Plague Inc: Evolved, an unfinished but solid version of which is out on Steam Early Access now, is a strategy game about wiping out humanity.
At first I felt terrible, as the red dots denoting infection spread across the United Kingdom, into France, across the sea to Norway, and then the deaths began to roll in.
Then I grew annoyed at Iceland's panicked closing of its airports. I frowned as my bacterial infection withered in the African heat.
Then I smiled as migrating birds carried the plague to the other side of the world, as the lights gradually went out in Canada, as Germany's infrastructure collapsed in the wake of the mounting fatalities, and as China's extinction dealt a savage blow to global research for a cure.
Then I roared in anger as I realised not a single microbe of my beautiful disease had found its way to Greenland, which had wisely shut down its only port some time ago. Now its frozen climes held the last, terrified remmants of humanity, for my terrible illness had claimed all other life on the globe. Unable to cross the chill seas to the world's largest island, with no new hosts to spread to, my plague perished.
I snarled at the screen, then took some comfort from the fact that those 60,000 Greelanders would surely live short, brutish and ugly and nasty lives without any other humanity to support them.
Then I played again, and killed EVERYONE. That man who felt a sick guilt as he spread disease across Europe? I can barely remember him any more.
Plague Inc: Evolved is an adaptation of the mobile strategy hit for PC. I haven't played the pocket-friendly version so can't tell you what's new and changed, but while its origins are evident to some degree this Early Access version doesn't feel as though it's simply a teeny game crudely inflated for a larger screen.
In any case, all it really is a world map filled with more or less red dots to denote the spread of infection, and a few screens wherein you choose new mutatations, symptoms and resistances for your disease, earned by infecting and killing and clicking on occasional pop-up bubbles (this latter, Farmvilley aspect, is the weakest part of the game, but then again Plague Inc's nature means you'd spend a great deal of time just sitting and waiting for a number to rise otherwise). A few clicks to kill a world. Or to fail to kill it, which is more likely for at least the first half-dozen efforts.
Win or lose, Plague Inc really is the darkest possible game - I stare at a number which denotes those still left alive, actively willing it to decrease. Introversion's Defcon is the closest analogue in that sense, and similarly Plague Inc raises big questions about abstraction - when all is mere numbers, the sense of human suffering decreases. I was far more appalled by, say, the torture scene in the most recent BioShock DLC than I was by the cold declaration 'Kazakhstan uses mass graves', 'Italy burns corpses' or realising that there was no-one left alive in Scandinavia. 10 million lives came to mean nothing, while a billion simply meant an irritating obstacle as it was still enough to potentially research a cure on time.
As you can see in the screenshots, I gave all my bacteria and viruses and funghi and mind worms funny names. Haha, isn't it funny when it says 'Justin Bieber has destroyed the world?' But what if I'd typed 'AIDS' or 'bird flu' or 'starvation' or 'poverty' into that little box right at the start of the game? Wouldn't it feel very different then? Would I really be willing the game to tell me that AIDS had wiped out Russia or starvation had killed Africa? Funny, how my brain tried to make it funny, to stave off the darkness of what Plague Inc is really about.
It's fascinatingly horrible. Very clever too, even though it could be said to be more a Hollywood take on viral spread than a scientific one. I suspect I'll wear out the singleplayer, with its unlockable variant plagues (each with their own, pleasingly themed and increasingly outlandish tech tree), fairly quickly, though there'll be a multiplayer option in there later too, as well as a scenario creation.
Short-lived in its current release or not, there's smart strategy to it - whether to shoot for maximum death as soon as possible and thus hamper cure research efforts that way, or lay low, spreading as far and wide as possible but with minimal symptoms in order to avoid medical detection, then suddenly escalating to seizures and organ failures once your disease has a foothold in most nations. Do you spread by air, by sea, by blood or by animal? Do you take out the poorer countries, with their more limited medicine and lower standing on the geopolitical stage first, or strive to handicap the rich nations with all their antibiotics and superior R&D?
Do you give your terrible plague with the potential to wipe out humankind a funny name or the name of a real one?