Electron Dance
22Mar/12Off

Last of the Darwinians

In 2010, indie studio Introversion parted ways with a property they’d become synonymous with: Darwinia. It had brought them much success yet also nearly destroyed them.

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 Garden

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.

Echo Chamber

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.

Darwinia Soul Repository

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Filed under: Longform Comments Off

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. It’s funny, a friend of mine brought up Multiwinia about a year or two ago, after I had read that depressing story about its release. I wished I could’ve found a way to let him know about it when it would’ve meant more to Introversion.

    It really is a lovely-looking game, from a time when minimalism wasn’t a trend. I remember how much the screenshots sparked my imagination, even though I was still a chump for AAA bombast then.

  2. I can tell you that Darwinia hasn’t aged at all. It still feels fresh and it was in the Humble Introversion Bundle towards the end of last year. It’s still a good purchase and I’m sure Introversion would appreciate it.

    I meant to point out that this is a mega-homage, it’s not just Tron at work here. It also reflects an older title called Zarch/Virus. There are the odd homages to other games in there as well; the squads are recognisable from Bullfrog’s Syndicate and one of the “loading screens” is a salute to Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder.

    However: BLOODY SPIDERS. The cause of many a squad’s premature death.

  3. Ah, Darwinia! Adored it. Forgot to play it for a few months. Never finished it as I’d lost all of my skills. I should start anew, I suppose. But I was only a few levels from the end!

    Spot on about Multiwinia – I played the demo and it seemed good, and I even thought about buying it just to show my support of Introversion, but I knew that I would never play it. I am not much of a multiplayer at the end of the day.

    Anyway, a fine tribute to those poor little guys.

  4. You have a gift with prose, my Harbour Mastering friend. Darwinia was a delightful game, and you really capture the emotional realization that despite it being such a delightful game it’s basically a heartbreaking memory for Introversion. Something they wanted to always love became something that nearly destroyed them, an albatross.

    I have Darwinia on disc… maybe I’ll pop it in and give it a whirl for old time’s sake.

  5. Oh the Darwinia demo. Those damn reds always slunk along the coastal cliff face and captured my base. How am I suppose to defend against that? How can they walk on walls? It’s not so great a route for them to take, it’s just that I can’t see them coming on account of the land. They’re practically beneath the map; shooting me from below with their gunboat, while I desperately jump hoping to land on that precious rock that gives a little bit of cover.

    I really liked it.

  6. Gotta love a good eulogy, methinks, and Darwinia definitely deserved one.

    Having been in mad love with Introversion’s creations since my universities days and that first review of Uplink I read in PC Zone, I have lost counts of how many times I’ve bought this lovable team’s offerings. I even enjoyed playing Multiwinia against bots as I frankly hate playing strangers online.

    Oh, and -if you haven’t done so yet- you must give Defcon a try. And read its manual.

  7. @ShaunCG: It’s not that long a game, I played through it twice or three times with different difficulty levels. But your time is your own, I’m going to go all “PLAY MASS EFFECT” on you. On the other hand, you haven’t replied to my critically important email!

    @Steerpike: I’m actually not totally happy with the words, because I was forced into editing at 1am and I just wanted to put my head down. Did that paragraph on an “echo chamber” really fit? etc. self-biff etc. self-ka-pow etc. I put in Darwinia just to refresh my memory as I have it on Steam (it downloads in around two seconds) and I almost started playing again. It’s definitely a seductive game.

    @mwm: That doesn’t sound familar at all – are you referring to Multiwinia or Darwinia+ by any chance?

  8. @gnome: I didn’t quite get into Uplink (I was always failing), but I’ve always felt I should give it another try. I thought Defcon was multiplayer…?

  9. Oh no. There’s a proper campaign and all. And a ton of particularly silly 50s themed political jokes.

  10. Hmm, maybe I will go hunting DEFCON then.

    (I also thought of touching upon Introversion’s “lost” projects of Chronometer and Subversion but they didn’t add anything to what I wanted to say.)


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