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Have You Played… SimLife: The Genetic Playground?

Wasp factory

Back in August, I got most of the way through writing a Have You Played on 1990s’s SimEarth, before coming to the awkward realisation that some of my perceived adventures in that game had actually occurred in another game entirely - 1992’s SimLife, also produced by Maxis. In here’s where I get in really hot water, because it’s hard now to tell what happened in SimLife, and not in SimEarth.

Both of them were fairly opaque, ambitious evolution simulators, marketed on the idea of creating your own life forms and seeing them develop over time. I guess the difference was, SimEarth was more about simulating the life of your planet - with oceans rising and falling, atmospheric temperature and composition changing, continents drifting and so on - while the creatures that evolved there were more abstracted, and didn’t have many characteristics beyond the taxa they belonged to, and their level of “advancement”. The goal was to reach a point where your planet evolved spacefaring life, but it didn’t model the life itself too deeply.

SimLife, as its name suggested, focused on the latter. When I got it, I thought the rhino-with-a-tiger-body on the front of the box was an indicator of what you could do in the game - that it was a sort of “mad science from a saturday morning cartoon” simulation of genetics.

The reality was - somehow - simultaneously cooler and more disappointing. Organisms were actually just tiny squares that looked pretty much the same whatever their DNA said (disappointing!), but their DNA could say an awful lot (cool!). I don’t remember exactly how much it allowed you to muck around on a genetic level, but I remember it being complex enough to be legitimately educational, without being so intricate that a kid couldn’t pick it up. I also remember making many, many, many kinds of wasps. I kind of want to have another go, twenty eight years on, but I think doing so will involve one degree of buggering around with arcane software beyond what I’m comfortable with, so I’ll leave it in the past.

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