Among Capcom's E3 titles was a somewhat mysterious downloadable title called Flock, erroneously pegged early on as a "sheep herding simulator". I got to have the title demoed for me by Proper Games design lead Geoff Gunning, a cheerful Scotsman, and had the mystery cleared up.
It's not a sheep-herding sim, but there is sheep herding. There is herding of adorable cotton ball sheep who live in a fluffy, stuffed-toy looking world, grazing peacefully in a patchwork meadow. The stitch-edged, pastoral aesthetic is sweet, gentle, and just a little offbeat, in the context of the quirky and sometimes hilariously grim gameplay.
The player controls an orange UFO with a tractor beam, and an individual level's objective generally revolves around getting a certain number of sheep to the mother ship. The tractor beam must nudge the sheep carefully around pitfalls and use strategy to navigate obstacles — for example, when confronted with a fence, lead the cotton wool sheep to a water fountain and they'll shrink enough to pass under the fence.
If it sounds a bit like Lemmings, that's unsurprising — developer Proper Games was behind Lemmings back in the day, too.
Sometimes, sheep can die, leaving the player with fewer than is needed to complete the level. What happens in nature when populations get thin? Well, many levels have pink lady sheep standing plaintively alone — lead her and a male sheep together to a heart-shaped patch on the meadow. Hearts surround them to give them privacy, and then voila! Baby sheep!
The male sheep get attached to the ladies, though. Should she be led astray and allowed to accidentally tumble into a pit, the entire flock bursts into lovelorn tears.
My favourite aspect of Flock was the playland aesthetic — something almost warm-milk adorable about the fluffy stuffed toy world, and I thought it was quite a creative move on the developers' part, not only to imagine the meadow levels in such an unexpected way, but to have it stand in contrast to gameplay where sheep mate on heart-shaped patches and tumble easily to their death while being chased by aliens.