By Alec Meer on January 19th, 2010 at 11:56 pm.
It’s just a brilliant, brilliant idea for a game. Jurassic Park: the management sim. Most attempts at bringing Spielberg’s dino fantasy into interactivity concentrated on the action: the running, the jumping, the shooting and even on the being-a-Velociraptor thing. They had their moments, but they were so staggeringly ignorant of what the Jurassic Park concept really was. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, so it’s far too easy to slam all those developers for not stumbling across the total sense that a tycoon game made for the license. After all, I can remember desperately wanting to shoot digital dinosaurs around the time of the films too. I wasn’t a subtle child.
Operation Genesis flickered somewhere in my peripheral vision back when I was reviews editor on a magazine. At that time, its two core attributes were things to be scorned: Jurassic Park 3, two years previous, didn’t lend much dignity to the movie series, and if I threw a rock in the air I’d hit at least five cheap, lousy tycoon games that we couldn’t/wouldn’t find the space to review. A Jurassic Park tycoon game? Gotta be awful. Gotta be. What a fool I was.
I wasn’t aware there’d been a similar but more rudimentary Gameboy title, Jurassic Park: Park Builder, a few years previous, but I don’t imagine that wouldn’t have swayed my presumptive mind. Farm it out to a desperate freelancer, half a page, they’ll probably give it 58%, done.
We did. They didn’t. I can’t remember who reviewed it or what they said, but I can remember seeing the 80-something-percent score and my surprise turning to a sort of self-loathing for being so snap-judgemental. There’s a reason Jurassic Park works. There’s a reason tycoon games work. There’s no reason why the two of them put together wouldn’t work.
It wouldn’t be, I hasten to add, an especially great tycoon game if you took away the dinosaurs. That’s why I’m not going to plunge into much detail about its various systems: your best guess about how it deals with placing cages and attractions and toilets and burger stands is bound to be right. But it’s all about the bloody dinosaurs, so to imagine the game without them would be ridiculous thing to do and a ridiculous thing to criticise it for. Your constant tasks are three-fold: make a ton of money, breed more dinosaurs, and try and stop people from getting killed. See? You simply could not devise a better gaming representation of the first Jurassic Park: a document of a half-mad tycoon’s doomed attempts to make a crapton of cash from a weird science experiment that can only go disastrously wrong. It’s about prioritising capitalism over humanity. Operation Genesis is that exactly: wilful, fatal absurdity in the name of profit.
I can’t remember how much the film dwells on it, but certainly Michael Critchton’s original novel – which I adored circa age 12, but would not dare befoul my mind with now – was frothing with pop-theoretical discussion of chaos theory. If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, some guy in Rochester suffers his eyelids falling off,: you know full well how it goes. In Tropical Dinosaur Theme Park terms, it means one small spot of human incompetence or greed creates a domino effect of disaster: i.e. everybody dies.
Operation Genesis doesn’t quite have the balls for that – it does try to stay largely happy-clappy and child-friendly, bless it. Plus, despite That Music and far too much attention to detail (unconvincing Dickie Attenborough and Sam Neill impersonations abound) it’s simply not complex enough to include a Fat, Sweaty Guy Tries To Steal The DNA Samples And Run Away fail condition. Instead, it creates chaos at both minimised and maximised scales. One allosaurus falls into a blood frenzy and starts attacking his fellows, and while you’re busy trying to sedate him and move him to a solitary pen, all your stegosaurus fall prey to gastric flu. It’s containable, but there is that sense of tumbling from minor disaster to minor disaster, that the till you think you’ve got your hand firmly on is in fact a live serpent, and that the boat you believe you were sat in is actually a piece of tinfoil on the summit of a live volcano.
I exaggerate. It’s much more sedate and forgiving than that, but it does lay on enough disasters and, more pertinently, potential disasters that you always feel a little worried. And, in those moments where you do feel pretty complacement – boom. Twister! That happened to me earlier today: I’d built my park into smooth, flawless engine of a thing, making money hand over fist. Everything’s going great. Suddenly, a little red message pops up on the right of my screen, warning of a hurricane. I figure all it means is that I can’t send my ranger helicopter out to cure any sick dinos for a while, and shrug it off.
A moment later, 20 people are dead.
That bloody butterfly.
As well as trashing half my buildings, the twister knocks down just two small sections of Medium Secuirty fence. I’m so busy desperately fixing my souvenir stands – the revenue! the precious revenue! – that I don’t even notice. Unfortunately, one Carcharadontosaurus (OK, I don’t remember /that/ from the film) does. All my cleaners and a clutch of rich-but-dim tourists are promptly swallowed whole. At least the game spares me the truly grisly (and truly impressive, still), bone-crunching animations shown when my carnivorous dinosaurs had their regular goat-or-cow-based dinner. Far more importantly, at least I managed to tranquilise it before it clawed its way into my brachiosaur pen. Those big bastards are expensive.
It was immediately after having this thought that I realise I truly had become John Hammond. I pause for a moment, wondering how to make some gesture that would prove my humanity was intact. Can’t think of one. Hire some replacement cleaners and reopen the hot air balloon ride instead.
My immortal soul might be forever damaged, but the park itself wasn’t. It’s the kind of game that leaves plenty of room to recover from that kind of disaster, but at the time it felt so gloriously fatal, and exactly the kind of sudden, mass entropy the films document. My own personal action-horror movie, playing out just for me. All that careful building, upgrading, researching and fossil-hunting, all that money – but it was only ever going to wind up like this.
It’s just another management game, but it’s got dinosaurs in. Dinosaurs are giant lizards that like to eat people. I tried to keep them in pens and charge tourists a pretty penny to come look at them. What was I thinking?