a game by Anark
The Pr People Are Promoting Galapagos as a genre-busting title. It's certainly a handy term, because we can't decide what to call it, and neither can EA or the game's developers Anark. We thought of life 'em up. but that sounds too much like something the West Midlands police used to do to Irish passers-by. So let's forget it, and tell you what makes the game so odd instead. First of all, there's the artificial life angle.
What's it all about then?
Let me guess your train of thought here: "Another Creatures," you're thinking, "Bloody irritating squeaky things that pretend to be a new artificial lifeform but turn out to be boring, pain in the arse, bullshit." Just be patient. (And do please refrain from using bad language. Some of our readers don't like it) Galapagos isn't like that at all. Instead of nurturing ugly little freaks through a two-dimensional existence that soon gets on your nerves (or being a parent, as it's known), you are guiding an emergent intelligence through a hostile, tricky to negotiate environment. The thing you're guiding is called Mendel. "He's a simulated robot," says Anark's Stephen Collins. "A synthetic organism with simulated servo-motors that allow him to move, infra-red sensors that allow him to see. and an adaptive controller for a brain, which allows him to adapt to his environment independently of the player. Oh. and in case you're interested, he looks like a spider.
A web of intrigue
And it's the word "independently" that is the key to the second element which makes the game unique - you don't actually control what he does. Instead, you control the environment, clicking on moving platforms to synchronise their movements in a way that encourages Mendel to head in the direction you want. There arc hostile elements and objects designed to hamper your progress, as well as puzzles to work out and solve, all in a three-dimensional platform environment in which there's no up or down. The best way to describe it would be a hybrid of Mario 64 meets Escher. From what we've seen, some of the later levels would be decidedly tricky if you were playing a traditional platform game where the main character's movement is under your direct control. And it's here that the learning/artificial life/AI element comes into its own. Basically, when you First get a (default) Mendel to play with, he'll be a mere seven hours old and reasonably responsive to his environment. But his development will be entirely down to you.
Mendel's behaviour is what's called emergent, in that you can never tell exactly how he'll turn out. Each Mendel will be different from game to game, and his behaviour will depend to a large extent on how well you control him. If you manage to guide him around with skill, diverting him from too much harm, he will become more confident He'll move quickly and fearlessly around the levels - perhaps sometimes too quickly. If you're cack-handed and he keeps plummeting to his death or being fragged by laser cannon, he'll start to mistrust both you and his environment, and be more hesitant as a result (Given the speed you'll be forced to work at if he does get too confident, it might be a good idea to let him take a few hard knocks early on - besides which, I've always thought a certain amount of pain to be essential in any child's development). But don't go too far. "We went home one night," says Collins, "and forgot we'd left Mendel in an area full of exploding panels. When we came back in the morning he'd been blown up so many times he'd been reduced to a quivering wreck. We literally couldn't get him to move and had to start all over again with a new one."Stop snickering there at the back.
Strangely, for a creature who isn't by any means what you'd call conventionally cute. Mendel seems to draw people to him. Certainly, we were shown a particularly nightmarish level, and whenever he fell off a platform, without fail he always drew an "Aaaww" from the crowd. (It's just occurred to me that they could've been calling him a whore... Nah.)
Congratulations on your new baby
If you want to make life more difficult for yourself, you don't even have to start with a seven hour old Mendel, as there are settings which allow you to choose a one, two or four hour old model, or even a complete newborn. This version spends its formative minutes discovering itself. At first it just shakes its legs to see if they work, and then after a while it'll start staggering about in random directions, trying out limbs that seem scarcely able to support it. Opinion is divided in the office as to whether it's more like watching a baby giraffe in a nature film, or our Chris trying to get home from the pub.
At first, Mendel will almost always start making his way around backwards, which usually results in him backing into something painful, or falling off the edge of a platform to his doom. Fortunately though, he does benefit from these harrowing experiences. "After a while," says Collins, "he'll learn that he can reduce the amount of pain in his life by walking forwards and using his sensors."
It's intriguing and absorbing stuff, and it sounds very complicated - it is - but it's extremely intuitive. Collins expands further: "We've set the game up for people without telling them anything about it except that it's controlled by the mouse. We just said, There you go, play that,' and when we went back into the room they'd be happily playing away."
It can also be incredibly frustrating when he doesn't do what you want The game should probably have a "Liable To Provoke Savage And Obscene Language Among Monks" sticker slapped on the box. From the short time we've played it, it's clear that although Mendel looks like a spider made out of old cornflakes packets, there are times when you will love him. It's equally clear that there are times when you'll want to take him aside and smack the shit out of him with a sledgehammer. Before long we'll be crying into our keyboards, and once we've dried our tears we'll be giving you the full lowdown. If we haven't smashed our PCs first, that is.
2018-12-03 Galapagos game added.