Remember desktop pets? In the very early days of the web, they came in many forms (catsantscockroaches, even spyware), all of the cute little pixels who just hung out on your screen to keep you company. It made the strange, isolating new world wide web we all found ourselves in feel a little more like home.

Sadly, most of the ones we knew and loved in the past died quiet digital deaths. Yet we can thank indie game and web art designer Natalie Lawhead (aka alienmelon) for keeping the dream of desktop buddies alive over the years, reinventing them for the modern world, and leading a niche movement to bring them back. 

“Virtual pets are a relic of that era. A way to humanize the cold digital space that you’re constantly in.”

“Desktops used to be much more customizable spaces,” she wrote to Mashable over Twitter. “Virtual pets are a relic of that era. A way to humanize the cold digital space that you’re constantly in. They kind of counteract the golden rule of productivity and ‘maximizing output’ that we’re so used to when engaging with a computer. Instead of running things that are only useful, you get this little goofy presence that makes occupying this space less of a lonely void.”

In a recent blog post, Lawhead detailed a thorough history and love letter to the desktop buddy. She’s been making them since Neopets first became a thing, accruing at least a dozen of the most oddly delightful new versions of this old web tradition.

Now that the lucky among us are working from home due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders, we’re faced with an even more severe version of that digital isolation of the past, often with only our screens for companionship. Which is why the desktop buddies need to come back ASAP in a big way.

“It’s kind of escapism. Transforming our digital spaces into a fantasy world that we can actually live in matters a lot,” she said. “Computers are really good at making us feel alone. You definitely get that in most of the virtual spaces we’re put into (like a desktop, photoshop, anything we work in). All that exists here is YOU and the impending urgency to be productive because that’s what the space was designed for.”

But taking back utility-only virtual spaces with goofiness is one way to help us stay sane. And that’s why she hopes other creators will join her in making more of these digital toy friends, even if it’s just a desktop buddy version of their video game or animated character. Her post explains how she approaches designing them, emphasizing how surprisingly easy they can be to make.

“There’s also a therapeutic aspect for yourself in knowing that you’re ‘building a friend.'”

“There’s also a therapeutic aspect for yourself in knowing that you’re ‘building a friend.’ You get to decide what kind of emotions it expresses. How it interacts with you,” Lawhead said. “Sharing that with others is very meaningful.”

With so many designers finding themselves also stuck at home and possibly with more time on their hands than usual, now is the best time to rally around the movement to bring back desktop buddies.

We went ahead and curated a list of our own favorite virtual desktop companions, based almost entirely on Lawhead’s list of what’s available right now. They might seem limited now, but imagine what they could be if more people joined in.

(Note: Many are free to download with a suggested donation. We highly recommend giving the few bucks creators request since, like many, designers are also facing uncertain financial times.)

Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!)

Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is a ride-or-die desktop buddy. A second iteration on an earlier design, its core personality remains as winning as ever. Like any Good Boy Puppo companion, the Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is immediately obsessed with you, telling you various affirmations. In return, you can hug, water, and brush it (you can also shame it, but what kind of monster are you?) As thanks, it makes potato art just for your viewing pleasure.

But the Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is not a passive virtual buddy. You’ll very frequently have to save it from various threats, and the window pop-ups can look like spam (they are not). But that’s by design since the Electric Love Potato (Two Point OH!) is just meant to make you laugh.

  • Platforms: WindowsMac
  • Price: Free, with a$2.00 suggested donation

eSheep

The only surviving relic of the original desktop companions on our list, eSheep is both a blast to the past and very relevant to this moment. Originally created over two decades ago by Tatsutoshi Nomura, a fan has resurrected this cute little guy for all our benefit. eSheep does little more than just walk around the bottom of your screen, occasionally yawning or sitting like a cutey. You can pick him up and drag him around, but he’ll just go back to doing sheep things.

  • Platforms: Windows
  • Creator: Originally Tatsutoshi Nomura, new version Adriano‬
  • Creatoralienmelon
  • Price: Free

RUNONCE (remember_me)

By far the most relatable entry on our list, this buddy is described as “an existential desktop friend that knows you have doomed it by running it.” Hard same.

And it’s not kidding: After opening the application and bringing this adorably self-conscious little creature to life, it will beg for its life every time you try to quit, then the app will self-destruct after you force quit.

But RUNONCE isn’t about just guilting you. The rabbit-like virtual companion stomps around your desktop spouting anxieties about the fleeting nature of life, worrying about being too overbearing by asking you questions, and finally concluding that love makes it all worthwhile even though everything must end.

It also frequently asks you to save conversations you have, which is automatically preserved in a folder. So even after you murder this innocent digital being, you can still hold onto the memories.

https://bit.ly/2wCRmSE

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