One of the most maddening things in mainstream science reporting (and my goodness, there’s a panoply to choose from), is how every year, without fail, there’s a rash of articles making wild claims about how scientists are “on the brink” of cloning a woolly mammoth. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but they seem to have been on the brink for at least 25 years now, and the press release promises are starting to wear a bit thin.
So it is with games that promise to simulate biological life, and its evolution. An electric playground in which to grow monsters is the dream for speculative evolution fanatics like me, but while the idea gets discussed all the time, it never seems to materialise.
The great “we’re gonna clone a mammoth” moment for evolution sims was, without doubt, the maelstrom of hype preceding the release of 2008’s Spore. Spore was going to allow us to follow the evolution of a creature from a single cell to a spacefaring megasociety. Only it didn’t. It offered a series of lengthy, chained minigames with a brilliant character creator near the start, and a passable 4X at the end. It had bugger all to do with evolution.
I suspect Spore made people a lot more reticent to promise a proper evolution game, and there certainly haven’t been many full attempts in the last ten years. This looks like it may finally change with the extremely promising Ecosystem (which I had a go on in April and deemed a mindblower), but for now, the best place to look for evolution sims is arguably the deep past.
Specifically 1990, when SimEarth was released. In a shocking plot twist, SimEarth was the second major work by none other than Spore’s lead creator Will Wright, and it was stunningly ambitious.
I spent a lot of time in my very early teens battering away at SimEarth - for some reason, I’ll always associate it with hearing Hedonism by Skunk Anansie on the radio, which dates my time with the game to 1996. And while I can’t honestly say I ever fully got the hang of how to play, I had enough fun poking the game’s stacks of interconnected systems to earn me dozens of bollockings for staying up til 2am on a school night.
I learned all about eukaryotes and prokaryotes, nurtured trilaterally symmetrical life into technological civilisation, and created loads of new kinds of wasps. Actually, that might have been in SimLife, which I am only now remembering was a totally separate game. Oh well, that’s another Have You Played... for the list, then.
Anyway, while SimEarth was a pain in the arse to get hold of for many years, it’s now relatively easy to find a browser-based version - or so I’m told. Stick on some Skunk Anansie and have a go.