Thursday, 17 April 2014

First Thoughts: Imagine Earth Demo

The concept of Serious Brothers’ Imagine Earth is planetary colonization – a concept which, having just completed a Firefly marathon, I found immediately appealing. The difference is that while in Firefly the colonization is performed by governments fleeing an Earth that was ‘all used up’, here you’re an employee of Weyland-Yutani (I forget the actual name), one of a number of corporations who have moved to space to ‘preserve the dogma of unlimited growth’. This may seem to be a rather arbitrary distinction, but the artificial demand for growth becomes increasingly important and is worked into the mechanics in a rather pleasing way.

First, the basics. You start with a single capsule of settlers, dropped into the triangular lattice covering a beautifully animated and rendered Earth-a-like. Within a set distance of this capsule you can build new settlements, farms to feed them, factories to supply them with ‘goods’, and power stations to, well, power them. The land itself comes in different flavours: farmland, desert, rocks, trees, etc., and these interact with your buildings: for example, power stations are more efficient when built on top of ‘fossil deposits’, farms are more efficient when built on farmland, and settlers are happier when further from these and closer to forests.

So far, so simple, but the interactions don’t stop there. Farms and power stations produce both ground and air pollution. Ground pollution extends a short distance each way from the offending building and damages those around it. Air pollution has more insidious effects in causing global warming; if the number of trees and rocks (presumably magic rocks) is insufficient to absorb the emissions from your cities and other buildings then global temperatures will increase, ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, and ‘extreme’ weather events such as tornadoes will occur.  
We're making a better market. All of them... better markets.
Of course, none of this needs to happen. On each of the two levels included in the tutorial it was trivial to produce a happy, stable settlement of about 100,000 people which caused minimal environmental damage. However, here’s where the previously mentioned ‘growth’ problem comes in. Your aim (at least in the levels shown here – I don’t know if there are different objectives later on) is not to build a stable settlement or even to accumulate a certain amount of cash, but to get as many people onto that rock as will fit. You’re not making money, you’re making a market, one which you, the player, will never be allowed to enjoy or even participate in. In service to this goal of peak population you must constantly reinvest the taxes gained from your settlers in expansion, ruthlessly disposing of surplus capital by demolishing rocks and forests and building and upgrading cities in their place. Haussmann would be proud.

Oh, yes, upgrading cities. This is one of many ways in which Imagine Earth feels rather like a Triple Town-style builder: each area of city has a development score, starting at one, which represents the population density of that area. If the total scores of the surrounding cities are higher than a certain amount then you can upgrade that area, increasing its density, and, if you upgrade the original hub, the total amount of land available to you. The first upgrade requires three points, the second six, and so on. This rather elegant equation means that increasing inner-city density requires you to expand elsewhere, which is invariably problematic because the reason you wanted to increase density in the first place is because you had nowhere else to expand. At this point the game becomes a series of puzzles – you need to add more people, but the only space available is next to that power station you built earlier, which would make your people unhappy (unhappy settlers pay less tax – or rather, happy settlers give you bonuses), so you could demolish the station but there’s nowhere else to rebuild it, so you need to upgrade the central hub to get more land, but you can’t do that without building more city, so you build next to the power station anyway and then upgrade the city next to it and then upgrade the next city next to it and then you can upgrade the hub and then you can demolish the station and move it far away and now you have to build another farm to feed all these people which means that you need another station and by this point you’ve produced so much pollution that the ice caps have melted and you’ve lost all your land anyway in devastating condemnation of the evils of global (interglobal?) capitalism.

But it’s not, really. It’s obvious that the game wants you to find yourself  in ‘conflicts between the corporations [sic] profit goals to utilize and exploit the planets [sic] resources and the need to preserve the environment for your civilization’ (Serious Brothers), as demonstrated by its smugly superior introduction and the way it portrays your bosses as hideously caricatured cartoons in stark contrast to the beautiful natural environment, but profit never the problem. As previously mentioned, you can only reinvest the profits anyway, so any money you make is always spent for the benefit of the settlers. No, your real enemy here is population growth and the ridiculously small size of the planet. Once you move above that initial, small, stable population the difficulty of supplying all the food, power and goods required for the population without destroying the world increases exponentially. Of course, the narrative stimulus for moving beyond that initial state is the desire for a market to exploit, but to be honest I can’t imagine many gamers being satisfied by building three settlements, a farm, station and factory and then just sitting back and watching it do absolutely nothing for a few hours. If there’s a commentary in there on our apparently natural instinct to expand and grown then it’s well hidden. That the initial population works so well is less a commentary on the danger of Mammon than it is a testament to the (presumably) extremely restrictive birth-control policy of that settlement. For the most part, you make more money by being environmentally friendly thanks to the bonuses for keeping settlers near trees and away from pollution, and by not killing everyone with toxic smog (dead people are notoriously bad at paying taxes). The pressure to not do the 'right' thing comes from space restrictions rather than greed.

However, while its ideology may be muddled its mechanics are not. The demo itself is irritatingly short, giving you only the tutorial and a time-limited taste of the first level, but it’s well worth trying out. It strikes the right balance between complexity and depth, with a handful of elements interacting in interesting ways to produce a wide range of results and challenges. I think I needed to see a little bit more of the game to make up my mind completely, but what I did see I liked enormously.

Imagine Earth is being developed by Serious Brothers and is seeking funding on Indiegogo. You can download the free demo here.

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