Monday, April 1, 2019

The Walking with Beasts Evolution Game

Following my withdrawal from writing fake science articles for April Fools', I've been coming up with new ways to celebrate the occasion. In the end, I think Jamie Revell of Synapsida and Meig Dickson of A Dinosaur A Day had the right idea all along: instead of writing fake content for April Fools', they blog about subjects that don't fall under the typical purview of their blogs.

In that spirit, I could write about a recent discovery about some kind of non-maniraptoran animal. There is certainly no shortage of studies I could select from, and I expect that to be the direction I take in the future. However, for this first "rebranded April Fools'" post, I have decided to take the chance to reminisce about a small piece of paleo community internet history that appears to have been largely forgotten.


Fans of Walking with Dinosaurs who explored the series website in the 2000s likely remember the Big Al Game. This game allowed players to take on the perspective of a male Allosaurus, living out its life from hatchling to adulthood. (As far as I could tell, the final, adulthood level could go on indefinitely as long as you weren't killed.) It was a text-based game with point-and-click mechanics; the player could click the arrows on a compass to decide which direction the Allosaurus would travel, and click buttons to determine how to interact with the other animals they encountered.

Unfortunately, the BBC took the Big Al game offline in 2011. Despite the straightforward premise and simple layout, it had probably provided hours of entertainment to numerous paleontology enthusiasts. It is fondly remembered by many in the online communities that I'm a part of and has been cited as a source of inspiration for the ambitious Saurian video game project. The fanmade Walking with Wiki does a decent job at describing the contents and gameplay of the Big Al Game, enough so that a game developer who had never played the original has managed to recreate it with reasonable accuracy.

Far less well known is that Walking with Beasts, the sequel series to Walking with Dinosaurs, also had an accompanying online game with a similar gameplay style, known as the Evolution Game. Unlike the Big Al Game, which played out the life of an individual animal, the Evolution Game took players over the course of primate evolution, starting out the game as the Eocene primate Teilhardina. After playing for some time, the game would do a timeskip of several million years, upon which the player would assume the perspective of a descendant primate species, with different habitats and organisms to encounter. This would occur repeatedly throughout the course of the game.

Compared to the Big Al Game, few details of the Evolution Game have been publicly documented. Among the same circles in which the Big Al Game sparks immediate recognition, I've been hard-pressed to find anyone who even remembers it existed, let alone has memories of playing it. Its Walking with Wiki article contains little information that can't be gathered by Wayback Machine. As a result, this post reflecting on what I remember about the game might be of some interest to a certain portion of the online paleo-community. However, keep in mind that this is based on memories that are over a decade old, so I can't guarantee that it is entirely accurate.

Image showing the overall layout of the Evolution Game, screencapped from Wayback Machine. The archive doesn't appear to have captured the panel below "Hear", which contained information on what your character was perceiving through their sense of smell.

Overall gameplay mechanics were similar between the Evolution Game and the Big Al Game, but there were a few logistical differences reflecting the fact that the player characters were primates instead of an Allosaurus. For one, in addition to traveling through horizontal space using compass directions, players also had the option to climb and travel through the trees. For another, plant life was given a greater focus in the Evolution Game, and players could choose to feed on the leaves and fruits they came across. On the faunal side of things, very small animals such as insects and frogs could also be "eaten", whereas larger ones could be "attacked". At least in the beginning of the game, the largest animals that the player would be capable of killing included leptictids and opossums. Some animals in the game were identified only in general terms (e.g.: "arboreal hyaenodont"), but others were identified as members of specific genera (e.g.: Arctocyon, Kopidodon).

Making this post still somewhat relevant to maniraptors is that some birds could be encountered in the game (the few I recall being Eocene species referred to as "roller-like bird" or "woodpecker-like bird"). Most of the time, they were said to have flown off before you'd even get the chance to interact with them, but they were much too agile for you to catch even on the rare occasion that you did.

One characteristic of the game that I personally found memorable (and sometimes darkly humorous) were the "game over" messages that were shown if the player character died. Whereas the game over messages of the Big Al Game tended to be straightforward and repetitive (e.g.: "You attacked the [insert animal], but it was too strong and killed you"), the Evolution Game would go to the trouble of providing a somewhat detailed description of how you died. Miacids would "pounce on you" as you "tried to grab" them. Pangolins were surprisingly dangerous and could slash you fatally with their claws. Even a Propalaeotherium was too much for your early primate to handle, as it could kick you to death with its "tiny hooflets". And if you ever made the foolish decision to mess with a Pristichampsus, its long jaws would "close on you as you became history".

When the player came across a member of the same species in the game, the conspecific could be attacked as with any other animal, but one or two additional interactive options would appear. One was along the lines of "invite to group". I never fully grasped how group living altered your gameplay, though it required you to share food with other members of your group. It may have also allowed you to kill slightly larger prey than you normally could, but I am less certain about that. Every now and then, members of your group would leave of their own volition. Another option that occasionally showed up was "mate", evidently indicating that you'd encountered a member of the opposite sex. When this option was selected, the "species population" bar on the side panel would go up.

A fossil of the pantolestan Kopidodon, photographed by "Daderot", public domain. Kopidodon was one of the animals that could be encountered in the Evolution Game, and one of many species that could easily kill your Teilhardina if provoked.

Probably the biggest difference the Evolution Game had from the Big Al Game, however, was that it was hard. The Big Al Game had its own challenges, but a few rounds of trial and error were often enough for players to become familiar with in-game hazards and come up with a working strategy to get through the game. The Evolution Game, on the other hand, was much more difficult to figure out. I personally never made it past the Miocene (I remember my character being a Proconsul at that point, though my memory of the primate species in the game is hazy).

The main issue appeared to come to down to a lack of suitable food sources available to the player. Eating most types of leaves diminished the player character's energy instead of replenishing it, probably as a way to indicate that the player could not digest them properly. More baffling was the fact that larger prey items that the player could kill had the same result (even though one would expect meat to be fairly easy to digest). As a consequence, the only viable food for the player at the beginning of the game were small prey such as insects. However, as the game continued, there would come a point where the small animals would become too agile for the player to catch (likely reflecting the larger body size of the later primates), and yet foliage remained largely indigestible. The only substantial foods at that point were fruits and palm leaves, which were few and far between, leaving the player character doomed to starvation.

The game repeatedly hinted that the player's decisions could influence their evolutionary trajectory, and during some of my playthroughs I tried to get over the starvation hurdle in a Lamarckian way by having my early primate eat a diet with a higher proportion of plant material. Although this did alter the species that I ended up evolving into, I still did not gain specializations for folivory quickly enough to avoid going hungry. On one particular occasion, I died while desperately stuffing my face with acacia leaves, as though I could suddenly gain such specializations from doing so. According to the game over message, I lost my remaining strength before I could take another bite of the leaves, and plummeted from the tree.

I never got the chance to think of a better strategy than that, as the Evolution Game went offline in 2007, several years earlier than its predecessor. Naturally, I also never found out how the game depicted the Quaternary Period, or whether the game had any "end goal". On that note, the game over screen I keep mentioning provided tantalizing clues. Following the description of the player's cause of death, it also included a long list of extant primates, with the implication that the player could potentially evolve into any of them if they'd survived to present day. Given the lack of documentation available for the game, we may never know for sure.

A variety of extant primates, composited by "Miguelrangeljr", under CC BY-SA 3.0. Possible "end points" of the Evolution Game?

No comments:

Post a Comment