By Quintin Smith on March 11th, 2011 at 6:03 pm.
Indie climate change strategy game Fate of the World was finally released last week, following two years in development from Oxford-based studio Red Redemption. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since the beta, and I’m thrilled to finally present Wot I Think.
In the year 2085, Europe is rotting.
The last of my funding has been spent on famine aid, which I discover is being diverted to the frontlines of Europe’s war zones to feed the soldiers, who fight against a backdrop of inactive nuclear reactors. My agent who was in charge of implementing a continent-wide adoption of state of the art genetically-engineered crops has vanished, almost certainly abducted by any one of my antagonists. It is with emotionless eyes that I read that in the city of Barcelona, “corpses are stacked on street corners like firewood”.
Let me walk you through what went wrong in this game of mine. I think that should tell you everything you need to know about Fate of the World.
So, this was my attempt at the Fuel Crisis scenario, which sets you the simple task of reaching the year 2120 without the global temperature increasing by 3 degrees or the human development index (or “HDI”) falling below 0.5 (HDI being calculated using life expectancy, education and income, and 0.5 being just above the HDI of India or Mongolia today).
As with all Fate of the World scenarios, the way you go about bending the world to your will is through a single elegant mechanic- by playing policy cards in each region. You assume control of the GEO, a (fictional) global organisation with supreme authority that receives funding from every country in the world, and then you spend that money buying “agents” (card slots) and implementing policies (cards). Finally, you end your turn and let five years tick by. Got that? Good. Here’s your blank slate:
Now, rather than telling you precisely what challenges you’ll face and why this game is as engaging as a fire in your own living room, I’m just going to tell you exactly how I managed to turn Europe from a prosperous region into a tattered warzone in just 60 short years.
First stop: Africa! One nuance of Fate of the World that everybody learns the hard way is that if you ever stop improving a region’s quality of life directly, they’ll get angry, pull your funding and rip away your jurisdiction for a decade or two. Since Africa isn’t exactly the terrifying climate-change hotspot as, say, China, the USA or Latin America (with its horrific deforestation), people tend to ignore it. The result? Africa drops you like a hot stone and you lose a chunk of your funding.
That wasn’t going to happen to me this time! No sir. I kicked off my game by funding education throughout Africa, setting the continent on the long treadmill towards (I thought) clean industry and technological advancement.
Picture this decision as me unwittingly cutting the brake lines on my car. Meanwhile, I began implementing a very different policy elsewhere, that could be likened to removing the steering wheel- I encouraged rapid adoption of nuclear power in America, Europe and China.
Because, why not? Nuclear power is comparatively clean, no? As I learned while fiddling with the beta, biofuels bring risks that nuclear power doesn’t. This could only be the correct path.
Over the next 40 years I made an incredible number of decisions, pinching pennies to fund research into various fields, anticipating some consequences of a global temperature increase and countering only some of them (short version: Russia gets particularly fucked! Who knew?), but these two early decisions are the ones I want to highlight.
Circa 2055 the end-of-turn event ticker came up with something interesting.
Resource shortage: Oil: 35%, Coal: 12%, Uranium: 5%.
My brain began bucking inside my skull like a mechanical bull. Uranium? The fuel nuclear power stations run on? There’s a limited amount of that?! Why was I not informed? Over the next 15 years my hungry-hungry network of nuclear power stations continued to gobble up remaining reserves until the global shortage reached as high as 50%, causing energy shortages across the world’s developed nations.
Worse, while I’d dropped carbon emissions significantly in these nations, I was stunned to find that Africa’s emissions had doubled since the game began, way back in sweet, innocent 2020. Why? Because my policies of education, drought protection and so on had improved the continent’s HDI so much that the population was not only spiralling upwards. But people were earning more money than ever before, had greater demands, and the entire region was undergoing schemes of modernisation and urbanisation at an aching carbon cost. I could drill environmental awareness into the African population while pushing renewable energy as hard as possible, but it’d still take decades to pull these emissions down. The damage was done.
Within another 10 years, a shortage of both oil and uranium brought about a total economic meltdown, and a famine struck the regions which imported most of their food- America, Europe and Japan. While this reduced emissions, with the four horsemen of the apocalypse- famine, war, pestilence and death- essentially doing my job for me, it also meant I had absolutely no funding to turn Africa (and the Middle East, actually) around. Those two big decisions I made at the very start had turned into terrible poltergeists, haunting my every move and tipping over my delicate models.
Fate of the World is, as an educational videogame, a masterpiece. I feel confident saying that now. The game’s structure of simply playing cards and seeing what happens next is a brilliant idea, executed wonderfully, and it’s brilliant because it’s so galling. The game sets out such a clear, crisp objective- stopping climate change- gives you a selection of wonderful policies to play with, and asks you if you know how to save the world. You do, of course. It’s obvious. It’s this policy, and that policy, and maybe this one too.
You click the lovely, chunky button that ends your turn, and the game’s mighty simulation ticks on another five years. And then guess what you find out? You find out you’re an idiot. Not because your plan doesn’t work, but because there are side effects that never occurred to you.
There are actually a load of parallels with Spacechem, the other great indie puzzler we’ve been gifted with this year. While that’s a game about designing circuits, both of these games share a design where the objective is immediately apparent, the journey towards that objective is massively engaging because it sees you building your way towards the solution constantly, and the “difficulty”, the actual puzzles, emerge only from solving unexpected problems with your own plan. The effect this has on the human brain is fearsome. These are puzzles that, once started, you just cannot put down.
But where Spacechem was simply beautiful, challenging entertainment, Fate of the World is something more important and striking, because your own plan only ever goes wrong because of your own ignorance. The first thing you do when something goes wrong is desperately tear open a region’s telemetry and start picking your way through all those graphs and numbers like a boffin riding the caffeine high of a lifetime.
The addition of reams of statistics for each country is the biggest addition to Fate of the World since the beta, and it’s an absolutely vital one because it lets you try and determine where you went wrong. If emissions are creeping up in a country despite you banning coal power stations, you can pull open the telemetry and see a bar chart showing the region’s emissions since 2010, with each bar broken into many different colours, each showing a different emissions source.
This way you can see that it’s mass deforestation that’s the problem, for example, or you might notice that nothing in particular is increasing, tentatively pop open the population chart and blanche as you discover that the number of humans here has doubled in the last 40 years. In which case, it’s time to pop out the One Child Policy card- or not, as you’re already close to this region losing patience and throwing you out. Better to do it on the sly by sterilising the ol’ water supply.
This greater transparency of information doesn’t just make the game fairer, or create the minigame of poring through data, hunting for clues- it makes the game that much more educational. As well as learning, say, when we can expect sea levels to have risen by a metre, how we could theoretically halt climate change by scattering clouds of reflective material into orbit, why this would be a bad idea, or what the effect of Europe banning the petrol car might be, you also end up absorbing more specific information on what percentage of our emissions are due to agriculture or transport, how you calculate HDI, what causes deforestation and everything in between.
All this said, the final release of Fate of the World does disappoint in several regards. Another big addition since the beta is the game’s built-in encyclopedia, providing friendly explanations for some of the game’s more technical terms, like fast-breeder reactors or smart grids. Wonderful.
Except not only have they not provided a hotkey to this encyclopedia on relevant cards and events, when you do memorise the term you don’t understand, quit what you’re looking at and open the encyclopedia, you have to click down through an alphabetical listing of hundreds of terms to find what you need. Who knew saving the world could be such a chore?
Second, the game isn’t bug-free. I had one policy card in my game which could only have been a placeholder and while that was the only glaring error and Red Redemption have already released one patch, this Steam thread warns of still more under the hood.
(On the other hand, this one talks of some upcoming DLC which will introduce migration, and how excited I got when I heard that speaks volumes.)
But this is comparatively small stuff next to the towering achievement of this game as education. Five hours spent playing Fate of the World is not only a good time, it leaves you with astonishing amounts of information about combating climate change, and if you went all-out and read all of the encyclopedia entries as you went along I cannot imagine learning any faster with a flesh-and-blood teacher lecturing you on the subject and setting homework.
Hidden in this game, beneath the glossy art and comedy warning about adorable species becoming extinct because you are no good:
…is, I think the future of education. I believe that. Not because it’s fun or moreish, but because when you genuinely want to succeed at something and not only have to fix your own mistakes, but want to, I feel like you retain immeasurably more information.
If we can get really good at this- if we could consistently marry entertainment and education as flawlessly as Fate of the World does- it would transform the planet. Which perhaps isn’t the message Fate of the World had in mind, but it’s still one worth thinking about.