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Credit: Niche and Stray Fawn Studios

Years ago, I wrote an article for Geektime called “Genetics and Gaming: A Strategist’s Dream” about the game Niche - A Genetics Survival Game. I found the game via Kickstarter, where it not only met but well exceeded its funding goals, beating their modest initial target by a whopping nearly $60,000 dollars.

Back then, I got to speak with Philomena Schwab, a game designer and marketing lead with Niche, and the passion she and the entire team—which she said was made up of “biology nerds,” including Schwab herself who “couldn’t decide if she wanted to study biology or game design"—put into the game was evident throughout every single aspect of their creation. That’s why, when I picked it up again from a long hiatus away, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much the game itself had grown and evolved. In fact, when I revisited it recently, it felt almost brand new. They’ve introduced a ton more features and adaptations since those early post-Kickstarter days. Niche was already immensely fun and pretty complex, though it has always also remained user friendly. Now, however, it truly feels like a game of near-endless possibilities. Despite its complexities, what Schwab said back then is still true: All you need to know about how to play “is interwoven with the game-mechanics,” meaning you learn by playing. (I wish we could learn everything that way!)


Even though you'll face hunger, predators, illness, and even climate change, the most complicated part, in my opinion, is all the planning a player does to try and engineer the offspring with the best genes. The big challenges stem from the player’s ambition in how they choose to face whatever trials they encounter—which is honestly a huge part of what makes the game so fun. You basically get to play god to these adorable little animals, and your choices can affect generations of critters to come, so pick which threat(s) you need to tackle first and choose wisely!

And if the game opened a lot of opportunities to players before, now it’s a behemoth of possibilities. Some things have changed, others have been added in, and even more are yet to be discovered (by me, anyway). There are new adaptations, features, food sources, and even ways to die. (I learned that one pretty quickly. Whoops.) It's awesome.

Credit: Niche and Stray Fawn Studios

But it’s also complicated. Is your little animal, called a nicheling, an alpha, beta, or omega? It’s important to choose because this determines who gets fed first when food is low. And there are so many new genes that can be expressed, meaning even my starting nichelings had properties I hadn’t seen when I last played, so I can’t imagine what more there is to uncover and evolve. There were also some things added in (at least I don’t remember them from the early days) which are really helpful. For instance, if I try to do an action, such as cracking a nut, it will let me know that certain nichelings have a “low chance of success because of cracking ability.” On the other hand, I inadvertently drowned one of my first nichelings, which I certainly don’t remember doing in the past, so there’s a lot to (re)learn in that capacity, as well as so many fun, exciting opportunities to explore.

Credit: Niche and Stray Fawn Studios

And this is why I was very excited when I heard that the same team has come out with a mobile game: Niche, Breed and Evolve. It’s focused primarily on (you guessed it), the breeding and evolution aspects of the game, and, while it’s different from the original Niche, it's similar enough for original players to feel like they're visiting an old friend. I recognized the general look of the nichelings and those familiar colored gems on their chests, but could tell I was in for a whole different kind of adventure. Instead of moving around on their island, losing actions with every step until it’s time for night to fall and start a new day, these nichelings each sit stationary on their assigned nests. Instead, you take them on journeys through differing biomes with unique challenges via a series of mini games, where you must choose the right nichelings with the right skills to achieve the increasingly difficult goals laid out before you.

In the games, you can harvest food, fight predators, and even discover new critters who want to join your tribe. The games are fun and strategically satisfying. They require varying tactics and planning of your paths and priorities, and, though there is a brief cooldown for a nicheling after it’s explored the vast expanse, you can generally play the games over and over with a rotating band of sentries, leveling up and encountering more and more difficult terrain and enemies.

But what if you get so good that don’t have any nicheleings qualified to complete the increasingly demanding mini-game tasks? That’s where breeding comes in!

The mobile game, in my opinion, has better defined and streamlined the genetics goals in the Niche franchise, making the evolutionary choices clearer because you have specific advances laid out before you to attain. Where the original Niche game is more open-world, comparatively, the mobile Niche still lets you make choices about where you'll go next in some aspects, sure, but your path and advancements are a lot more predefined, which makes your options and opportunities seem less sprawling (and, at least to me at times, overwhelming).

Let’s not misrepresent things, though—I am still playing with a notebook in front of me, keeping track of traits, dominate and recessive genes, jotting down who I want to breed with whom and renaming my nichelings according to their strongest aspects so I can keep up with it all, but it feels, somehow, more digestible in this format. (And, of course, none of that record keeping and careful planning is required; that’s just how I like to play!)

Similar to the main game, you can move to different biomes, and you need materials to build new nests and feed your nichelings (in the case of the mobile game, this is done when they’re hurt, you’re inviting someone new to join the tribe, or you want your nichelings to mate, rather than at the end of every day like in the first game), but it’s a lot more straightforward and with fewer extraneous variables, which can be nice when you want a more bite-sized genetics gaming experience.

Both games, however, are an absolutely perfect balance between cute and complicated, adorable and technical, and relaxing and engaging. Whether you want the full-on, open world exploration experience or a more streamlined and pre-destined goal set, either Niche game is bound to get your brain working. That's why I really recommend checking out both versions of the game. The creators have made clear that they are unique titles—Breed and Evolve is not a sequel to the original Genetics Survival Game but rather a member of the same family, and they are still very obviously closely related (sisters, I’d say, rather than cousins). That being said, they absolutely have their own individual perks and styles, and it's easy to love them both for what makes them unique as well as for the qualities they share.

Niche, a Genetics Survival Game can be found on Steam, and Niche, Breed and Evolve is available on mobile now!

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I'm taking a brief hiatus. In the meantime, enjoy this throwback post from my old gaming blog. Enjoy this post from 2015 which discusses one of my favorite games of all time, Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. I've written a little bit about Achaea on here before.

This also ran as a series at Visitant Lit (formerly PDXX Collective) starting here.


Achaea, Dreams of Divine Lands. Heard of it? If so, please feel free to drop me a line, because I think I may know you! Otherwise, you’ll probably be like most of my readers who stick to the more visually engaging spectrum of gaming, but I have to tell you, if that’s you then you’re sorely missing out.

Achaea is a game that has been around since 1996 and has been going against the norm since day one. First of all, let’s just rip the bandage off: Yes, this is a text game. A text-based MMORPG, to be exact. It is also what’s called a MUD.

Yes, it’s really all text.

No, there aren’t any pictures.

Here, just check out their website.

This is what the gameplay looks like on their default web client where you can play right in your browser:

But, to be fair, I logged in just to take a screen shot. There’s generally a lot more action and intrigue. I swear! Learn more about it here.

It might not look too flashy, but before you write it off, think about what it’s like to read a novel. You’re just looking at words on a page, but in your head, you’re seeing a rich tapestry of characters, settings, and action; in short, you’re seeing and can even feel like you’re experiencing the story firsthand – that is, if it’s well written.

Now imagine that instead of reading a novel, you’re taking part in one. You’re your own main character, but just like in real life, you’re surrounded by others who are main characters in their own stories. You’re all interacting, joining sides, flirting, fighting, falling in love, and yes, even certain other F-words that I’ll avoid mentioning in such polite company. Unlike most other games, what happens in this one is truly in your hands. Your character’s description, gender, race, motivations, personal creed, likes, dislikes — you name it, they’re all in your control. You can join organizations or try to take other organizations down, you can be a pacifist or a warlord, you can be a politician, a househusband, an explorer, a preacher, a thief; in short, you can do anything. You’re writing your character’s story in real time alongside others whose story is being written live, right next to you. It’s truly amazing!

Some original player artwork depicting what one player sees as they play. Click here for more.

One other amazing thing? They’ve been ahead of their time since the beginning in terms of gender, same-sex relationships, and feminism. Some of this is thanks to the creators and coders behind the scenes, but a lot of it stems from the players themselves.

So, how does the game tackle feminism?

To start, women can rule over cities (the highest player-run offices of the land) and are equally respected politicians who lead armies with and against their male counterparts in charge of other cities in the game. Men craft jewelry and design clothing for characters and compete with women of equal skill for spots in shops so the other adventurers can buy their creations. The gods – which is what the people who run the show from behind the scenes are referred to — do a lot of coding and bug fixing, but they also have an in-character presence where they grant boons to players, run worldwide competitions, and often facilitate devastating war or peaceful, fun-loving events that bring everyone together (at least for a short time). These Gods are represented by people of all genders, and are equally respected as such.

A player’s interpretation of some statues of various famous individuals located in their city. More here.

In short, in Achaea, all genders are seen as totally equal at every level, from the highest offices to the lowliest NPCs.

In fact, I have an anecdote that proves just that: There’s an organization in the game which has named itself protector of all innocent beings and the destroyer of those who wish to do bad in the world. The idea of what’s “bad” in the game varies from faction to faction, just like in real life, and this is one of the most interesting (and my favorite) parts of the intellectual gameplay. That is, however, neither here nor there. In the game, of course you can kill things and gain experience, much like nearly every other game in existence. This particular faction had rules about what you could and could not kill. You could kill no “innocents,” of course. Only what they deemed as the bad guys were open game. In the beginning, a player who was running the organization decided that they’d make a list of the things you could and could not go after when hunting or fighting. One of the things the list said was that you could go to what we’ll call Village X and kill everything “except the women and children living there.” It didn’t take long for someone else to say, “Hey, the kids I understand, but the women? They’re just a strong, just as intelligent, and just as capable of understanding their choices. They shouldn’t get a free pass just for being women.”

So, there you go. Now you can go to Village X and slay (or be slain by) men and women indiscriminately.

Or, you know, if hunting in Village X isn’t your thing, maybe check out Heavily-Armed Fortress Y. More original player art here.

Of course, some of you may be thinking, “That’s not what feminism is about!” But that’s where you’d be wrong. Being taken seriously, whether it’s beneficial or not, being considered equal, whether in a positive light or a negative one, that’s exactly what feminism is about. Women can be exactly as good — or as bad! — as men. Achaea’s playerbase figured this out a long time ago. No women and children first on sinking ships at sea (which yes, Achaea has). Every man (and woman) for themselves! And as it should be.

Ok, so what about same-sex relationships?

Achaea has been LGBTQ friendly for years and years now. Given that states are still (yes, still!) trying to pass laws saying that we should be allowed to turn away anyone who isn’t straight from our businesses, and government workers are walking off their jobs because –gasp! – they may have to award a marriage license to two people who have similar genitalia, I think this is a big step and very before its time. (Like, very. This isn’t a new option in the game; it’s been around at least since I started playing way back in 2006. (And for you people who still think of “last decade” as referring to the 90s, bear in mind that 2006 was nine years ago.))

In the game, your character can marry another character. Without getting too into the specifics, other players are able to see your character’s various achievements and affiliations. That includes if your character is betrothed or not, and to whom. Achaea has long since allowed characters to marry others of the same gender, and even took that one step further when they allowed these same-sex text-couples to adopt other characters and register the adoption, again so other players can see who is related to whom in game.

And the best part? The players don’t give it a second thought. My character happens to be interested in both men and women (I mean, what’s not to like?) and has been married to both a gentleman at one point and a lady at another. Scandal! Except, actually, it’s no scandal at all. Nobody cares. It doesn’t change the way anyone interacts with your character. It doesn’t change the insults your enemies fling at you from across the battlefield. It doesn’t change anything.

One famous example (as famous as politics in a text-game can get, I guess) is, way back in the day, there were these two huge, powerhouse organizations. They were both run by men who were married to each other in-game. Those organizations had their share of scandals and enemies, but none of it had anything to do with anyone’s gender or sexuality. It’s how I’d like to imagine the United States will be in … well, maybe my grandchildren’s lifetime? That might be having some high hopes, but in any case, you see what I mean. Achaea has been doing things right much longer than many societies have in general.

Also, in addition to marrying whomever you like, Achaea lets you be a cat if you want. Ha! Take that, society! More original art by players here.

Finally, let’s talk about gender.

In Achaea, you start, of course, by creating a character. That character must be either male or female. (I’ve had it confirmed by the powers that be that this will not be changing in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately the gender binary is, quite literally, hard-coded in, and cannot as of now be changed.) That, however, is where the strictness stops. There are very famous (and very respected) characters of all genders and gender expressions. There are female characters who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress. There are characters of both sexes who are in conservative battle armor half the time and in gender-bending clothes the other half. There are, of course, female characters who primp and polish and are in extravagant dresses suited for the most formal of occasions and male characters who live in boots and pants and a leather jerkin, with stubble on their face and nary a word to say that you wouldn’t hear among a group of very bawdy sailors. It’s whatever. You’re whatever. That is – whatever you want to be.

When it comes to this game, sure, ok, you have to pick option A or option B, but you can do with that option whatever you like. And no one will care! If you are a fearsome fighter, no one will be the least bit concerned with what gender you are or how you choose to express your gender when you smash faces on the battlefield. If you’re an incorruptible politician (or, ok, even a corruptible one), no one will be interested in what clothes you have on, how you’ve grown your hair, or any other inconsequential-to-your-political-goals choices you’ve made with your character. Can you lead a text-city? Well then you’re a shoe-in, no matter what shoes you may have on! In Achaea, you can stand at the pulpit in front of your congregation or take the podium to hold a rally in the town square or lead an army to press on toward the enemy on the battlefield as a character, female or male, expressing yourself in the way that fits your character the best, period. The players care about what you do, what you have to say, and what action you’re going to take. They do not care what gender you are or how you choose to express your gender while you do it.

It’s awesome.

A player’s visual interpretation of their character. And why yes, this is the same link from all the other images.

So, in the end, I have to give Achaea an A+ for being as accepting – both the admins and the playerbase – as any game I’ve personally ever played. It’s got what most would likely consider a steep learning curve, but once you get into it, you become so emboldened by your options, the myriad ways of expressing yourself, and the fantastical nature of the game, which makes it feel like you’re both writing and taking part in your very own novel, that you find yourself whiling the hours away with no pictures on your screen but a captivating scene laid out before you all the same. I highly recommend giving it a try!


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I'm taking a brief hiatus. In the meantime, enjoy this throwback post from my old gaming blog. This one's from 2015.


Have you played Portal? It’s been out for a good, long while now, but I’ve only recently gotten around to playing myself. I’ll be honest here. The entire time I played, I asked myself over and over again, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

This game is challenging, hilarious, entertaining, and just downright fun. A friend suggested it to me time and time again, and I kept putting it off, saying it didn’t seem that interesting. Well, if you’re reading this now and haven’t yet played, do yourself a favor — Go play it! Right now!

I, for one, do not welcome our evil robot overlords.

In a previous post, I mentioned that only 15% of games have a playable female protagonist. I am betting the number of games with a female antagonist is even smaller. Well, guess what? Portal has both.

You play as Chell, a silent but extremely clever woman who awakens as part of some grand experiment run by GLaDOS, an A.I. computer system gone haywire. GLaDOS is unique as a villain. She hates Chell, but instead of the usual threats backed by fire and brimstone, she commonly uses humor and sarcasm to taunt the heroine. I literally laughed out loud at some of the quips our villain throws out in attempts to dispirit Chell. In fact, GLaDOS has been called the greatest video game villain of all time. She is extremely powerful, having been responsible for the deaths of all the other scientists in the facility before Chell awakens to find that she has to face this monster/computer with the help of only her sharp mind, some fancy boots, and a handy portal gun.

Speaking of our portal gun-toting protagonist, you rarely get to see her. Without explaining the intricacies of the physical portals you create in the game, the only way you ever really get a glimpse of your character is usually for just a few seconds when passing from room to room, and only if the portals line up just right.

This is our heroine to the left, and what actual gameplay looks like is above. As you can see, it’s lots of puzzles and portals, very little protagonist.

Of the 15% of games with a playable female lead, I bet an even smaller number has that protagonist mostly out of sight, her gender ultimately inconsequential (this is not your typical damsel in distress story!), and does not in any way, shape, or form sexualize the heroine. She is fully clothed, very intelligent, and completely independent.

Like perhaps many of you, I played a lot of Tomb Raider in the past. (Like, the way past. We’re talking the era of Playstaion 1 here.) Now there was a strong female protagonist. She ran obstacle courses for fun, explored ancient ruins, completed puzzles, and bested both wild animals and wild men with her trusty pistols (or sub machine guns, if you had the cheat codes).

Where Portal improves on the Lara Croft model is that sure, you’re kicking ass and taking names (albeit those names are more like “turret number 4” instead of the various thugs and kingpins like in the Tomb Raider world), but also, you’re not in constant fear of your giant, extremely angled uniboob popping any nearby balloons while you go about your business.

I have got to know where Lara Croft shops for bras.

What I’m getting at is that Portal’s protagonist is there to save herself from one maniacal villain (who has several bullet-and-laser-wielding robot minions at her disposal), and she’s not concerned with how hot she looks while she does it. While a lot of video game developers seem to believe that being sexy is a woman’s highest priority (they likely imagine it’s right there at the base of some special woman version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), in actuality, staying alive is usually the end game, no matter what you end up looking like when you get there. While most real-life people aren’t particularly worried about what their mascara looks like when they’re being shot at, for instance, video games would often have you believing otherwise. The creators behind Portal know this and apparently agree that it’s pretty silly. That’s why they made this game about Chell’s brains and not her breasts, her attempts at survival and not her attempts at giving teenage boys wet dreams. (Pointy, triangle boob-filled wet dreams.)

Moving on, though, aside from getting to control a mostly unseen character with command over some pretty exciting new technology, we’re fighting against some fairly dangerous tech in this game as well. Our villain, GLaDOS, is pure evil and hilarity rolled into one. You genuinely hate her while also immensely enjoy interacting with her. Also, and I think it probably goes without saying, but as mentioned before, GLaDOS is literally a computer, so there is no sexualization of our female antagonist either.

Well hold on, now. There might be someone out there who finds this sexy.

Really, though, Portal does everything right. Shoot, if we could listen to the turrets’ private conversations, I bet they’d pass the Bechdel test. (That was a joke, of course. Turrets are programmed to kill, not chat idly. What, do you live in some sort of turret-friendly wonderland?)

In this game, you are just two powerful ladies facing off against each other in a battle of wits and intelligence (peppered with some frustration and a good dash of laughter). This game will crack you up, it will make you angry, and it will make you excited for the next level. I give it an A+ and am a little disappointed that you’re still reading this article and not already playing it right now!

Just don’t forget: The cake is a lie.


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