Have You Played… Darwinia

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Once the most-discussed game in the then-small indie world, Introversion’s offbeat RTS feels like a lifetime ago now. It’s a game about ushering scores of AI life around a half-retro, half-futuristic landscape, seeking to escape a digital apocalypse, and I suspect it was ahead of its time, at least in terms of audience appetite.

It looks beautiful of course, with its 80s-arcade-as-dream-sequence art style, but it’s the languid, slightly sad atmosphere which really sells me. Its hapless pixel people seem that much more alive than any hyper-detailed space marine, as they totter and wobble and scatter and die. I feel compelled to protect them, which is a profoundly different motivation to the RTS norm, of feeling compelled to destroy.

There are weird difficulty spikes and the controls have their issues, but Darwinia was and is a singular offering. God only knows what we can say RTS is now, but this was a conscious attempt to do things differently, and to do it with style. It’s a pleasure just to watch it move.

34 Comments

  1. Tom Walker says:

    Ah, the times I’ve played through this. There always needed to be more of it. I’d probably pay for significantly sized DLC even today.

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      Cooper says:

      There are some decent mods out there that add new campaigns which are worth checking out for anyone thinking of playing this again and not necessarily wanting to go through the original cmapaign.

      There’s a modlist here.

      I’d recommend Stricken Souls and Insurrection out of the ones I’ve played.

  2. Mr Wibble says:

    Ah Darwinia. I had more emotional attachment to those little green chaps than in most character driven games I’ve played since.

    Great soundtrack too

  3. MercurialJack says:

    I have played Darwinia, but I much prefer it’s successor, Multiwinia. Its different modes of play and polish over its first iteration made it a much more enjoyable experience for me. I really enjoy the simple one-or-two-click interface. It takes RTS games and boils them down to their core, stripping out all the unnecessary guff to leave you with a fantastic experience.

    • Rozza says:

      Loved this too. Unfortunately even after it appeared in a Something-Bundle the servers were all empty. And I always found the connection a bit flaky trying to play with friends.

  4. David Bliff says:

    This is the game for me everyone seemed to love but I just couldn’t find any fun in. It felt slow, clumsy, and entirely uninteresting as a strategy game. I’ve tried going back to it numerous times but I’ve had the same reaction every time. It makes me feel especially guilty since it was an early indie game on Steam and I really wanted to like it the way I liked DEFCON and (now) Prison Architect.

    • Geebs says:

      Darwinia was really a case of Introversion coming up with a really strong aesthetic, but never actually giving the player anything to do apart from look at the pretty things. I enjoyed the experience, but the gameplay never really kicks in.

    • Retro says:

      To me it always felt that the introversion folks found a programming book about group behaviour, implemented a number of them (scatter, grouping..), added really strong visual design and called it a day..

    • SuddenSight says:

      This was my issue as well. I played the demo back when it came out, but didn’t spring for the full game because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was basically a shepherd.

      I might go back and try it again, though.

    • Hypocee says:

      Fair enough to all of you, but should you ever take another run at it be advised it’s at least half action game – the Darwinians are pretty quickly useful against virus and Centipedes, but most other enemies as well as shock assaults are largely a matter of Cannon Fodder and rail-shooting. Note that there’s no cost whatsoever to despawning programs and respawning them right across the map. That might help address any feelings of slowness or shallow strategy.

      You may also find the updated demo a useful entry point, or entire substitute. It’s narratively an epilogue about the Darwinians getting into the Internet in a rocket ship – yes – but also compresses maybe half the cool things in the game down into a single entirely new level which may give you the steeper experience a couple of you seem to crave. I can’t remember how long it is, but I’m pretty confident it’s under an hour at a leisurely pace, and given the entire game was slated for being 6-8 hours long that can’t be far wrong.

  5. Synesthesia says:

    Oh, this one opened my eyes as to what games could be. Loved every minute of it.

    link to cloud-4.steampowered.com

  6. KDR_11k says:

    I got a British import copy back in the day, it came with a Darwinian key ring.

    Yeah, gameplay was kinda weak. At least it came out at a time when the Tron style wasn’t overused yet. Also Darwinia was useful for describing Kernel Panic to people.

  7. Laurentius says:

    I played it finished it, a bit icky but loved esthetics and cute little green Darvinians. Still dream about Uplink2 with more of an RPG elements, more mission, bigger story , even more intreactivity, simulated politics and econmy, etc…eh.

  8. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    The ant hives were a fascinating example of game AI which didn’t masquerade as human-like. The rules behind them were easy to deduce, but reacted to your attacks in an appropriate and effective way. It started my interest in AI.

    • RagingLion says:

      Oh god those ant hives. I started out slightly badly on one of the levels where there was a lot of those and it turned into an enormous hour long battle of attrition to bring back under control. It was a lot of fun though. I also really enjoyed when you get to the archipelago level where there are other colonies of Darwinians to take over.

      Alec speaks for me as well when talking about the sad, languid atmosphere. There’s an otherness of feel that it created for me which was very special and I really bought the world and the Darwinians as an AI tribe (particularly when I was shown how an occasional individual Darwinian would sometimes wander off to go explore a mountain like it had some kind of explorer ambition).

  9. Rizlar says:

    That actually sounds really interesting. At the time of release I assumed it was the complete opposite of what you describe – I assumed it was a pared back tradition RTS, a game of relentlessly destroying your enemy through callous application of swarms of little people. Needless to say, I never really clicked with that sort of detached, competitive RTS.

    More fool me, definitely interested in giving this a try now.

  10. CMaster says:

    I love Darwinia.
    But so much of it feels like a love letter to the computer (so IBM-compat (PC), Amiga, Atari etc) gaming of the late 80s and early 90s, I’ve always wondered if it clicks with others who don’t have that nostaliga and links.

  11. Dezmiatu says:

    I got a love/hate relationship with this game. The early game I hated, especially the passive leveling. I maxed grenades, but I didn’t figure out how to use them until halfway through the game when I confronted enemies that only died from them.

    It really picked up in the later games with the infected darwinians. I would have epic battles based purely on me building a weapon turret and the enemy over-running me and stealing it, until I was pushed off the island entirely. It is a special game where my incompetence actually jacked up the fun.

    • RagingLion says:

      That whole thing with weapon turret totally happened to me as well. That was a really hard fought but satisfying fight.

  12. captain nemo says:

    I loved Darwinia. The mix of awesome retro graphics and music by Trash80 was amazing.

    I still listen to “Schroeder’s Failure” to this day :

    • CMaster says:

      Apparently youtube replies get eaten by the spam filter or something.
      Anyway, I think Tresk/Trash80’s work is great in Darwinia, but DMA-SC’s Visitors From Dreams is the best track in the game by a good way.

  13. Kempston Wiggler says:

    One of my favourite games of all time.Love it so, so much. Introversion quite literally putting the soul back into gaming.

  14. CMaster says:

    Tresk/Trash 80s work is great, but my favourite of the Darwinia soundtrack is easily DMA-SC’s visitiors from dreams

  15. Bugamn says:

    I remember this one. One of the first games I played on Steam (although only a demo) and showed me that there was much more on the internet than I could find on shops.

  16. Drake Sigar says:

    Ants. So many ants.

  17. Lambchops says:

    Darwinia was the game that got me into indie gaming (though I think I may actually have played the demo of Uplink first).

    It visually stood out from the crowd when I saw it browsing through some gaming mags in WH Smiths (I rarely bought the things, they were expensive!) and thinking it looked great. Played the demo and was initially put off (the first demo dumped you into a random level with little explanation and is possibly one of the worst demos of all time, though it was later replaced by one of the three best demos of all time so that made up for it!) but eventually ended up buying it anyway.

    Loved the aesthetic and the atmosphere and the game built up nicely, starting simple and then laying on increasing challenges (the egg spewing flowers on far off islands, the ants, the red Darwinians). Brilliant stuff. Sadly Introversion have never been able to top it (though I have to admit, since DEFCON none of their projects have really been my type of thing).

    Definitely opened my eyes to the indie gaming scene and what else was available out there, though it would be a while until I was to fully embrace digital distribution (remember what a pain in the arse Steam was back in the day with a crap internet connection).

  18. Hypocee says:

    The Gillen review’s well known (and I love it), there was a bunch of great writing about Darwinia in the day, but there’s one piece that I suspect the Internet is unlikely to find, and which so precisely mirrors my fall into love with Darwinia. Gunpoint and Heat Signature’s Tom Francis, then a fairly newly hired PC Gamer staffer, writes about the game’s mechanics and motivations:

    The process of understanding Darwinia goes a bit like this:

    It’s what, a Tron RTS?

    Oh, you control squads like Cannon Fodder, and you’ve got to wipe out the virus.

    Ah, but it’s like Lemmings. You have to get the green guys to the machines by getting one to direct the others.

    It’s all about the souls! They’re the resource and you have to take them from the enemy to win. Hey, what are those ants doing? OH GOD!

    Now the green guys have guns? So are they my army or are the squads? Who are the red guys? OH GOD!

    Ooh, I liked the blue cubes. What do the red cu- OH GOD!

    It keeps on opening up. By the final level you’re playing six different games at once, and they intersect with each other so intelligently that the result is a kind of uber-game, or meta-game if you want to be a bit trendy about it, that lets you play across the surface of these aspects to it, and dive into whichever you feel like or needs your attention at the time.

    The new things are scary, but the chain-of-islands structure of each level lets you take it a bit at a time; do the bits you find easiest first, and establish a safe-haven and tackle the tricky stuff from there. When it plays with that structure a bit – as when a Triffid on one island is firing virus-filled eggs onto your island – your craving for a sanctuary means you instinctively plan and execute aggressive surgical strikes into infested lands without even realising the game has lured you out of your tactical shell.

    The aforementioned final level takes this even further by making each island of the map a microcosm of a previous archipelago, so that each one requires a completely different tack, and your degree of success in one informs your strategy with the next – and even your choice of which to tackle next.

    Pulled out and crossposted here because it’s lovely and deserves to be seen, because people generally defend the story but attack the mechanics which contrasts with my experience, and to save a bunch of bandwidth on both ends – the rest of his commentary, on the story and mood, is buried in the massive massive massive picture-laden monolithic HTML file that was his blog then. (Actually, was this how I first encountered him? It may well be!)

    No segue, but one probably unintentional meta-humourous fact is that like the early computer games Darwinia appropriated, the experience was improved by reading a little book that came with the game, called the manual. In this case, I got some extra texture out of the image from the backstory of Sir – I mean, Dr. – Sepulveda in his melancholy warehouse full of failed home computers.

    Edit: Oh yeah, and of course this is one of five-ish games ever, along with Homeworld and Cataclysm and a couple others I’m sure, to bring an actual tear to my eye and to motivate me to accomplish additional tasks for solely narrative reasons. An avatar, a chatbox and some rotating sprite particles.

    • The First Door says:

      I couldn’t agree more! Darwinia was a love letter to older games for me. Games like Lemmings and Cannon Fodder, where the graphics weren’t detailed enough to make you see the characters as real people, so they did other little things to make you care. The way the Darwinians mourn their dead still makes me sad whenever I see it, like I failed them.

      I think is suffered from people thinking it was something it wasn’t. Many people seemed to be expecting (perhaps understandably) a standard RTS, and when looked at from that viewpoint the path finding is wonky and the drawing of powers is inaccurate. For me though, they gave the game its unique charm!

  19. Rufust Firefly says:

    I remember playing a version of the game where summoning programs involved drawing a sigil of sorts with the mouse. It was a bit fiddly and I lost a bunch of squads trying to remember how to draw the Rocket command.

    Or maybe that was just an idiosyncrasy of the Mac port?

    Darwinia was something special, and there was quite a bit of satisfaction in eradicating every virus from an island.

    • Hypocee says:

      They launched with that, frankly, gimmick but later patched it out and just gave a menu of the programs.

  20. J.Scheisse says:

    Remains the weakest Introversion game to me. A lot of games journalists wrote a lot of wank about it because they wanted to like the trendy indie retro aesthetics and the general indieness and Introversion are just such great guys etc etc, but behind all that retro indie poser stuffI just never found an actual game worth playing, as opposed to DefCon and Uplink.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Good job attacking an entire subset of humanity based on what you clearly state is your own personal opinion. If they loved the game, let them love the game.

  21. AskForBarry says:

    Real life Darwinia power suit:
    link to youtu.be

  22. AskForBarry says:

    Uplink, by the same producers, is probably one of the best games I’ve ever played.