clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
An image of creatures in Palworld toiling away at an assembly line. Image: Pocketpair

Filed under:

Palworld has kicked off a messy but fascinating debate on animal cruelty in games

Buckle up, kids, we’re talking about Palworld

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Palworld, the survival game where you recruit adorable Pokémon-like creatures and send them to fight or work, has been out for four days and is already a massive hit. On Monday morning, the Early Access version of the game reached over 1.5 million concurrent players on Steam, making it the most-played game on the platform and marking the third highest number of concurrent players on the platform of all time. The statistic doesn’t even include players who downloaded the game via Xbox Game Pass, meaning its overall active player base is likely much larger. According to its developer, Pocketpair, the game sold over 5 million copies in three days.

The buzz has turned Pocketpair into an overnight sensation. But Palworld’s release has brought its fair share of controversy that goes beyond the fact that it’s clearly riffing on Pokémon. If you remain on the outside of the Palworld phenomenon (and subsequent shitstorm), here’s how it’s all going down.

Why is Palworld so popular?

Palworld caught the attention of Steam wishlisters months ago with a catchy premise: What if Pokémon had guns? But the game’s popularity upon release goes beyond its somewhat jokey pitch. As players discovered on Friday and into the weekend, Palworld blends gameplay elements from a variety of extremely popular games. To start, it’s a survival sim, following in the footsteps of Minecraft, Raft, Valheim, and Sons of the Forest. Then it adds the not-Pokémon.

Several Palworld characters huddle around a camp Image: Pocketpair

For years, older Pokémon fans have asked for more mature versions of the game, but The Pokémon Company has stuck to releasing kid-friendly games. In the past, other games have tried to satisfy fans’ desire for a fresh take on Pokémon; Temtem, for example, allows players to experience Pokémon-like gameplay elements in a MMORPG setting. These past attempts never blew up, with player bases falling off after strong initial interest. Palworld’s popularity could follow a similar trajectory, but it does cater to the demand on the part some older Pokémon fans seeking an “adult” version of the basic creature-collecting concept. That, and the fact that Palworld actually has a fully functional multiplayer mode, which has been lacking in Pokémon games beyond Scarlet and Violet’s co-op, makes it an appealing download for casual players and a must-have for certain nostalgic Nintendo-heads.

Is Palworld animal cruelty?

In Palworld, you take adorable creatures called Pals and put them to work in your camp or make them fight other Pals. Of course, it’s up to you as a player to determine how you navigate the physical and ethical dilemmas that come with the gameplay. If you want, you can take good care of your pets and make sure they stay relatively healthy. On the flip side, you can work your Pals into the ground so hard that they develop health problems or die. You can also outright butcher your Pals, or turn them into an armed militia if you want. The array of possibilities has, maybe by design, provoked the player base and its onlookers — with some detractors of the game saying it encourages animal cruelty.

A screenshot from Palworld, showing a giant clawed creature named a Pal wielding an oversized minigun Image: Pocketpair

The game is definitely more graphic than games like Pokémon, as players swing clubs or fire automatic weapons at the creatures to subdue them for capture. However, in the current version of the game, the animation itself isn’t particularly gruesome; it censors your character when they cut up another creature. A lot of video games contain violence toward other humans and creatures — Conan Exiles has you break human people as you force them to work for you — so it’s up to each person to decide what they do or don’t feel comfortable with seeing and playing in a game.

Did the Palworld developers use AI?

Some online have accused Pocketpair of “using AI” to generate elements in the game, though so far, these claims appear to be unsubstantiated. Some of the feedback has been driven by a different game: In 2022, the team at Pocketpair created a game called AI: Art Impostor where players had to use an AI art generator as part of playing the game, leading some people to wonder if similar technology was at work in Palworld. But Steam requires developers to identify if a game was created using generative AI tools, and as of publication, the game doesn’t have that disclosure on its Steam page. In addition to that, the team has also written blog posts where they talked about hiring an artist who designed “most” of the characters for the game.

Did Palworld plagiarize Pokémon?

The release of this game is leading many fans online to think about the line between a work that’s inspired by another game versus one that’s stealing material. When does something pass the point of inspiration and reach a level of ripping off Pokémon? As of publication, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company International have not filed any lawsuit against Pocketpair for copyright infringement.

Still, this hasn’t stopped many fans online from pointing out instances where creatures in the game appear to take direct inspiration from Pokémon designs, and people online have accused Pocketpair of stealing models directly from Pokémon. The situation has also drummed up conversations about whether or not fans can or should defend a litigious company like Nintendo.

Pocketpair has stayed relatively quiet on the matter. In a tweet, CEO of Pocketpair Takuro Mizobe responded to accusations of plagiarism by saying that “productions related to Palworld are supervised by multiple people,” according to a tweet translated from Japanese into English by Google Translate. In a blog post shared on Jan. 16, the development team itself cited a variety of influences on the game, like the adventure survival game Ark: Survival Evolved and other automation games and real-time strategy games.