I spent my weekend watching evolution unfold on my screen, as species went extinct and flourished in equal measure. I spent my weekend constructing impossibly tall city structures; a familiarly cramped Kowloon Walled City for the technologically-embedded age. I built these in two entirely different games that happened to both release last week. Birthdays the Beginning is an ecosystem management simulator. Block’hood is an ecological neighborhood management simulator. Together, they show a more thoughtful, imaginative future for the simulation genre.
The two games exist on polar opposite spectrums: Block’hood in the modern, city-building age; Birthdays at the literal dawn of time, as life first blossoms on Earth. Their art styles differ dramatically as well, Block’hood with its low-poly polish and Birthdays with its adorably reimagined dinosaurs (and eventually, humans). Both games reward curious imagination, and close attention. Where a player can decide how many trees will make residents of this apartment complex happier. Or, what will help a specific species evolve and join an ecosystem. It’s the player’s job to uncover and poke at their individual futuristic or primitive ecosystems, and find out.
Block’hood generated buzz last year when it first popped up on Steam Early Access, and appeared in the documentary Gaming the Real World, which observes how games are being used to tackle societal issues. It’s a game not about constructing an empty, lifeless sprawling city (like in SimCity) but in perfecting a mere block. And seeing how the blocks interact with one another, on a focused level. Shops can be built up, but they eat up resources all the same. That goes with anything built. If conditions aren’t met for a block, a neighborhood will decay, as will the livelihood of its inhabitants. A utopia can quickly dissolve into a dystopia.
Games rarely delve into the architecture of poverty-stricken areas, except for a few. Gravity Rush 2, a game released earlier this year, displays the tiered floating city of Jirga Para Lhao. Where the rich live up high in the lavish mansions that take up entire islands in Lei Havina, and the poor live in the cluttered slums of Lei Elgona, buried deep below the rest of the metropolis. Likewise in the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud tumbles far down into the unfamiliar slums of Midgar, where he meets Aerith. Wealth disparity in terms of geography bustles in Block’hood, as the game teaches the player about entropy, what befalls a block after it's abandoned and decays.
The story mode, new to the full release of Block’hood outside of Early Access, introduces players to the realities of industrialization, while teaching the player the ins and outs of constructing an ideal block at the same time. The opening chapter begins with a quote by children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, reading, “Childhood means simplicity. Look at the world with the child’s eye—it is very beautiful.” With each city block, the player gazes at their landscape as if it were anew, like a child setting their eyes on a new set of toys for the very first time.
Birthdays the Beginning is complicated on the surface, as a player is faced with managing temperature, land mass to water ratios, location, life form prosperity, humidity, among other minute factors. Tweaking a player’s cube-mapped structure can spell life or death (or both) in Birthdays for spawning life, and eventually evolution. Some creatures begat other creatures; some items help push a life form to evolve to their next logical phase. But most of all, Birthdays is a game that doesn’t want the player to directly influence the lives of their birthed lifeforms. Birthdays is a game about setting up conditions for life to live, and taking a step back to watch it blossom.
The creator behind Birthdays the Beginnings is Yasuhiro Wada, known for his creation of the quiet farming life of the Harvest Moon series. Wada was inspired by an item called a “chikyuu (Earth) set” in the manga Doraemon that he read when he was a kid, according to a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA). The inspiration shines in Birthdays the Beginning, where a childlike curiosity into how life—from plants to dinosaurs—even emerged in our mysterious, layered world.
Birthdays plays like a whimsical study on Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species, where evolution was first introduced as a theory (before later being accepted widely as scientific fact). An Evolution 101 class for the video game savvy. Darwin observed animals on a voyage to the Galápagos Islands, leading to his idea of natural selection: of species’ ability to adapt to their environments or not, factoring into evolution as a whole. In Birthdays, I watch as crab-like critters eventually go extinct due to climate changes, and give way to a new life-form to emerge. The tiny ecosystem at the player’s behest in Birthdays is one that needs to be meticulously maintained, but also needs its own breathing room to allow its inhabitants to serve their part in natural selection and the grander evolutionary cycle.
Birthdays, despite is tediousness and inevitable repetition, is really like no other management sim in the same ways that make Block'hood wholly unique. They're the rare management sims that rely on players to pay close attention to every miniscule move in their own snowglobe-of-a-world, and know that every poke and prod has consequences or rewards. Just like a person not doing their part to recycle, as the barest example. It bids the player to reflect on the natural world and where we even came from as a species, while watching the wonders of the ecosystem fast-forward over with the slight holding down of a button. Or thrive as a neighborhood block lives in harmony.
Block'hood knows how cities are changing: they're smarter (and thus, more complicated) than ever before, even if not quite dipping into a Watch Dogsian future yet. And it shifts the focus to the people that live in them, and what they need to survive. Contrarily, Birthdays is a game that’s acutely aware of our ecosystem: of evolution, of the dangers global warming, of the sometimes-horrors of species dying out and giving way to something more advanced taking its place. And who knows, humans could be next; just give it a couple thousand years maybe.