Evolve (Caitlin Lill)

Evolve placed third in the StoryNexus World of the Season competition, after Samsara and Zero Summer. Unlike the other two pieces, it’s a work of educational non-fiction: you begin as a single-celled organism and make choices that allow your organism to evolve. The author has written about her inspiration: she works in a science museum, and saw the StoryNexus platform as a possible way to convey the educational content she’s interested in.

Evolve has some initial weaknesses, especially a very linear starting quest in which the reader reads about the cellular structures that are part of the organism, without having any opportunity for choice, and concludes with a quiz-like multiple-choice question to determine a “self-knowledge” score. This kind of thing happens a lot in educational game design, where the designer feels compelled to make the game experience feel as much as possible like testing; a pity, because a more natural ramping up of information and challenges based on that information makes for more compelling gameplay and a more memorable learning experience.

I also felt during these opening phases that the explanations I was getting worked much better as a reminder than as an initial introduction: they made sense because they helped me review old biology classes, but I am not sure I would have found them especially comprehensible had I not already had that framework to work with. I kept thinking back to Cellcraft, which does a staged introduction to the different parts of the cell and their functionality, weaving this introduction tightly with gameplay.

After that introduction, however, Evolve becomes more gamelike. The one-celled organism you play has various opportunities to take risks and gather resources — not really a very different mechanic from the one used in Fallen London, except that the resources in question are inorganic or organic materials used for making energy. Good or bad environmental events allow you to test your resourcefulness and adaptability; and over time, there are opportunities to reproduce and select mutation pathways.

As it currently stands, Evolve is pretty short: I’d just gotten rolling, 40-50 actions into the game, when I hit a “more later” message. I promptly tried replaying, selecting some different paths from the ones I’d taken initially. The linear opening was again a bit troublesome (I already read that once this afternoon…); and I didn’t find that the early choices, like deciding what form of bacterium to be or whether to have extraterrestrial origins, made much of a difference to the gameplay that followed immediately.

So despite the appearance of strong replayability, I found the current content smaller than I’d hoped.

Still, there are many worse things to say about a game than “I wish there were more of this.” I’m pleased and intrigued to see StoryNexus used for educational projects, and I enjoyed what I played of Evolve, especially once I had passed through the linear introduction quest.

4 thoughts on “Evolve (Caitlin Lill)”

  1. This looks interesting. In places it suffers from the “evolving protagonist” trope, a common feature of evolution games of which I am not especially fond. Framing evolution as the story of a single evolving individual is a superficially appealing choice for a game designer, for fairly obvious reasons of narrative coherence, but it’s fundamentally wrong. Some choices in this game are like that (e.g. “do you explore your environment, or gather resources?”) Other options appear to be less about an evolving protagonist, and more about the protagonist-as-student, exploring the educational content in a nonlinear way (“do you want to find out more about X or Y?”) and sometimes even making arbitrary decisions that highlight the frontiers of current knowledge (e.g. “did life start on earth, or did it have extraterrestrial origins?”) I found those a bit more interesting.

    Regarding the tendency of edugames that look like tests, I wonder if there is a good resource for brainstorming other ways to assess student progress without quizzes. “A more natural ramping up of information and challenges” definitely sounds like a better way to do it, but requires more game design experience, I’d guess.

    1. This looks interesting. In places it suffers from the “evolving protagonist” trope, a common feature of evolution games of which I am not especially fond.

      Yeah, fair point. I don’t know an easy answer to this problem, other than to shift the protagonist’s role to something a bit more godlike — which introduces its own rhetorical issues especially where evolution is concerned. Though I think I’d also be interested to play an evolution game in which the protagonist’s role had to do with introducing new environmental factors, sources of mutation, etc., and observing what happened to the population as a result.

      “A more natural ramping up of information and challenges” definitely sounds like a better way to do it, but requires more game design experience, I’d guess.

      Well, exactly so. I think Cellcraft did a fairly good job with this (though it came under fire for other reasons), by giving the various organelles an important gameplay function and asking the player to use them to solve levels.

      But the question “how do I build a gameplay mechanic around this piece of information?” assumes a designer who already thinks comfortably in terms of mechanics. And not all kinds of learning are equally easy to introduce mechanically, either.

    2. Hi Ian, Caitlin here. I love love love the points in your first paragraph! It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot as I try to think about where the game is headed. How do you reconcile the fact that you’re not really playing as “an organism,” but tracking the progression of an evolutionary branch across thousands of generations? I can summarize it, but implementing it in game design is a lot harder. Right now one of my favorite methods would be to just start killing them. Not produce a game-end-effect, but just saying “nope, this one didn’t make it, your population has to evolve in a different way.” I might toy around with that.

      Also, about the paradigm shifts the game has right now, that’s another challenge I see. Can I reasonably explain how complicated evolution is, without providing the background information (what the cell parts are, how oxidation works, etc)? I’m not sure. Maybe I don’t trust the audience enough.

      On the “edugames – tests” issue, it’s not just an edugames problem; we suffer from this across informal education venues. We like to claim it’s because the schools won’t pay attention to us if we don’t, we have to meet their standards, etc. A lot of museums have started looking like formal education facilities, due to pressure from the schools. But I think some of it’s just lack of knowledge, like you suggested. In my case, I tried something out, and it’s admittedly pretty boring; I’d love to do it better! But, I do also feel myself straying towards that “but, the schools won’t like it!” excuse. :-)

  2. Thank you so much for the review, Emily! It’s always good to find out what people are thinking as they play. I agree with you almost entirely on where the weaknesses in the game are as it currently stands. In playing it a few times you probably saw where additional content is intended to go, and just doesn’t exist yet.

    I have lots of good intentions, but not a whole lot of time or expertise right now unfortunately. When I get back into the swing of things, I’ll definitely venture back here and read through this again!

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