in the game wears a gas mask. Hostile characters wear masks that make their eyes glow, differentiating them from the people who might be willing to give you some scraps.
There are only a few music tracks in the game, but given the length I’m not too bothered by that. Especially when they’re all incredible. The music is melancholy and perfectly sets the tone of foraging in a dying world. The fact that the Scavenger and the Furrier have their own themes that play when you’re in danger from them is genius. Nothing gets your blood pumping like hearing the frantic Furrier theme before you’ve even seen him, and knowing you have to go now.
Some of the characters sing too, like Molly or the Wanderer. These songs have no lyrics, and the vocalizations could hardly be mistaken for them, but they’re nonetheless beautiful and reassuring.
The map and the HUD are your greatest assets for survival, marking certain dangers and points of interest for you and giving you warnings of nearby threats, as well as letting you plan routes to escape if necessary.
Not every threat can be found on the map, though. Owls have to be listened for. And while you can smell nearby prey, you’ll usually hear them first. Herobeat Studios achieved this using a program called Wwise (sic), one I’m familiar with. It’s a great tool for providing directional sounds. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for the ability to listen to your surroundings. It will save your life.
Despite Everything, There Are Still Kind People
Tragedy is already knowing how it all ends, knowing that you can’t change it. But we play the songs, the performances, the stories, the games anyway, because maybe this time… this time will be different.
The game opens with a world on fire.
You, a fox, must navigate a burning forest that’s collapsing around you, blocking off paths and spreading wild panic throughout the other animals. Eventually you’re knocked off a cliff by the last acts of a terrified moose, desperate to extinguish its burning antlers.
Wounded, you crawl to your den, and give birth to four foxes.
The genius of this scene is not the shot of humans destroying the forest with flamethrowers, but the fact that the shot is optional. You can play the entire game without ever learning what set the fires. Seeing them requires you to move past a button prompt that you use to proceed so that you can reach a dead end.
You spend the next few nights gathering food for them, helping them grow and survive, only for a human to steal one of your kits while you’re asleep.
Endling: Extinction is Forever really wants you to understand the consequences of industrial waste and reckless greed, but at the same time it strikes the fine balance of drawing your attention to events without beating you over the head with them. Early on, for example, you can see a dump truck in the distance pouring garbage and pollutants into the river by your den. It’s framed so that you’ll see it instantly, and as the only other thing moving on screen, you’re almost certain to spot it. Even so, it took me a few nights before I swung by the river for fish and realized that they were all gone.
This is far from the last time Endling pulls this trick, and the game ups the devastation each time, but as the game progresses, you’re less concerned about the mass deforestation and waste then you are with how this affects your ability to get food. That’s the genius of it. By framing the destruction from a non-human perspective, all of the background details about humans fade away. I didn’t care about the rusted sign reading ‘Oxygen is a right!’ because I had bigger fish to fry: finding big fish to fry before we starved.
Your kits are adorable and endearing, and watching the hunger meter drain away while you’re powerless to stop it is some of the best storytelling in any game I’ve ever played. This is the kind of thing that interactive narratives enable. The game never had to spell out anything for me, because the gameplay carried all of the story and themes they wanted to tell. It’s incredible.
The story of Endling: Extinction is Forever actually follows multiple human characters in addition to the little fox family. The Scavenger, who stole your kit in the first place. The Furrier, a man seemingly consumed with loathing for foxes and willing to skin you for your fur. Molly, a young girl and the only named character in the game. And all the other humans doing their best with a bad hand.
You meet these characters while searching for your kit, following the scent of your child to discarded items and learning more about the lives these people lead. Or you see them in the background as you search for food.
Without a word of dialogue, you learn quite a lot about who these people are and why they do what they do.
I want to highlight the title of this section, ‘Despite Everything, There Are Still Kind People.’ This is a loading screen hint, and my all-time favorite loading screen hint in any game ever made.
Whether your kits survive the game is entirely up to you.
Maybe this time…
2022 has been one of the strongest years for Indie titles, and Endling is no exception. Every part of Endling comes together in one of the strongest complete packages I’ve ever seen. This is the first game I’m giving a full 100 on one of the three scores we use at Indie Game Fans, and I couldn’t imagine a better pick to give it to. Frankly, I have to. How could I give this game’s story less than a perfect when it left me openly weeping?
Releasing so close to Stray may have been a mistake, but we’ll have to see.