Like most things, games evolve. Modifications arise over time, sometimes by design, sometimes casually – examples include deliberate design, house rules, misinterpretation, and our innate tendency to search for parsimony and avoid unnecessary complexity. Since game designs are socially transmitted between both players and designers, and elements of game design can be recombined to form new games, these modifications accumulate over time, spawning new games that compete with others for attention and favour. Survival of the funnest, so to speak, with design patterns as genes, and boredom as the key factor leading to game species extinction.

The point here isn’t to assert that the evolution of games is the same as biological evolution, but to draw a few interesting parallels:

  • Firstly, games should continually change to suit their environment; that is, the minds and taste of current gamers. Read simplistically, game evolution suggests that games will necessarily become more fun, more accessible, and more addictive over time. However, though this may occur on a localized scale, changes in taste and social context over time will prevent this, particularly with regards a given design’s more flexible qualities. This mistake is similar to that in which a modern biological species is held to be somehow more evolved and thus better in some way than an earlier species or a species that exhibits characteristics similar to earlier species. Later designs are not necessarily improved designs.
  • Secondly, a relationship exists that mirrors that between biology and geography in biological evolution and, furthermore, has similar consequences leading to speciation. For example, in biology, allopatry is the phenomena where a population splits in two by some natural barrier and thus evolves into different species. In games, there is an obvious example in the many flavours of football, or, more recently and more abstractly, in the way that early war games evolved into a vast array of different role-playing games based on divides of geography, player age, taste, and available play time, all of which characterize the different ‘brain ecologies’ in which games live.
  • Thirdly, the arguments used to defeat the blind watchmaker argument used by creationists can be used to conjecture a way in which games and play could arise spontaneously (click here for a good video demonstrating the blind matchmaker version).
    • Assume the existence of creatures capable of making a distinction between those activities worth doing for their own sake and those not, and capable of combining aspects of those activities to produce new potentially worthwhile ones.
    • Over time, the process of living will cause those creatures to engage in many activities. They are thus likely to randomly discover worthwhile activities.
    • Given freedom to act, those activities are likely to be repeated.
    • Two factors now come into play. Firstly, the original activity will vary each time it is produced due to circumstance and memory, and, secondly, activities may be combined.
    • As this process repeats itself over time, new, more complex forms of worthwhile activity will arise. The resulting activity is play.
    • To move from undirected play to games, we need formalisms such as rules, restrictions, and goals. These might evolve on their own or they might arise in response to social pressures, a desire for commonality and consistency, or even just desire for an economy of expression. It’s not clear whether they require higher function and language, however – perhaps animals can play, but only humans can play games.

None of this is really that revolutionary – game designs are just memeplexes, and Dawkins has already argued quite convincingly that memes and memeplexes evolve along similar lines to genes.

Point three, however, has an interesting consequence that I’ve not seen discussed elsewhere. Assuming the general idea holds, it has only minimal assumptions that any life with rudimentary language and intelligence would most likely possess. Therefore, this seems to suggest that games and play are an inevitable feature of all intelligent life. This seems somewhat intuitively obvious, but its nice, I think, to see why it should be.

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I love moral ambiguity in games. I love characters who struggle with intense yet believable emotions, and who are conflicted by their actions and beliefs to the point that they nearly destroy themselves. I love the simple humanity of this, and I love it when this is set against a bleak, gritty setting that offers scope for exploring the darker side of human nature without being too pretentious. I’ll take a plot where simple people tear themselves apart over one in which heroes save the world any day.

I finished playing Iji the other day and it fits that characterization well. Here’s the trailer:

And, here’s why I liked it:

Plot & Character

The game begins with the world’s destruction in a massive alien assault. Any hope for a happy ending is gone before you it has a chance to materialize.

Iji wakes up in a lab in an underground base, having been modified by now-dead scientists with game necessary but plot irrelevant nanotech. She’s confused, lost, and angry at the world in a hopeless, self defeating way. Even worse, she shortly discovers that her brother is still alive, but, though he tries to help her, has become hardened and cold, and expects Iji to get over her fears and save the world.

The basic premise isn’t particularly novel, but the way Iji plays out really works. The insanity of the situation she’s in isn’t dismissed as irrelevant with a short angst session early in the game, rather, she breaks down and cries from stress at various occasions, and it just works. She’s not a hero type, she’s just a person, stretched to the emotional limit.

I just loved this – I can’t recall ever seeing a game in which the hero breaks down and cries over their victims. Probably no surprise given the constant reminders that she’s slowly turning into a killing machine. As you play, you pick up logbooks left behind by aliens; early in the game you find a diary entry in which an alien scout waxes lyrical about his lady love, stationed elsewhere in the facility. You can imagine that this doesn’t turn out well.

Anyway, I won’t go into any more detail for fear of spoiling things, but this was one of the most emotionally satisfying games I’ve played in a very long time.

Level design

Most of the levels are somewhat linear with occasional secret areas. What’s interesting is that you can approach them in several ways. By no means do you have to go on a rampage, killing everything in sight. In fact, it may well be to your advantage not to (certainly, in the later levels you’re almost forced to just run away from things lest they set you on fire). Furthermore, the game’s weapon options allow for a variety of different tactics in confronting your enemies.

Even more interestingly, though, you can play the game as a pacifist. That is, you can make it through the whole game without killing more than two of the game’s several hundred aliens. Unsurprisingly, this results in the plot taking a fairly different direction.


With a range of different weapons combined with various special abilities and an attribute point system, Iji creates a wide range of options for the connoisseur of killing. Different weapon choices require different styles of play, and not all weapons are effective on all enemies. Multiple weapons aren’t special in themselves, but few games use them to produce diversity of play in the way that Iji manages to.

In some games, only the boss fights require much thinking and observation in order to determine how to defeat a given set of enemies, but in Iji, this is frequently the case. Even on normal difficulty, you have to use your brain.

Iji takes about 3-5 hours to completely, and is definitely worth the time if you can find it. It’s a free download for Windows at Remar Games.

Oh, and the music’s pretty awesome – make sure you grab the high quality soundtrack. Particularly the closing credits track by Lifeforce.

x-posted in a bunch of places

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