The pursuit of innovation is often associated the detriment of quality; the interest in creating something new can supersede the interest in creating something good, in other words. That’s certainly the case in video games, where a new idea that works can earn you a lot more attention than a game comprised of solid, well-built fundamental concepts.
Sometimes, though, we see a game like Birthdays: The Beginning, a life simulator from the mind of Yasuhiro Wada (Harvest Moon) that aims to do something different without necessarily falling to pieces in the attempt. Did I mention there’s lots and lots of dinosaurs?
Birthdays is kind of in a genre of its own; the closest comparison I could make would be to Bullfrog’s classic strategy game Populous, and even that’s a bit of a stretch. You have a superhero-ish avatar that you can use to fly around a little cube-shaped world; your primary means of affecting this world is by raising and lowering the terrain. This has several tangible effects that form the bulk of the gameplay.
First, high areas are colder and low areas are warmer, with increased concentrations of either pushing the entire world’s temperature toward the given extreme. Next, areas below a certain point end up underwater, allowing you to create oceans, which in turn have their own temperatures to keep in mind. Finally, flat areas at a given elevation are implied to be better at supporting large amounts of life than chaotic and rocky areas, though I found it was hard to quantify this.
Supporting life, as it turns out, is your goal here. Starting with microscopic organisms and building up to dinosaurs and beyond, your goal in Birthdays is to precipitate the evolution of life as a whole. New creatures will emerge as the climate becomes more suitable for them, while existing organisms will adapt to changing conditions and give rise to mutated species. Your avatar has access to items to force the evolutionary issue, but with one particular exception they’re not required and you can “naturally” evolve creatures across the spectrum by manipulating the environment.
Early life, for instance, was supported by a hot, soupy sea; amphibians emerged from this sea, eventually giving rise to reptiles and, later, dinosaurs. If you want to see mammals claim the world, however, you’ll likely need to cause your own great extinction by drastically reducing the temperature of your world, resulting in conditions that work for mammals but will certainly cause the death of your world’s dinosaurs. The fall of one species naturally gives rise to another as new contenders arise to fill an open niche. Birthdays plays loose and fast with science, but the basic concepts are on display here and it’s interesting enough for newcomers and laymen like myself to get into what’s going on.
Make no mistake, this isn’t an action game by any means. Most of your time will be spent making precise adjustments to your world, then sitting back and watching the effects the changes you made have on the ecosystem. Birthdays lends itself to a relaxed sort of gameplay where you’re willing to let the system take the wheel rather than focusing on direct control; it’s a little reminiscent of more experimental games of yesteryear like the Creatures series of artificial life games. There’s a story mode, technically, but it’s really just an excuse for providing a guided tour through history rather than an end of itself.
The game’s entire look and feel support the idea of a chillaxed experience where evolution just goes with the flow. The sound, music and colorful graphics alike are all nice and calm, with even the most dangerous predators sporting a cutesy look. Individual results may vary, but I find there’s something inherently relaxing about arranging the world just so, then letting the game play itself.
Those individual results are going to be the deciding factor when it comes to whether or not you’ll enjoy Birthdays: The Beginning. Again, there aren’t many games out there like it, and the fact that we’re seeing this from an established company rather than an indie studio (who would almost certainly launch the game unfinished as Early Access before abandoning it) is nothing short of a miracle. If you’re in the mood for something different and you’re ready to be patient, then Birthdays might just be your piece of cake.