I typically can’t stand to see the Internet portrayed in film or, to a growing extent, games. Inexplicably, the Internet, when passed through the field of reality-based fiction, takes on a laughable representation of itself replete with intense augmented-reality interfaces, often controlled through physical manipulation (think Tom Cruise in Minority Report), and of course powered by the forces behind the single corporate consumer giant that offered the highest sum for its prime product placement in said artefact of entertainment. Its lack of realism is grating. It does not make for a profound or enthralling plot; if anything, it actually disrupts immersion as the audience’s collective jaw falls open in disbelief. Fictional portrayals of the Internet feel more like a sad attempt at winning the audience over with the man-that’s-cool factor of excessive, as-yet-nonexistent technology – not unlike the unnecessary car-chase or shootout that defines the climax of many films today.
Taking place in the world’s first digital theme park, Introversion Software’s Darwinia makes no bones about being set on the Internet. It’s not touted as the leading character’s Tool of Awesome here; it simply forms the backdrop to a sprawling digital archipelago that you’re unexpectedly dropped into, and it doesn’t verge on sentience or require any form of physical input to operate other than your mouse and keyboard. Complex but modest, Darwinia is a breath of fresh air.
In fact, the Internet, for the incomprehensible amount of information it contains, is delivered to us in Darwinia as a minimal graphical interface that resembles the lines of a map, given three-dimensional form and dotted with sprites, oddly celestial in its simplicity. You arrive amidst disaster; a virus is ravaging the poor pixellated theme park and consuming its inhabitants, and its creator, the enigmatic Dr. Sepulveda, enlists your help to restore order.
His transmissions guide you in your interactions with the environment and the native, stick-figured Darwinians. To aid in wiping out the virus threat, you are given free rein to run Sepulveda’s upgradeable ‘programs’ as you see fit. The Squad program, for instance, summons a band of laser-wielding, grenade-lobbing soldiers that can destroy strains of the virus, represented initially as red, skittering arrows that snake across the landscape. The Engineer program can then collect the ‘souls’ that are left behind – crystallised essences that can be used to restore the lives of numerous Darwinians – in addition to reprogramming radar dishes or opening portals to other islands. You cannot interact with the Darwinians directly, but through use of the Officer program, you can appoint one as a leader to direct the others.
The Darwinians are a surprisingly advanced people, and during the course of the game you will have them operating mining equipment and manning turrets, amongst other activities. As they advance, so too does the virus, taking on larger and more frightening forms. It soon transpires that the sheer force of your dispensable combat programs is not enough to fight back against the virus, and this is where the next development in the gameplay kicks in – the evolution and repopulation of the Darwinians. While Darwinia’s premise is undemanding, even cute, the virus’ source is eventually unveiled as something so brilliantly mundane that it will be both obvious and unclear why you didn’t think of it sooner.
The sound design is haunting, too. Rockets explode, lasers pew-pew, and technology whines against the backdrop of a very fitting electronica soundtrack, spanning novelty synthesised tracks and delicate piano alike. Above it all, the discordant cries of dying Darwinians linger, pathetically and poignantly. Though an artificial intelligence, you couldn’t argue that they don’t feel pain the same way that you or I do.
As a game, Darwinia is not without its problems, though these tend to encompass difficulties of the niggling variety at most – for instance, some occasionally cloudy instructions may force the player to work out how to operate certain programs by means of trial-and-error. Such things are forgotten quickly, however, as this is less of a game than it is an entire, self-contained world, with some profound parallels to our own.
Darwinia’s narrative and complex gameplay will surprise those who mistake its simple, blocky landscape for light entertainment. You will question the nature of our existence, just as the Darwinians question theirs, and the full extent of the virus’ catastrophic effect on Darwinia’s population is an incredibly affecting twist that will resonate with you, too, for a long time to come.