Birthdays the Beginning

By William Collins on 21st May 2017

God games, like strategy games as a whole are one of the forgotten genres of gaming. Everyone remembers them fondly but for whatever reason that fondness stopped translating into moving games off shop shelves. Birthdays The Beginning looks on the surface like a superficial God game more akin to mobile devices. It is in mobile gaming that strategy games have clung to a niche market. Top down, messing with the terrain, casting your decisions upon the unfortunates below. What makes Birthdays the Beginning unique, apart from its horrible branding that makes it sound like a party game, is its lofty attempt to follow the true evolutionary record of the Earth.

Birthdays never troubles itself too greatly with believability or reality aside from using the real creatures. Playing like Spore meets wikipedia, an opening cutscene tells you that you are special, that you blacked out in a cave and that you have been transported to cosmic square with a talking geometric shape and a sandbox of the Earth below. In this quantum realm you happen to be a flying dude with goggles and a dapper red jump suit. All logical leaps thus far. Typical of these kind of games there is a tutorial of sorts that slowly becomes a small multi part campaign that promises a lifetime of free play afterward. The central premise is that time is controllable and I could stop it to inspect my world. A crucial part of the game is making changes and then speeding through time to see what effect those changes have.

Speaking of the ability to make changes or have god-like powers, I could raise or lower the terrain one level at a time, seed rivers, make deserts or oceans, and by doing so change the temperature of the planet. Temperature is everything. The water temperature of rivers or seas change what creatures could live where. Finally bacteria like creatures appear in my world. Eventually further life appears as sparks of life. One creature in your world can represent tens of thousands of actual creatures. At one point I had three quarters of a million clam creatures and yet only two or three appeared in game. The game carries on in this vein all the way through Earth history right up to humans and it never changes. All within this little cube of land.

Despite a cool pokemon style design, the creatures lack any character and particularly at the start are instantly forgettable. One thing that must be said is that these are real creatures and modelling the evolution of life on Earth is no small thing. Birthdays is related to the supercomputer simulations that evolutionary biologists used to predict why certain species died while other thrived. I am sure to some this will be educational to some or even interesting to folks who have studied evolution. But it is a dry simulation in which you can’t interact, name or follow specific creatures as they journey through your world. They barely move and when they do it is canned animations that repeat. In sticking to this setup it ceases to be a game and becomes more of a cute looking simulation.

Couple that with the fact that your beasties have abstract scientific names and most of the time you’ll find it hard to remember whether the creature you are aiming to evolve is a squid or a fungus. This leads to countless trips into the menus and its encyclopedias and network diagrams. It aims for high level and ends up pushing you so far away you stop playing. If you are playing it is to change the water temperature for the fiftieth time so yet another creature you could care less about will randomly appear and do nothing. As far as I could see they don't mate, eat each other, or even acknowledge that they are not alone. It is very much that the grandscale scope of the game meant that these things could not be included.

Birthdays keeps pushing you out of the action and yet your ability to form a strategy is weakened by its reactive gameplay. You build, you wait, something happens, and you build again. The aesthetic is shaping rather than creating. A game based on an evolutionary path that did happen an exact way means that a lot of what occurs in the game continues regardless of what I did as it had to happen to make any of it make sense. Dinosaurs have to evolve, and have to evolve from certain creatures. If those creatures have already died out then you make them again, not have new creatures evolve differently.

Often it becomes a victim of its own complexity. Too many times I found myself in a world where things were going wrong and I was uncertain why. Animals I needed would appear only to go extinct before I could stop time progressing. Their interrelationships were far more complicated than the game would easily show. At points, the water temperature is perfect for this creature to thrive and yet it is dying for a reason buried away in its information card. The power ups in the form of cards promise much but should the game’s ecosystem resist the power of the card then they become pointless. The gameplay is so indirect that I often felt disconnected from guiding the world and more an observer who could build a mountain.

Birthdays, problems aside, will appeal to strategy gamers who want a challenge. If you love being posed a puzzle and finding a middle ground solution then check out Birthdays.

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