Before I became a programmer, I was trying my hand at a lot of areas of study. It's probably a more accurate thing to say that me becoming a programmer was an accident that happened thanks to all the things I wanted to learn up to actually becoming a software and web developer. I studied graphic design in high school before falling in love with music theory my senior year and decided to audition for a music school and barely made it in. I studied music composition with the goal of writing music for video games before I started regularly designing and prototyping games with a friend. I learned that I really enjoyed the entire game development process and chose to study video game design on my own after getting my music degree. I couldn't afford another degree, so it was more or less a bunch of one-off classes of a DIY degree that demonstrated my experience rather than proving my schooling. Stifled by student debt from my college degree however, I needed something to help pay that off and I used the programming knowledge I picked up developing games (and the referral of a friend) to land my first programming job.
Why do I mention any of this though?
Well, I hope it shows that I have a deeply-held enjoyment of video games. I find them a fascinating medium capable of involving the audience in a way that other media can't effectively do. I also enjoy thinking of ways to fuse other interests with the video game medium. After all, game design often starts with a core idea and designing a space around that core. It's a part of why it's so easy for people to agree of categorizing games in genres and how new games take core gameplay from a genre, adding a personal twist or something novel with hopes of that novel thing to become a staple in the genre going forward. It's a neat cycle that brings us to where video games are today.
But I digress. Games that take one of my interests and see what they can do with it in a game setting really stand out to me. It's probably a big proponent of why I like rhythm games so much having spent a solid chunk of my educational career studying music, and percussion in particular. And if it isn't abundantly clear from writing for Prismatic Planet for almost 2 years now, ecology and the connectedness of nature is something I'm very interested in. I thought it'd be neat to find a game that attempts to virtualize how our planet works, and find one of those games I did!
The game is called Equilinox, and I'd like to explore a bit about how this game attempts to replicate the natural world and its interactions with the species that make up its ecosystems. After all, it's a very human thing to have a fully functioning natural world right outside your door, but choose to make a digital one that you can influence and observe.
Let's dive in!
Before we get too far into what the game does and doesn't do, I think it's a good idea to level set what the developer of the game was trying to accomplish. It's often the case with video games that you set out to do only a handful of things and you concentrate on making those things shine while everything else is more or less filling in the gaps. And in any discussion, it's good to effectively define your terms so we don't assume one thing when another was intended. The same can be applied to analysis, so here we go!
Karl Wimble, the developer of Equilinox, has always been someone inspired by nature. Though, his inspiration generally came in the form of growing his own food. In an interview with GameDeveloper.com, he mentions having fond memories of helping his mother plant, care for, and harvest vegetables, and that he still takes care of plants to this day. When he was between projects leading up to what became Equilinox, he was wanting to build something that captured this idea of taking care of a natural world. He started exploring how he could design around growing food and tending gardens, but found that there were already plenty of games attempting to simulate agriculture and farming.
With that in mind, he decided to go down a path of creating a sandbox-style game that let's players create ecosystems to manage and observe. After working on the game for a while, he also found himself taking a fair bit of inspiration from city-building games (think SimCity) to encourage players to try new things and progress through what the game had available. In contrast to city-builders, though, Equilinox was being designed to be relatively hands-off. Wimble did not want the player to have to think too hard about what to do next or to actively manage the world they were sculpting.
As a result, the game design tools employed in Equilinox seem to attempt to hold the player back from taking too much action. The game encourages the player to act with "little touches" to slightly influence the game world, but never really control it. Because the player doesn't need to focus on the state of the world, they can make tiny tweaks and watch how the world reacts to that change. It very much finds itself in the mentality of "nature finds a way" in that the world will almost always recover from or take the reins on anything the player does to it. To the point that the player can leave the game open, walk away for hours, come back and the world will still be fine and will probably have changed a bit over that time.
Having played the game for about 10 hours over the past couple weeks, I can definitely attest to the success of this goal. The game is very relaxing and I found myself watching the world unfold rather than directing where it goes next. There are a few instances of being able to decide new starting points for ecosystems, but once they establish, I'm generally just along for the ride from there. I remember having to walk away from the game a couple times which, as designed, didn't result in the world dying while I wasn't looking. After the first time I did that, it was easy for me to walk away knowing the game's ecology would take care of itself.
But because I was doing a lot of observation over those 10 hours, I couldn't help comparing the game's world to our real world. I'm not sure if Wimble intended players to actively observe their world as I did since it was easy enough to do something else while the game was running. When you are actively observing and participating in a game world, it's very easy to try understanding its rules. Being a game designer and a student of nature (I guess that's accurate), I couldn't help thinking about how this world tries to replicate reality in its systems.
Ecosystems as Living Things
Equilinox starts you off in a barren landscape. Nothing is defined as being a particular ecosystem at this point, but there are places with different altitudes and at the lowest of those altitudes you'll find water. The game gives the player some tasks to help guide some initial actions, the first of which is asking the player to plant a grass seed. This unfurls into more tasks about having a certain number of grass tufts growing at one time, but the player doesn't have enough resources to plant more than that first grass seed. The player learns here that they don't need to plant more grass seeds for more grass tufts to take hold. The grasses will propagate more seeds on their own, and the player completes another task for letting this happen.
This is a nice touch of the game's systems in action for a couple reasons. For one, nature will eventually propagate itself. A human touch did not get the world to where it's at in the grand scheme of things. Humans are a very new thing on the planet's timeline. We were not necessary in how all other species came to be on the Earth, and the game embraces that, albeit after the first initial push. Equilinox doesn't have the player start from watching microorganisms evolve into the ancestors of plant life, but allows the player to place that first plant life initially. From there, however, more will grow because that's how life on our planet works. If conditions are right, the species will continue to sprawl and the surrounding environment will set rough boundaries for where that sprawl will end. All without the player's input.
Which is the other nice touch, that the player is not actively setting boundaries, just influencing where the boundaries will initially originate from. In typical city-builder games, it's common for the player to place something in the world and it will stay there and influence activity through that space. For example, if you set up houses and sidewalks to form a city block in a city-builder, people will move into those houses and walk on the sidewalks. But that city block is exactly as you defined it for all time. It won't change its boundaries unless the player decides to build more houses or sidewalks. That city block is controlled by the player.
In contrast, Equilinox lets the player set a temporary point of origin that the ecosystem will spread out from. That origin will eventually disappear and the world won't know any the wiser. The boundaries of that sprawling ecosystem will also fluctuate as time goes one. Plants and animals will die and new generations will take root in slightly different locations. Ecosystems are things to be controlled and are an extension of the living things that inhabit them. Equilinox captures that by not letting the player's influence define boundaries and instead letting the world's natural systems temporarily define them with each passing day.
Like our own world, I can call something a grassland and arbitrarily choose where I think the boundary is, but the world doesn't much care about my categories. Like the parts that make it, the system is a living thing, and it will move as it wills over time.
An Appreciation for Ecotones
This ends up being a bit of extension of the concept of ecosystems as living things, but the game also embraces the idea of ecotones. We've talked about ecotones in some of our educational pages on Prismatic Planet, but they are effectively the "between spaces" of adjacent ecosystems. The world isn't so cut-and-dry as to have "pure" ecosystems. Woodlands mingle with grasslands, wetlands mingle with forests, oceans mingle with rivers, and so on. We can suggest that there are clear boundaries between these places, but the reality is far more nuanced. Species depend on these pathways between ecosystems and can even find their own niches to fill by having that pathway exist in the first place. Essentially, the possibility of finding a patch of "pure" forest, for example, is shortcoming of understanding the connectedness of adjacent systems. Ecosystems influence each other.
Equilinox attempts to track this by having plants and spread certain types of ecosystems, and depending on the abundance of those species, the area is given a sort of percentage "grade" of that type of ecosystem. When plants and animals from different ecosystems coexist, these percentages are divvied up out of the full 100%. Because of this, it's possible to have spaces that exhibit features of grassland, woodland, and forest all at the same time, and this impacts what species will survive and thrive there. Very neat!
In our world, ecotones like these often serve as pathways for species, resources, and minerals to travel between ecosystems as well. Rivers can escort minerals from mountainous forests to inland wetlands. Shrubs that take root on the woodland edge and provide nesting spots for birds who thrive in the savanna. Birds visiting the grassland from the adjacent forest may help propagate seeds from the grasses. And if these pathways create relationships between species that result in a higher likelihood of survival, you can bet those behaviors will be baked into the species that are performing them. Of course, this doesn't mean all avenues will work either. If a pathway is open, but provides no meaningful behavior, species existing alongside that pathway won't thrive and behaviors won't be impressed on later generations.
This is actually getting into another aspect that the game attempts to replicate from our world, which is species evolution.
I'll start off with saying that tracking how species evolve is something we struggle with to this day. It's hard to have a complete understanding of what species evolved traits that influenced other species to exhibit those traits and eventually emerge as their own species. I didn't expect Equilinox to explore this space with a ton of accuracy, especially since its goals are align more with a virtual zen garden, but for ecosystems. Still, the game does let the player "evolve" species, so it got me curious about how accurate the system was being. And, to my surprise, it actually does a decent job encapsulating what evolution is and how it could happen, albeit at super speed!
There aren't a lot of plants and animals in Equilinox, and even in that small subset, even fewer are available to the player to simply "place" in the world. Instead, the game has the player use those base species as starting points and after they take hold in the world, the player can selectively breed certain qualities of the species to have them evolve. This mechanic is attempting to give the player the "power" of natural selection, or the concept that given environmental conditions, certain traits will allow for the species to thrive better, have better odds of living long and healthy lives, and higher odds to reproduce and pass on those traits to their offspring. This all happens at an accelerated rate so the player can see it happen over the course of their play session, though.
An example in the game is tulips and bluebells. Tulips can evolve into bluebells if the tulip is purple and is in a partially snowy environment. In Equilinox, snowy landscapes tend to be spread by high-altitude-loving plants, suggesting that tulips with traits selected for either higher altitudes or higher latitudes could eventually become their own species. The game uses some gratuitous shorthand that tells the player that purple tulips have better odds at surviving in snowy ecosystems. In the game, tulips are a grassland species, not particularly suited to handle high-altitude environments, so to get to the point of evolving a bluebell, the player can either try forcing a tulip into that environment and hoping it evolves fast enough, or more realistically, use tiny influences to eventually have a snowy ecosystem and grassland ecosystem create an ecotone for the tulip to thrive.
Also interestingly, because I'm weird, I ended up comparing the game's evolution tree to our world's evolutionary tree thanks to an awesome tool from One Zoom (definitely check that out by the way) to see how they line up, and in the case of tulips and bluebells, it's actually slightly accurate! Bluebells do occur later in the evolutionary tree of life than tulips. Does this mean that the game is right that purple tulips are the sole ancestor of the bluebell? No, not at all, but it was a pleasant surprise to see that evolutionary paths in the game seem to be informed by their real-world counterparts.
The exception there being the base species. The game seems to use base species that the player would like be very familiar with and tend to be more domestic variations of plants and animals that we see today. These are things like sheep, chickens, and guinea pigs, all of which are base species where other animals evolve from. Comparing these to their real-world counterparts shows that's not terribly accurate. However, if I think of this like a game designer trying to get people interested in the game quickly, it makes sense that the game would use more familiar species to start with. If we approach the game's evolution trees with this in mind, and consider domestic sheep as a stand-in for hoofed ungulates, chickens for fowl, and guinea pigs for rodents, the tree ends up being fairly accurate again. It makes a lot of sense since ancestral versions of those types of animals wouldn't be particularly recognizable to players starting off. If we consider this a game design shorthand, it actually illustrates our evolutionary tree fairly well. An impressive feat for a small-scale sandbox game about ecosystems!
A Monetary System for Tracking Diversity
All of this said about the game's systems, there is one that stood out to me as kind of hurting the general flow of the game and participating in the world's progression. In addition to having to meet certain criteria to progress in certain ways, either unlocking new base species, planting seeds, breeding for specific traits, moving things around, or evolving species, the player is required to spend a makeshift currency in the game called Diversity Points, or DP for short. For example, it costs 3,400 DP to plant a sycamore tree seed. The way the player earns DP is by having animals living in the world, which is an interesting decision given that animals are only a fraction of the world's diversity, and a fairly small fraction at that.
I imagine this design choice came from city-builder inspirations, where building things brings in people who generate income that can be spent on building more things. This mechanic is also used in tandem with tasks to encourage the player to take certain actions at certain times. Say you have a plant that you, as a designer, feel is a late-game plant that shouldn't exist in early stages of building the world. That plant's DP cost can be set pretty high, either in how much it costs to plant the base species, the cost of selectively breeding the traits need to evolve, or in the evolution cost itself. You can encourage the player to focus on tasks that cost much less DP, guiding the player in the progression path that you, as the designer, would like them to follow.
I totally get that concept as a game designer trying to create an experience that you want the player to, well...experience. If you build all these cool things, you want the player to see as much of that as possible, so you build systems that encourage the player to experience all of what you build. In the case of Equilinox, the Diversity Points system certainly accomplishes that. If I'm watching my woodlands start to sprawl, but I'm hitting a capacity limit on how many animals can healthily live in that space, I need to either expand that ecosystem or build a new one. When I end up butting up against water or mountains, though, the ecosystem won't spread into areas its species can't thrive, and it blocks me from evolving these plants into new species that can thrive in those ecosystem with high DP costs. So, I instead turn to my tasks list and find that starting a desert ecosystem is "cheaper" so I start doing that.
In this scenario, I have met all criteria to spread the woodland into new areas, but the game is arbitrarily stopping me from evolving the species that have everything they need to evolve by requiring a currency be spent to accomplish that. In our world, we don't have to, in addition to having all evolutionary criteria in place, spend a currency to force it to happen. Meeting the criteria for evolutionary progress is the cost of that evolutionary progress. The game world's currency system to restrict player action gets in the way of letting this be the case.
And I'm certain this was a balancing act for the game's development. When you build a game with core systems in mind, removing or altering those systems becomes near impossible as the game gets closer to completion. As a designer, you have to ask yourself if the system is doing what it was intended to do and if the side effects of that system are acceptable in the grand scheme of things. In this case, the currency does make the game more hands-off and discourages controlling the world, but has a side effect of stopping the world from progressing in an order the game doesn't want to follow. To that extent, the system is likely doing more good than harm in accomplishing the game's primary goals. Which, if we recall, were to create a chill, hands-off experience for the player to unwind to while observing a virtual nature.
That said, using currency as a gatekeeper to progress is a remarkably on-the-nose human thing to do. I'd almost be tempted to call that a commentary on visualizing nature through a capitalist lens, but I'll leave that thought for now.
A Review, I Guess?
Over the course of writing this, it kind of felt like a review of the game through the lens of ecology, so I figure we can end it like one :)
All in all, Equilinox does a lot of things very well and generally reflects our real world without over-complicating the game with the abundance of nuance we find in our own world. The game very much accomplishes its goals, and despite Wimble's own thoughts of "it wasn't really an intention of mine to make the game particularly educational, but if Equilinox helps to get people more interested in nature and ecosystems then all the better," the game actually captures some core concepts of our home without grossly oversimplifying things.
So, if you're in the mood for relaxing to being a small influence in the evolving ecosystems of a digitally generated natural landscape, Equilinox is worth giving a shot. I wasn't sure if I'd keep going back into the game world after a few hours, but I found myself wanting to check back in how things were doing or to make a little more progress in spreading or starting new ecosystems. It's a very chill and inviting experience, and if you've got the mind to think about how its systems work analytically, you might just find yourself learning more about the world we call our home.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
GameDeveloper.com Interview with Karl Wimble
One Zoom Interactive Tree of Life
*** Definitely check this out, it's super cool! ***
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.