Recently, my eleven month old daughter said her first word. She was pointing into the shimmery blue interior of the new aquarium in our bedroom, and she said “fish”. Unfortunately she was pointing out a shrimp, but hey - it’s the thought that counts. I was elated; much of my life has been consumed by an obsession with watery things, and aquariums in particular, thanks in no small part to the childhood actions of my fish-obsessed father. To know that I had managed to pass the curse along through another threshing of DNA made me well happy, and seemed to neatly honour his memory.
Which is all to say, you better bloody believe I’m ready for a hyper-realistic aquarium simulation on PC. I spent most of December in a gorgeous fugue state with Megaquarium, but even that was too abstract - too simplistic - for my darkest appetites. I want that deeply sobre, joyless strain of simulation that comes from the heart of Europe; I want to choose which species of cryptocorene plant to populate my tank with, which filter medium to put in which model of Eheim external pump. I want three hundred strains of near-identical tetra. Gimme that game. Wipe my inside elbow with a disinfectant swab, and shunt it into my fucking bloodpipes.
A couple of weeks ago, when Alice Bee called me over to her desk to show me a trailer for Biotope, I thought I’d found heaven. On the screen was a 140 litre glass tank with a white sand substrate, populated with twisting bogwood, springy patches of glossostigma, and cruising flights of cichlids. An aquarium. In a computer.
Like a sweating, bite-poxed conquistador parting vines to reveal a city of gold, I actually roared. I capered a little on the spot, like a desperate ape surrounded by hard-faced Elizabethan stevedores. “Give it to me” I hissed, through a throat clenched like a hosepipe in the builder’s fist of my excitement. How many similes is too many, when describing this sort of eagerness? Who knows. Like a simple child feeding raw burgers to a dog, I refuse to countenance the concept of “too many”.
As it is, I would have to wait a week for Biotope. I smashed a reply to the initial press email from publisher 2tainment (where Alice had found the trailer) like a grunting tennis man, and waited for the return volley. After a day nothing came, and so I sent another tentative email: “please gimme the electric fish”. Another day passed: “c’mon dude”. There was only silence.
Finally, after a week of increasingly desperate e-wheedles, the preview key arrived. With sweat-gushing hands, I battered it into Steam, and emitted a hoot of triumph through funnelled lips as the game booted up.
Half an hour later, I was done with Biotope.
Listen: it’s not the game’s fault. It’s really not. You should give it a try! It looks decent overall and its fish look great, it’s fairly intuitively designed, and there’s a truly commendable depth to its modelling of water chemistry. It does the nitrogen cycle, it does pH, it does total hardness and carbonate hardness. Hell, it knows more about water chemistry than I do, and you really can choose between different filter media, types of plant and so on. Sure, the variety of livestock is still fairly limited, but with the game still in pre-Early Access, that seems fair enough.
So, what was the problem? I’ll do my best to explain.
In an ideal world, I’d have an endlessly expanding collection of aquariums. But I don’t, because of practical concerns: they’re expensive, they take up space, and if you don’t devote time to looking after them, living creatures die. Theoretically, the concept of a realistically simulated PC aquarium removes all of those limitations - so what’s not to love?
Well, arguably, if you remove all the practical difficulty of dealing with real nature, you remove the commensurate rewards as well. The baby - the satisfaction of having created a tiny paradise out of planning and passion, and the thrill of watching all the facets of that intricacy interact - is thrown out with the tankwater.
The excitement of getting up each day to see how the plants have grown by tiny increments or put out new shoots; how the sand has shifted and how the algae has been chewed back by shrimps on a piece of wood… that just isn’t there if you can just blast time into fast forward and let the weeks fly past, or if your plants are just three variables attached to a scaleable image.
An aquarium in itself is an analogue simulation of nature; a technological facsimile of a pond. And the kind of aquariums I like aren’t sterile display pieces; they’re tangled thickets of living plants and wood, full of snails and worms and shrimps and tiny fish, all deeply connected with one another. They’re full of chaos, essentially - tiny stages on which I can watch the baffling emergent complexity of nature play out.
If I was expecting that of Biotope - and I think, in my overexcitement, I was - I was being unrealistic. Even for the game to simulate the full range of behaviours, processes and interactions stemming from a single fish would be a profound achievement. But to expect any developer to offer a matrix for the simulation of complex multispecies setups is, frankly, silly.
At least, not when said developer could do something much easier, and still enjoy commercial success. Because let’s be real: why would a studio looking to put out a mid-range, respectable sim title undertake the herculean effort of recreating nature, when they could make a game about using various levers (pH buffer, limestone, filter power) to nudge numbers into the correct ranges required for the survival of fish.
And that’s what Biotope is: a game about stabilising water chemistry. The fish themselves are pretty, but they’re extreme abstractions - essentially moving dots, that either multiply if you balance the numbers well, or perish if you don’t. For some aquarists, this probably is their dream simulation - as I said earlier, it’s deep, well thought through, and reasonably presented. If you’re into aquariums as an exercise in precision, and the perfect maintenance of prize-winning, pedigree fish, you should keep an eye on Biotope.
For me, however, the excitement will have to be packed away again, like a rubber dinghy being forced through a manhole by a team of football hooligans. One day I’ll have my dream aquarium simulator, but for now I’ll have to make do with the miracle of nature.
Biotope enters Steam Early Access on 23rd July 2019, where it is expected to remain for 6-12 months.