After almost a decade of living, breathing and sleeping Darwinia, they gave it a send-off in style. They did what you would expect any normal game developer to do: they created Darwinian torture porn.
It’s a funny little thing that reveals how Introversion felt about their tired relationship with Darwinia. But I couldn’t help feeling sad at the loss of these little green flatland men. I don’t think any of us were invited to speak at the Darwinians’ eulogy, so I’m going to speak my mind here.
Someone needs to say something, for God's sakes. Darwinia was important.
Corruption In Real Time
Introversion’s first title was the hacking sim Uplink which was a word-of-mouth hit in 2001, succeeding without an advertising budget (see Kieron Gillen's take on the Introversion story). This “easy win” was probably a curse, reinforcing the illusion that if you make a great game, the players will come. This wasn’t true for their second title, Darwinia.
Originally inspired by the first Indie Game Jam in 2002, it took another three years before Darwinia became a reality. But despite positive reviews in 2005, sales of Darwinia were poor and Introversion flirted with bankruptcy. Getting released on Steam was what saved the company: Darwinia was one of the first third-party titles to end up on Steam. In fact, this was how I learnt of Darwinia, because Steam was still “the village where Valve lived” in 2005, and getting onto Steam was the equivalent of a nuclear blast of PR. Every fan of Valve learnt about Darwinia because of its near-unique Steam status: sites like Planet Half-Life paraded it, because Darwinia was Valve news.
Darwinia is a simple RTS blessed with Tron visuals and a neat story. It is a game that has been made with love, a game in which every nut and bolt has been chosen carefully: every sound effect, every visual feature and every Easter egg (like the amazing Christmas mode or the memorial box kites that are sometimes released when Darwinians die). Darwinia was World of Goo in a time where the term "indie" wasn't in common usage.
It’s curious that Introversion have been so contrite over the broken UI of the original Darwinia because it is the game’s accessibility that I remember most. Darwinia changed my gaming habits: it taught me that I might be able to get into RTS games. Whenever I turned my hand to an RTS I normally ended up drowning in a quicksand of upgrades and micromanagement and rules. But Darwinia was a cutdown RTS, minimising the micromanagement reminiscent of early RTS efforts such as Dani Bunten's Cytron Masters (SSI, 1980) or Sega Megadrive title Herzog Zwei (Technosoft, 1989). It held your hand and gently took you through the rules of the Darwinian environment.
I was in love and Mrs. HM loved it too – and she’d never had any exposure to RTSes in the past. RTSes never appealed to her as fun, looking more like hard work for people into simulations with many moving parts. Darwinia proved her wrong.
The game’s story was an important part too, especially as players became all-too-easily attached to these little green men. It’s effectively about the failure of parenting and children having to grow up rapidly in the face of that failure. The story has a Sir Clive Sinclair-alike called Dr. Sepulveda creating Darwinians, a digital life form, but a virus hits the server they live in and almost destroys their entire species. The end of the game reveals that it was the Darwinians themselves who introduced the virus; they were merely curious about their maker and hacked into his email – unwittingly unleashing a mail spam virus upon their virtual land.
Initially, you are there to guide the Darwinians to safety, protect those few who still survive. By the end, the Darwinians have to take up arms against hordes of virally-corrupted Darwinians. The memorable penultimate level, Biosphere, is where the game turns into a ground war where you cannot win without entrusting the Darwinians to fight for themselves. This has dramatic repercussions in the final scenes: the Darwinians are now battle-shocked who have to work through the consequences of what they have done and what they know about the larger, dangerous world.
But we finished it all too quickly and we were hungry for more. I tried out a few community-made map packs but they just weren’t satisfying for me, often exposing how fragile the game’s mechanical fairness was. One example I recall was a landscape which featured deep fissures where characters could fall down but couldn’t get back out.
We hoped for more Darwinia and then Introversion announced Multiwinia. We were like: “Oh.”
Mrs. HM and I were not interested in playing against others or one another, we just wanted more Darwinia, a continuation of the story. Why multiplayer was such a great idea escaped us. We never bought it; I tried to get Mrs. HM interested but she just shrugged her shoulders.
Although I understand that Introversion had always wanted to incorporate multiplayer, this incident highlights again how difficult it is reading your largely silent fanbase. Vocal fans may have been supportive of or even demanding of multiplayer, but were they representative? I’ve been watching the “everything gotta have multiplayer” agenda for years, since the unregistered version of Doom made deathmatch ubiquitous and popular. The lack of multiplayer in an FPS is still called out today as if it is common sense that the majority of players are multiplayer participants.
Here's a more contemporary example of a gaming "echo chamber". Certain websites might lead the reader to the conclusion that games suited for public exhibition like Hokra or Nidhogg are critically important but they barely reach the consciousness of the ordinary game-buying public: they are important within the game developer/journalist circuit but not without.
It turned out Multiwinia was a product without a ready-made audience. Read this heartbreaking anecdote about the Multiwinia launch night by Chris Delay in April 2009:
"Tom had always fantasised about building a sales counter that would sit in the corner of the office and tick up whenever we sold a copy of a game. This time around he actually did it, building the device out of second hand parts bought from Ebay and writing custom driver software for it that linked directly to our Multiwinia sales counter. During our launch party dinner and celebrations that evening, what was truly amazing about this counter was how little it was actually going up. I’m not kidding when I say that we actually checked the connections and the software several times to make sure it was actually working, only to find out it was. Even then that very night we knew it was bad, that our whole future was in doubt."
Introversion were also working on another iteration, for the Xbox 360, called Darwinia+ which took four years all told. This also sold poorly and Introversion almost shut its doors for good in 2010 - founders Chris Delay and Mark Morris actually started applying for other jobs. Fortunately, neither Delay nor Morris found themselves able to walk away from Introversion and did what they could to keep the company afloat.
Introversion are planning to release a new title, Prison Architect, in 2013.
Those Little Green Men
So it's understandable that after all this, Introversion have had their fill of Darwinia and its little green men. But the terrible thing, from where I’m sitting, is that I waited patiently for years for the possibility of a new Darwinia single-player title on the PC and I didn’t get it. Introversion were guaranteed to have my money and I can’t have been the only Darwinia devotee ready to jump at Darwinia 2.
But it is too late and we have seen the last of the Darwinians. We will never find out what other strange stories they might have got mixed up in.
And that saddens me.