Each Monday, Marsh Davies sticks his beak into Steam Early Access and returns with whatever stories and/or pearlescent, writhing grubs he can find. This week, he pops a wriggler onto a hook and tosses it into the gentle waters of Dovetail Games Fishing.
“Welcome to the great indoors,” is Dovetail Games’ pitch for its simulation; all the fun of fishing without the need to cultivate a box of maggots in your fridge and then stand for hours on a mudbank while your core temperature slowly drops.
The current build doesn’t offer all the fun of fishing yet, though. It’s pretty slight, even given the lower Early Access asking price of a fiver. There’s a tutorial, teaching you the basics of casting a line and reeling it in, some challenge modes which ask you to lob your bait into circular targets within a time limit, and “Freedom Fishing” which entails liberating the same fish from the same body of water over and over again for as long as you can bear.
In fairness to the developers, they themselves warn potential customers not to purchase expecting a full game - that £5 entitles you only to be a part of an ongoing development. But they do claim to have implemented the core action of pointlessly terrorising fish for pleasure. For once, I can actually hold this simulation to some sort of standard of reality, as I have actually been fishing - although I was only nine, never caught anything and I now realise that the entire sodden trip was a pretext for my mate’s dad to see his mistress, having first ditched us at the side of a lonely reservoir.
Deserting a pair of nervous pre-pubescents by a reservoir is the kind of thing you could do in 1992 with relative safety. Things are different now, but you wouldn’t realise that from Dovetail Games Fishing, which paints a picture of perfect, restive bucolia - all dappled sunlight and birdsong - and not the sort of oily backwater full of half-submerged shopping trolleys, soiled prophylactics and hammer-wielding amphibious sexual predators which we now know to be the real world of 2014.
The camera sweeps in to reveal my burly, bestubbled avatar standing beside a twinkling body of water, looking purposeful and well-equipped, immediately making the simulation even more alien to my experience. Perhaps blessedly, I don’t have to fiddle with the unpleasant process of puncturing a maggot with a hook. Instead, I’m instructed to press F to adopt the casting posture, and hold down the right mouse button to open the ball arm and grip the line. I don’t remember what a ball arm is, but I imagine it’s some sort of unsightly genetic malformation. With this aberrant growth activated, I drag the mouse back to heave the rod above my head like a samurai poised to attack a melon. Then I dash it forward and release the mouse button. The line unspools with a protracted “zizzle” sound, and yet somehow travels no distance, slowly floating to rest around my shoulders and feet. I must have released too soon.
Another attempt or two and I’m getting the hang of slinging the line to the far end of the pond. It feels nice - there’s a pleasing whip motion to the mouse-movements that mimics what little I recall of casting an actual line. The downside is that it demands a lot of desk-space for you to scrape the mouse back and forth, even with the sensitivity settings pushed up.
After passing a few competency challenges, only occasionally by accident, I move on to the “Fish-On” tutorial, which is hip fisherperson speak for “what to do when a fish is hooked”. The answer is: press left mouse button. This reels the fish in steadily. Or I can tap it, too, for reasons that are not clear to me. At any rate, when the fish takes the bait, it will suddenly start ricocheting all over the pond. I don’t want it in the reeds, because it’ll tangle the line and the fish might escape and live a marginally happier life. So I swing the mouse in the opposite direction, keep reeling, and tickle the mouse-wheel up. This increases the tension on the line - although I’m a little confused because I thought winding in the line would put tension on it anyway. Maybe this is an extra special kind of tension. The game warns me you can have too much of it, and clearly I do, as the fish promptly thrashes free. How dare it?
I see more success by wheeling up the tension just enough to start resting the fish away from the direction it’s desperately trying to swim, but no further. Eventually it tires out, and I can begin hauling it in.
There’s something not entirely plausible about the way the hooked fish seems to pinball between opposite banks of the pond, but what do I know? I never even caught a tiddler, let alone a carp the size of my thigh - which is what I apparently yank from the pond here. I pose for the camera with my exhausted, traumatized, suffocating prize, before slinging it back from whence it came, revealing this entire exercise to be nothing but a cruel paeon to my own human vanity.
The full game promises more fish types, more environments and freely navigable banksides, so you can pick your own spot. Will that be enough? While I appreciate that the game excises many of the grim hardships of venturing into the Great Outdoors, with all its mud and maggots, it also excises the part of fishing which is contemplative, where you sit and consider the splendour and cruelty of the natural world, and physically feel your place within it. All this is possibly the point of fishing, more than the actual catching of fish - and if a game can’t easily recreate that sense of extreme, profound stillness, then it needs to offer more than a rapid, repetitive abstraction of casting and capturing. It needs to be more varied, more granular, more tactile and more tactical in its approach to catching a fish - a promise the game may well yet reel in, but hasn’t nearly hooked yet.
Dovetail Games Fishing costs £5 on Steam, and I played version 220.127.116.11 available on 07/11/2014.