I got separated from my parents when I was eight. We made a family trip to an airshow with every kind of military aircraft I could dream of. With my head (and eyes) lost in the clouds, I lost sight of my folks in a crowd of thousands. The longer I was lost, the more I panicked. Escalating tears dripped from my face as I desperately scanned for a familiar face. A young woman found me. She was pretty and smelled nice and she must have been a volunteer for the event because she brought me to the tent where they make announcements and stayed with me, stroking my hair until I calmed down. Eventually my parents came, my mom angrily accusing my dad for losing one of the three of us. I don’t remember much else from that day, but that young woman’s kindness stuck with me.
You could call Paws a walking simulator, though I think “lostness simulator” might be more apt as I spent most of the game simply putting one foot in front of the other, feeling disconnected and vulnerable. I follow the scent of my mama lynx (represented by her shape in a spectral purple glow). I deviate to hunt small game. And at one point I have to sneak past violently-protective mother swans.
Paws lets me enjoy the top of the food chain for the better part of the game, but when I suddenly found myself at the top of a plateau, I realized for the first time that I was in true danger. Wolves cut loose in a mad-dash in my direction—fortunately, for larger prey than myself: a family of deer just past me. While I’m relieved to know that I’m not food now, I know the wolves will be be back.
Soon, I find somebody who might help me:
“Have you seen my mama?”
“Oh? Hi Hungry, my mama’s scent came through here. Did you see her?. Big fluffy ears—”
“Oh! I thought Hungry was a weird name for a bear cub. Want a bird? I’ll catch one for you.”
“Here you go.”
“Mmmm. Om! So. Nom. Just. Wanna. Yum. Shake, shake. Paw, paw. Do the bear cub ra-ra!”
“That’s a cute dance you just did.”
“Thanks! You’re a lynx, right?”
“I think I saw your mama. Wanna ride my back? I can help you.”
“Yeah, you can be my family until I find my mama!”
Baby bear and I work cooperatively. He helps me reach higher heights by letting me climb and jump off of his back. I return the favor by pushing-over loose trees so he can follow me. We hunt together. We play together. We follow my mama’s scent together. And at the end of a long day of searching for my family, we find a safe cove and curl up together. We end the day in a pile—as I did with my family—but this time as a temporary family: bear cub and lynx cub.
The kindness and generosity of this bear cub stuck with me long after the game finished; and I found my way back home. I know he’s just an NPC bear, but there was a connection there beyond words. Though I knew the bear cub couldn’t cohabitate with the lynx family, he felt like an expanded part of home. That bear cub reminds me of the friends that have carried me in my worst episodes of lostness—and he reminds me of the holy longing for help when we’re away from home.