In my first few hours of playing Endling: Extinction is Forever, I found shelter in the engine of an abandoned plane. Nestled improbably in the middle of a forest that seemed to have grown up around it, it was the perfect place for my character, a lone red fox, and her cubs to rest away from the world. Whenever I left, rabbits ran past my door, and if I walked a few minutes down the road a girl in a gas mask would give me berries from her hand.
It was too idyllic to last, I knew. One day when I woke up, the trees were gone and the sky was a gunmetal gray. A digging machine crouched motionless nearby. A split tree trunk bisected the road I’d walked a dozen times, and men with axes walked around it and gestured to each other, speaking a language I could intuit but not understand: nature was being remade into something else.
Endling: Extinction is Forever is about surviving the end of a small world. More straightforwardly, it’s a survival game with light stealth elements developed by Herobeat Studios, where you play as a mother fox trying to protect her babies as their home is deforested and turned into a landfill. When one of your cubs is lured away and stolen by a hunter, you have to follow a series of randomly-appearing scent trails that lead you around the map to piece together the mystery of where they’ve been taken.
This isn’t your only responsibility, though; you have three other babies to feed. Finding food and avoiding predators become your daily tasks. You have to watch your cubs’ food meter, which gets low each night and reduces over time as you explore, requiring you to seek out food as you go. You also have to watch out for your safety; if you get injured, the next hazard you encounter will kill you, and your cubs will die without your support.
Another resource you have to manage is time: you have until the sun comes up every morning to return to your den, or you’ll have to get past more humans to make it home. You end up balancing time and hunger, as well as the uncovering of memories, which disappear after a few days. Although a lot of the map is open from the start, giving the illusion of choice, wandering to new areas before memories direct you there usually puts you up against routes you can’t open or enemies you can’t get by. Encountering these enemies, particularly one who roams the map and searches for you, is the most frustrating part of the game, and was responsible for all of my resets. Generally I found it was best to wait to go to new areas until the prompt to investigate a memory there showed up. That said, you have plenty of time to explore between memories, and more than enough time each night to get to areas and see parts of them before the sun comes up.
Endling generates empathy through familiarity. The map you’re working within slowly grows larger, and your cubs begin to come with you on your hunts. You have to do a lot of backtracking to reach new areas, and new traps, animals, and roadblocks will appear in places you previously found safe. It’s easy to get turned around, and I used the map very often to note where I needed to go and where predators were, like the Scavenger, a flashlighted enemy who can kill you in one hit. Eventually, I knew enough about the area around my den that I only needed to check the map occasionally. Until this happened, though, navigating could be confusing, and given that a lot of the game takes place in low light, it was easy to miss a ledge or a detour that I needed to take.
By building familiarity with this small piece of the world, Endling really makes you notice when it changes. You see the seasons shift from winter to spring, which initially creates more food abundance, but eventually ongoing deforestation devastates the forest life and forces you into human-populated and therefore more hazardous areas. Eating trash becomes a necessity. Eventually, parts of the landscape become indistinct from each other. Day and night become interchangeable. The swamp rises to meet the land. It’s always raining. Navigating to the memories you need to advance the story becomes not just more time consuming, but more dangerous.
Endling is explicitly a story about the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations. Though the narrative never reveals this, the fox you control is the last living one of her species on the planet. In an interview with Unwinnable Magazine in 2020, lead programmer Javier Ramello said Endling’s narrative was a result of investigating “what the world will be like in the next 50 or 100 years if we do not change our consumption habits. Unfortunately, the result of that investigation revealed to us a world in which even adaptable animals that today are far from danger, like foxes, will likely be on the verge of extinction.”
Given Endling’s choice to raise awareness of climate change by focusing on animals affected by human encroachment, it’s not surprising that I felt more empathy for these foxes than I did for the humans that surrounded them, even the good ones. And Endling does (usually) divide its characters into good and bad: humans are predators whose toxic cycles are turning back on themselves, or they are kind, gentle, and capable of interacting with you and your cubs without hurting you. Some of them have more nuance—a fisherman who will hurt you for trying to steal his fish, while his friend relaxes and fishes himself—but many of the humans are gas-masked and indistinguishable, just animated obstacles. When it comes time to consider some of them as full people, it’s hard to make that dissonance disappear.
In contrast, every emotional beat related to the foxes hits. The mother fox and her babies move and behave like foxes do: they emote in whines and barks, tilt their heads to listen to far away sounds, and sniff the ground to find food. You pick the color of your babies at the beginning and spend time watching them every night when you go to sleep. You can press the Y button anytime to interact with your cubs; even in the most torn-apart environment, you have time to play.
The emotional punch the theft of your first cub delivers is very successful. It is very, very sad to create your cubs and then immediately have one of them stolen. I never had one of my cubs die, but the danger is always there, and I can likewise imagine that loss being both emotionally and technically brutal. These emotional moments are frequently outside your control; those tended to feel more serious, while mistakes I made that resulted in a death or a near miss felt less consequential. Whenever the Scavenger killed me, I simply restarted the day. In contrast, when your first cub is stolen, you can track it a ways before a message informs you the trail has ended and you have to find food for your other three cubs. There’s simply nothing else you can do.
These kinds of events—something happens to you, and you can do nothing in response—are Endling’s main way of making the helplessness of extinction apparent. Frequently, you are up against situations where you can’t succeed. This gels with the overall story Endling is telling: you’re a fox facing human industrialization, and everything but your immediate situation is outside your control. At the same time, when the game’s main strategy for creating tension is putting you in situations you can’t affect, or can only change slightly, it becomes very obvious very quickly when you’re in a situation where your actions can have an impact, and when you’re simply following along.
At the conclusion of my time playing Endling I found myself more moved by the experience of playing as a fox and establishing familiarity with the changing roads and waterways that made up my home, all as I watched my cubs grow up. The surrounding mystery plot and its attempts to complicate humanity’s negative influence largely fell flat for me. Luckily, though, this plot is a pretext to engage with the much more interesting survival sections of the game, and balancing food, time, and safety was a loop that never got old. A lot of the time, I found myself emotional not because of a preconstructed story beat but because of something that happened organically, like when I snuck past an owl and comforted my cubs, or when I found a lone fire that no one had put out and stood by it for a while, listening to the birds sing around me (they too, of course, would soon be gone). These small moments were what made the game a success in my eyes, and what turned it from a sometimes stressful experience into a more meditative and complex one.
Endling does something difficult: it balances a coherent message about climate disaster with gameplay that is genuinely fun and lightly challenging. It avoids feeling like a simple educational game while also hitting emotional highs that underscore humanity’s impact on animal populations. A story that becomes overly simplistic in its back half and some frustrating stealth sections aren’t enough to stop the game from being an engaging survival experience, or to dilute its brutally honest message about the challenges that await us as we hurtle towards warming without adequate regulations. Endling’s greatest skill is in making us empathize with the animals we live among, and in making it clear that though they bear the effects of climate change before we do, our fates are ultimately entwined.