Genetics and Gaming--Together Again
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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