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Rest in peace, River: Fallout 4’s Dogmeat and a companion to millions

Designer’s German shepherd guided famed sidekick’s behavior and personality

A German shepherd stands in a doorway, looking up at someone with a happy expression Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Fallout 4’s real-life Dogmeat — a German Shepherd named River, in the care of designer Joel Burgess — has passed away. By all accounts, she was a good girl.

“What we wanted was a companion first, and a combat ally second,” Burgess wrote — of Dogmeat — on Twitter on Sunday. In a thread memorializing River, he recalled that he stopped over to the desk of a new developer on the Fallout 4 team, one tasked with building the Dogmeat character, and “Research covered the walls; countless images of German Shepherds snarling, all teeth and attack postures.”

“Within a day or two, River started visiting the studio,” Burgess wrote.

Burgess wrote that by bonding with the developers, River helped them build an in-world companion who would be a friend more than “a canine weapon.” Burgess had been concerned that, without considerate development, that’s all Fallout 4’s signature companion would be.

“The more they bonded with [River], the more they saw Dogmeat as a character — a friend,” Burgess said of his colleagues.

River was the model for Dogmeat, visually as well as behaviorally. “Her markings happened to work really well for pose read + facial expression,” Burgess explained. He and fellow developer Jean Simonet would go on walks with River, where Simonet noticed “she’d trot out ahead, but consistently stop to look back and check [on] me.” That behavior went into the game, and significantly affected the game’s pathing logic, Burgess wrote.

Dogmeat is a character whose lineage extends to the first two games published by Interplay in 1997 and 1998. Dogmeat returned as a companion in Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 3 in 2008, and featured even more prominently in Fallout 4, especially in the trailers and gameplay previews introducing the game in 2015.

River’s influence on the character can also be seen in Dogmeat’s ability to find useful items (if any are in the area) on command. Burgess said colleagues Jon Paul Duvall and Jay Woodward noticed River would retrieve large objects unbidden, simply because she “loved making people happy. … Her intentions were pure, but her judgment wasn’t always perfect.”

Above all, Dogmeat as a combat AI is focused to holding your enemies in place; the character is meant to be protecting the player, “often throwing himself directly in harm’s way.” Fallout 4’s first big boss battle, with the Deathclaw in Concord, is a splendid example of that. “if you’ve ever had a German Shepherd, you understand.”

Burgess said that Fallout 4 leaves “several intentionally-conflicting clues” as to Dogmeat’s original owner, and that he can’t and won’t say which one is true. More importantly, “Like your character, Dogmeat is caught out of time,” he said. “This dog doesn’t belong here and neither do you.

“Dogmeat is a tether,” Burgess continued. “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,” Burgess said, “I am contented.”