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Tux and Fanny, the Instagram series-turned-game, is a delightful surprise

Exploring a weird and wonderful world

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Tux and Fanny, the 2019 film by Albert Birney, begins with the two characters — both pixelated in a striking, blocky style, one purple and the other pink — kicking around a soccer ball before a cat with fleas strolls by. The characters originated in a series of 79 one-minute Instagram clips depicting a weird and wonderful exploration of friendship and hijinks. The New Yorker described it as possessing “giddy inventiveness” that’s both “precise and emotionally calibrated,” its simply-drawn world and characters toying with a sweet and strange story.

That idea has since been adapted into a video game, also called Tux and Fanny, and it’s something of a prequel. Created by Birney and Gabriel Koenig of Ghost Time Games (Test Tube Titans), Tux and Fanny once again stars Tux and Fanny — still purple, pink, and pixelated — who want to kick around a soccer ball. But they’ve found it deflated. Of course, it’s not as simple as just finding a pump and filling the soccer ball with air. Like the movie before it, Tux and Fanny (the game) is constantly surprising. The initial goal of inflating a soccer ball opens up Tux and Fanny to so many little questions. The journey starts inside their quaint, shared home, then it sprawls outside into an ever-expanding world.

tux and fanny watching a sunset Image: Ghost Time Games, Albert Birney

It’s both a puzzle game and an exploration game, clearly inspired by retro point-and-click adventures. The player guides four different characters: Tux, Fanny, a black cat, and a flea. Each of these characters can be played, and I must swap between them if I’m to solve the game’s mysteries. Puzzles, stories, and even new games unfold from one another quickly and abundantly. For instance, I’ve been following the consequences of one simple action — making a cup of tea — for hours now, and somehow, that quest has led me straight to a pair of vomit-soaked boats. Though silly, surreal, and often absurd, Tux and Fanny’s various story threads balance humor with genuine joy and a dark bleakness, interspersed between sweet moments of discovery and introspection.

In following these threads, Tux and Fanny transcends its original art style by introducing new games — literally found on floppy discs hidden in the world — that are essential to Tux and Fanny’s lives. In these games within the game, the pixelated characters may enter a surreal 3D world, turn to claymation, or find themselves rendered in watercolor paint. Heck, there’s even a home simulation video game that has me playing a looped section over and over again; the loop changes slightly each time, eventually descending into nonsense. And yet, it makes complete sense.

boots covered in cat puke Image: Ghost Time Games, Albert Birney

Tux and Fanny may sound like it lacks structure. But that’s not how it feels to play. It’s structured around the joy and surprise of discovery, and it’s clear that every seemingly random detail — down to a worm in a digestive tract — has a purpose. Knowing this, Tux and Fanny has an appealing sense of ease; it’s not that the game’s puzzles aren’t hard, but it’s comforting to know that every piece of them has a purpose. Sometimes, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with a certain object, but instead of stressing out or getting stuck on an idea, I simply move along and keep searching the world. Tux and Fanny is leading me to something, somewhere — I just haven’t found that particular something just yet.

Tux and Fanny allows for some discovery just for the sake of discovery, too. I’ll hear birdsong and pull out my binoculars to find a robin or an owl, which is then lovingly catalogued in hand-drawn detail in a birdwatching book back at Tux and Fanny’s home. (Birdwatching brings me absolute joy in real-life, too.) The same goes for bugs, other critters, and even plant life: I’ve felt delight in finding a crayon-drawn flower, or a complex pixel bug. I imagine I’ve played about 10 hours of the game so far, and there’s so much yet that I don’t know. More importantly, there’s so much that I still want to know. Tux and Fanny is a true, surprising delight where every click is a question: What is there to find here? The answers feel endless.

a pixel robin on a branch, with a blue background Image: Ghost Time Games, Albert Birney

Tux and Fanny is available on Mac, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC for $10.