Birthdays The Beginning [official site] is a sandbox evolution game from Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada. The aesthetic is somewhere between Harvest Moon, Viva Pinata and a sugarcraft workshop. On paper it looks like the exact sort of thing I’d love – a biology-themed sim with collectible and ADORABLE lifeforms including ferns, velociraptors and turtles. In practice it can’t seem combine the ingredients into a satisfying enough dish. Here’s Wot I Think:Birthdays the Beginning puts you in charge of a cube of terrain, letting you shape and tweak the environment in order to coax lifeforms out of a primordial soup and nudge them through branches of an evolutionary tree. Your influence on the wildlife is indirect. You aren’t plopping alligators onto snow-capped mountains or casting ducks willy-nilly into the ocean. Instead you rely on terraforming to build or destroy ecosystems.
The first thing you learn is that temperature is controlled by terrain height in this cutesy cubed playground. If you want to cool the world down you raise land and to warm it up you lower land. For flora and fauna which thrive in hot climes you’ll end up scooping out trenches, going below the water line to create shallows, seas and deep water. Not everything needs to be lowered, it’s more about decreasing the average height of the cube by adding these deeper waters. Similarly you accommodate chillier critters by dragging land upwards into hills and mountain ranges.
The main loop of the game has you going into micro mode to make changes to the cube and then zooming out to macro mode to get an overview and let time pass. The passing of time is how you see the effects of your changes and it’s where the evolution bit happens. Micro-macro-micro-macro-micro is the rhythm by which you steer your lifeforms.
As you begin to create ecosystems you’ll get little glowing blobs spawning on the cube. These act as helpful boosts or shortcuts. Some give extra oomph to evolution, speeding up change. Others let you instantly spawn a hill or a mountain. There are modifiers to make the land more humid or more arid. My favourite lets you seed a river on a bit of land. I loved using those then carving out a meandering path for the water to take down to a lake or the sea. Waterfalls were a delightful by-product of these rivers.
The general thrust of the campaign is for you to meet evolutionary goals on the way to birthing modern humans. There isn’t really a story, it’s more just a framework upon which to hang a quest and give the systems some direction. With each mission you wobble towards humans via algae, fish, dinosaurs, monkeys and so on.
The campaign was a bit wonky in my experience. Some missions were a breeze and others were a multi-hour faff. I think that’s because instead of giving you a pre-made biome or a pre-designated starting point for each of them you work with the world you were left with at the end of the previous mission. That’s a more personal experience, for sure, but it also meant that for some quests I had accidentally maneuvered into a great position from which to reach the next milestone. Other times I seemed to have screwed myself over and needed to fiddle with the land for long stretches as I tried to figure out what I needed to trigger in order to progress.
You do have tools to help at this point. One is a library where you can look at the conditions different creatures need in order to be born, there’s a game info screen with your current mission requirements, a graph screen where you can see the breakdown of terrain types and so on, and an evolutionary tree showing how the branches are connected.
But your influence is indirect and when you have an objective in mind that can become a real irritant. Instead of meandering towards “dinosaurs” I was trying to create a Tyrannosaurus rex. I had all of the right environmental conditions and the land was crawling with one of their prey species but one other creature was required and those were entirely absent. It appeared that in the previous mission I had not met the conditions for the next link in that particular evolutionary chain and thus that line had ended.
The game doesn’t treat mission achievements as checkpoints so you need to manually save. I wasn’t sure which previous save file was far back enough and I’d been rotating through maybe five saves as I hate sprawling save sets. The one I could be sure was far back enough would represent a significant loss of progress so I persisted with the world I had, spending a couple of hours raising and lowering temperatures, tracking the evolutionary tree, undoing work I’d previously enjoyed to try to pick up the lost stitch in the fabric of this mission. It didn’t work and eventually I was so fed up with that world I went back to the really early save file. This time around the mission flowed fine, but the fact it might not and that you can get caught in an unpleasant exercise of figuring out what you missed left a bad taste.
Since finishing the main storyline I’ve been wondering how to spend time in the world. There are challenges where you get a preset level and have to achieve particular victory conditions. They’re nice in that they nudge you towards uncovering animals you wouldn’t in the main mission but again the indirectness can turn to frustration there. You can also go back to the story missions and try to complete those more efficiently or without boosts plus there’s the Pokemon-style collection element where you might want to fill out your in-game life library. I haven’t found myself particularly interested in any of those things.
There’s also a free play mode which… It’s more appealing but with caveats. The game lends itself far better to making changes and seeing what happens and being delighted by that. It also shows up the limitations of the tools at your disposal. I want to create landscapes there, but it’s finicky to do that. It’s easy to end up with raggedy terrain where you wanted a neat canyon, or if you’re building a river you need to dig out the path one chunk after another in the order you want the water to flow. By that I mean that you spawn a river, then you carve out the next block and the water flows into that, then the next and the water flows there, but if you accidentally miss a block then get rid of it afterwards the water won’t just flow into the channel you’ve made, it just sits there.
Birthdays feels like a game that needs a Sims-style build mode for you to get really into the landscaping side of things and then that would help you have that meaningful loop of creating an environment and then watching it play out.
But it isn’t just the terraforming that interferes with that loop. One issue is that although the animal populations rise and fall in relation to one another on the macro view where they’re listed in a table on the right hand side, they don’t actually interact in the micro view.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re adorable when you zoom in and they’re waggling around, but it’s more like you’re seeing a world populated with individual animation projects. You watch them cycle through idle animations, eating a lump of meat or waddling across the grass, but they never interact with each other or the environment properly. Pteranodons will flap in mid-air against a cliff-face that is interrupting their flight path, single fish will pace one level of a waterfall forever, a carnivore will spawn a cartoonish drumstick out of thin air and gobble it up while its natural prey hops up and down at its feet, utterly unaffected. It’s a world filled with automata not life.
The other thing is that as you evolve humans the game seems to a) dabble in creationism and b) makes a choice to represent humanity as cutesy male and female pairs of white people. With the former, the game isn’t strictly scientific – it’s simplified and takes detours into cryptozoology so I’m not criticising this as a lack of scientific rigour, but it feels out of keeping with the game as a whole and sits adjacent to worldviews espoused by particular forms of Christianity. Whether you find that problematic will be personal but in terms of the constraints the game itself sets up that was a strange and jarring choice. Humanity requires something extra to other lifeforms – this fruit of knowledge – and it changes the tenor of the game as a result.
With the latter, the game is in a tricky position in some ways. Every species gets represented in the little library with a picture of the animal in the game’s soft, cute style. It’s rare to get more that one animal in that picture if it’s larger than an insect or a little fish and so with humans you immediately run into the issue of who you pick to represent the entirety of humanity in the game. The game goes with male and female and white for all three iterations.
I’ve been reflecting on that. It bothers me because it feels like it’s part of an ongoing situation where white is treated as a kind of default race or the one that gets used as the example and that feeds into/is part of a continuum of forms of subtle but pernicious inequality. Using white as a default presentation is something which is tied to a lot of historical, political and economic baggage. Birthdays isn’t the problem, but in maintaining that default – as well as encoding other assumptions – it weaves a particular perspective into the fabric of the game and suggests that the basic form of human looks that way.
I’ve also been thinking about how I would have preferred the developers to approach the issue. I think having a lot of different people clustered into the image would have been one solution– sort of like having a photobooth picture with everyone crammed in – the game is cutesy enough that that would work. Alternatively having a random assortment of people for that image and choosing one when you load the page to reflect diversity in a quiet but important way.
In the scheme of the game it’s a small element, a bit of grit in a sandwich, but it matters in a way that’s very different to how a shark gets depicted in the game. Sharks might say differently, but then, as Jeff from Community pointed out, sharks don’t even observe Shark Week.
So is the game good? The game feels like it has the kernel of something really great in it but it can’t quite distil that into something heady and wonderful. It makes some duff choices, has mission structures whose success is slightly too dependent on whether you cultivated your tree in a particular way, the camera angles when you go in close are awkward, the tools are just slightly too basic and the delight you get upon seeing the animals doesn’t last once you realise they’re not actually interacting with the world or each other.
It comes so close to being something I love and then it has a hollow core. The best way I can think to explain it is how at some point as you grow up your toys stop being these magical things with their own lives and start being toys. From watching the trailers and following the development I was hoping for a window into a little lively toy universe but I’ve opened up the packaging and I can’t seem to find the spark.