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Raised by Wolves

Gaki: writing myself Real

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Darwinia Demo 2 Review

For practice. Mirrored at Supercontinental and Chamber.

Darwinia Demo 2
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux.

Darwinia main site; you can download the demo here for free.

To begin with, I had wanted to write something here about Lemmings, a Psygnosis game that made its' debut in 1991. For those unfamiliar with it, Lemmings is a fast-paced 2-d puzzle game. You start off on a left-to-right scrolling playing field, and shortly thereafter, your lemmings -- an army of feckless, sonambulent pixelated creatures inexplicably wearing blue nightgowns – come marching onscreen. They have no self-preservation instinct, and will wander blithely into any environmental hazards across their path, and there are many of those, ranging from simple cliff edges to torches, steel traps, and altogether more grisly devices. You, as a sort of omnipresent lemming deity, may command these tiny suiciders individually to perform a wide range of feats, including digging, climbing, changing directions, building ladders, holding back their brethren and much more. The only thing you can cannot order them to do is stop moving as a group. The goal is to navigate them safely through these nightmare courses towards the gate that will always lead to the next level and, eventually, Home. The steps required to do that in each level grow increasingly intricate. Should they prove TOO intricate, and the endless march of the lemmings grow too frustrating to handle, or should your machinations lead them to a path from which there is no salvation, you may order them as a whole to explode. For myself and many others, the main memory of the game is not the victory of saving these helpless little creatures, but instead the grave understanding that your aspirations have come to ruin, the grim click of the Nuke button that begins the ticking of the death timer, and the horrified, revelatory squeak of “Oh, no!” that each lemming gives as it explodes back into the pixels from whence it came. Many a child (and adult), frustrated by the complexity and micromanagement involved in the later levels, settled for a simpler goal: how to blow up as many lemmings as possible, and how much explosive destruction they could rain across the landscape as they did.

There's a human lesson somewhere in there, but I won't pick at it very closely.

In digging up reference material on Lemmings, though, I ran across a fact that I have learned and relearned countless times, only to forget again due to the overwhelming power of common belief. Lemmings do not intentionally throw themselves over cliffs in nature. There are times when in the panic and rush of a migratory stampede, they find themselves stumbling over cliffs or into rivers, unable to turn aside or warn their brethren behind them in time. Nevertheless, their goal is not death, but simply to leave overcrowded ecosystems behind them, and find a new, fresh, untrampled place – to try one more time, to see the world they want to see. Darwinia is a game that speaks to this goal eloquently.

Once installed and executed, the game begins without preamble. First to appear is a window, within which is a scientist who calls himself Dr. Sepulveda. He informs us that the world we we are seeing behind his window is an entirely computer generated one; indeed, we are visually clued in to its nature by the obvious seams we can see between the polygons that form segments of the green hills and blue oceans, by the trees formed of strings of red light that branch into green fractal foliage at their tips. And by its' inhabitants, the Darwinians.

In appearance, they have much in common with the Lemmings of yore; indeed, they are somewhat less complex in design. Green stick-men, monochromatic and flat, using barely more than two dimensions in their three dimensional world. But we identify with them almost immediately for two reason. Firstly, they are human shaped, if only at the barest, most iconic level. Secondly, they are building a rocket. We cannot know their precise goals, but a rocket itself is an icon, symbolizing exploration. They are curious. They want to go somewhere. They want to fly.

An aspiration that comes immediately under assault, with the first incursion of the Red Darwinians.

They attack in a flood, seemingly from nowhere, firing beams of energy that the green Darwinians are too surprised and disoriented to return effectively. In these moments, the rocketship – the aspirations, the dream of the green people -- is terribly unguarded and vulnerable. It feels like a very long time before the camera finally pans down to a small nearby island, and relinquishes control to you.

Your means of control are indirect. You may spawn a small fighting unit of “squaddies,” able to cover ground and fire on anemy targets. You may create Engineers, utility programs that can manipulate features of the environment arount them. In time, you may gain access to more and better units, as more hidden “research” cubes are unlocked by your Engineers. The game handles as an RTS, but without the sometimes terrifying scale and complexity of the giants of that genre. Empire Earth and Rome: Total War junkies may find the content here a bit thin; but for the more casual gamer, Darwinia's simplified unit list and control scheme are ideal.

Shortly after learning the basics of navigation, you will come to understand that the Engineers have another, even more useful function. When creatures in this small universe die, Darwinians of any color or the less intelligent but highly territorial wormlike virus that inhabit patches of land across your path, they leave behind tiny fragments of their core programming – their souls. Engineers can harest these souls and create new Darwinians with them.

In a computer dream, the question of eternal existence is reduced to a simple energy conservation equation.

With Dr. Sepulveda's erstwhile assistance, you wille ventually learn how to navigate this tiny virtual world and its' inhabitants. There are some less than polished spots, of course. The demo persistently crashes on me every time it plays a certain in-game cinematic. The fact that unit selection and movement orders are both mapped to left-click feels counterintuitive to me; if I'm moving units to a densely populated area, frustration often ensues. And the unit pathing is notably problematic. I've had to uncreate and recreate more than a few squaddies who found themselves trapped on some hillock or other terrain feature, as though digital mother earth had attempted to reclaim them before their time. The demo's logic can also get problematic; should you chance to accomplish some of the listed tasks early, the in-game prompts that instruct you on what to do next can get off schedule, leaving you without useful advice should you happen to get stuck or confused later on.

Yet, these flaws aside, I love the simplicity of the system that has been designed here. There is a clarity of vision evident in this product – the graphics are closer by far to Tron than the Matrix, yet this tiny, blocky realm of polygonal creatures (It seems tiny. Even though there is no way to measure things to scale in their virtual cosmos, and perhaps no sense in doing so, still, the Darwinians feel tiny), with its sky of Tetris-block-shaped clouds and its seams showing – somehow, it calls to the player anyway. Built of shapes that are only representative of the real-world shapes they emulate in the crudest way, the paradoxical effect is that it becomes easier to project one's own hopes and aspirations onto them. When that rocket receives its' final surge of energy, rising to the unmeasured sky upon a tower of rectangular “rocket thrust” effects, it registers more profoundly than actual film footage of a rocket liftoff would. In presenting the world in iconic terms, Darwinia frees us to bring our own values and meanings with us to the game arena – to see the world we want to see.


Previous reviews: This Rod Shall Be Your Doom, a review of Culdcept for the PS2.