Former Fallout dev Joel Burgess shared the sad news on Twitter that the real-life doggo who inspired Fallout 4’s best companion has passed away. River, the German Shepherd who provided much of the reference and personality behind Dogmeat, died. Burgess, who now works as a director at Capybara Games, said, “Heartbroken doesn’t cover it.”
Warning: This post discusses the death of a pet. Though not explicit, it discusses fond memories of the animal and could be triggering for those still dealing with the loss of their own pet.
Burgess tweeted through the night about River’s impact on the game, noting that “writing about game dev hurts less than grieving.” Burgess said that the team originally explored the design of Dogmeat by “researching some ‘professional’ dogs, with film and/or police training,” noted Burgess. “Lots of games go this route, and for good reason. But in the end we didn’t.”
The catalyst for their change in direction was when Burgess saw a desk full of reference photos of German Shepherds at their worst: “snarling, all teeth and attack postures.” But Burgess said he wanted to make sure that Fallout 4’s canine companion wasn’t just a weapon. Within days, he began bringing River to the studio.
Burgess explained that River became a part of the team and that simply being around was “her biggest job.” So while some poking and prodding may have been crucial to supply reference, bonding with the various devs is what played a critical role in shaping Dogmeat’s in-game personality and behavior. “The more they bonded with her, the more they saw Dogmeat as a character – a friend,” said Burgess.
For while the number of devs on the Dogmeat team were simply a handful, River “stole hearts around the studio” and soon more and more of the overall project staff at Bethesda Game Studios who spent time with her began to find ways to “pitch in and help bring her personality into the game.”
Dogmeat’s look is a deliberate match with that of Rivers. “Her markings happened to work really well for pose read and facial expression,” noted Burgess. They also used audio from her, avoiding stock sounds whenever possible. To get distress calls, Burgess had to lock himself out of sight of River. “These sessions were a little heartbreaking but they also turned out to be great references for happy little celebration yips.”
It’s safe to say that Burgess and the rest of Team Dogmeat succeeded in making River’s lovable personality a key part of what makes Dogmeat a true friend. So many of his behaviors such as the way he trots ahead of the Sole Survivor but looks back to check on them or how he looks for things to fetch and bring over were informed by River.
Burgess provided some interesting context for what Team Dogmeat’s intentions have always been. Talking about “the Big Idea,” Burgess wrote, “Like your character, Dogmeat is caught out of time. This dog doesn’t belong here, and neither do you. The strange thing about Dogmeat is that nothing’s strange about Dogmeat.”
“Dogmeat is a tether. He grounds you in the world, will always stand by you, lead you to your family, and anticipate your needs. He wants you to be safe and happy. In other words, he loves you. And if love is River’s legacy, I am contented. Rest in peace, big girl.”