Nearing an extinction event unlike any we’ve ever experienced, humanity veers closer to collapse on a daily basis. Rising sea levels, record-breaking heat, and vanishing biodiversity are the hallmarks of modernity. Regardless of having reached a point of no return, life on Earth has been drastically and irreversibly blighted by the forward march of industrialization. Given the opportunity, mankind destroys without remorse, and for the most part, without concern for the future. Protection of ecosystems and sustaining life longterm become priorities for societies, should they wish to avoid crumbling.
Enter Earthtongue, a digital ode to the ant farm by developer Eric Hornby (@critterdust). Giving the player no strict imperative, the game is content to present nothing more than a barren waste, a crag of jagged rock on an empty planet. With a toolbox stretching across the top of the screen, the player can use “interventions” to introduce new lifeforms or weather events to the environment. Over time, bugs and fungi populate the crater on their own, as well. Beyond that, the player has no means of directly steering the ecosystem developing on the screen. A food chain emerges among the various plant and animal lifeforms, a cyclical process that facilitates the spread of nutrients, less to the effect of “survival of the fittest”, more to that of sustaining biodiversity and an overall balance of creatures from which resources can be sustainably drawn.
Presenting a meditative experience on the precarious transience of survivability in a complex system interlinking all forms of life, Hornby gives players something of an aquarium to passively take in, permitting intervention should the fancy strike them. Presenting life as a limited-interactivity zen simulation, Earthtongue’s attractive pixel art and bloopy soundtrack paint something of a touching yet harrowing picture of our own lives. Juxtaposing the disturbing beauty of life itself against this retro aesthetic creates a particularly compelling medium for players to engage with the difficulties and pitfalls of sustainability with dozens of competing species.
Digital ecology is not exactly new to to games as a whole: Ultima Online had an obsessively curated system in which plant life fed herbivores, reaching equilibrium based on availability of food, in turn feeding carnivores that players would then cull for their high-priced skins. There’s also the Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This, My Lord? series that plays as an ecologist’s answer to Dungeon Keeper: heroes invade your dungeon after the Big Bad, and through your crafty understanding of the game’s in-depth food chain and nutrient mechanics, you can populate a dungeon with killer creatures ready to rip any adventurer asunder.
In Ultima’s case, players swarmed the world like locusts and laid waste to the carefully-balanced system the designers had put in place. Focusing on herbivores for their lack of resistance to attack, the world became overgrown and lush, but began to hinder the spawn rates of carnivores, as the lack of resources meant that they couldn’t reproduce faster than they were being murdered by the dozens for their pelts. Much as 19th-century fur trappers nearly drove beavers to extinction, human greed wreaks havoc even on virtual biodiversity.
On the flipside, Badman tasks players with sustaining life for the sole purpose of wiping out humans. In a sort of revenge fantasy, Badman’s ecology survives to ensure that none of mankind can flourish within it. Nature is red in tooth and claw, uncaring of the plight of humanity, insofar as that intervention causes nothing more than the convulsions of an immune response as the system tries to rid itself of the invader.
These two paint drastically different pictures of non-human life when confronted with the nigh-unstoppable force of the demands of mankind. Earthtongue removes humans from the picture, the player themselves only obliquely able to interfere with the processes of life. This way, the game is able to host a world in which the particularities of an ecosystem can just play out. On top of that, it deftly showcases the massive pitfalls that can be caused by human intervention.
For instance, during my own time with the game, my planet had become overrun by Cone Crabs, so much so that other creatures were becoming extinct due to resource contention. Wanting a more biodiverse system, I introduced a few predators to try and reduce the number of Cones in favor of allowing fungi to grow larger and feed more species. However, in my hubris, I had unleashed predators that were so good at killing everything that they quickly reduced my entire planet to ash, leaving only themselves. Then, they promptly died as well. Animal life came to a crashing halt due to my own shortsightedness. Fungal society continued on, perfectly content to feast on the corpses now littering the crater.
Most interesting to note of this anecdote is that, despite my folly of attempting to hijack biological systems like a short-sighted god, life pursued its own course in the end. Should there be anything to take away from the meditative passivity of Earthtongue, it’s that humans are not the protagonists of our planet. Perhaps antagonists, but, the point is that once we’re wiped from the face of this rock, life will continue on without us. It will flourish in ways we never could have allowed or massaged into existence alongside our own civilizations. It persisted long before we rose to apex predator status, and would proceed to do so long after us if we disappeared.
Earthtongue can be massively thrown asunder by your interference, by drought, by meteor storms, or whatever else. But, it cannot be stopped. Life does not stop here, and much like Earth itself, life will bloom regardless of human meddling.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.