Birthdays the Beginning is a sandbox game where you manipulate a flat landscape on a cube world to evolve and propagate different species. It’s Sim City meets Viva Piñata, but with an array of organisms taken from Earth’s fossil record stretching way back to the beginning of life as we know it, so there’s a bit of an educational element to it too. I personally quite like both evolutionary biology and sandboxy management games, so I was pretty sure it would be my sort of thing. It’s also by Yasuhiro Wada, the guy who came up with Harvest Moon/The Story of Seasons, which is reason enough to have elevated hopes. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out.
One thing you’ll be doing a lot in Birthdays the Beginning is moving the landscape up and down. In fact, that’s pretty much all you’ll be doing. Raising the landscape creates mountains and lowers the world’s temperature. Lowering it turns it into sea and raises the world’s temperature. All life follows from this. There’s also a plethora of random item pickups that mainly accelerate existing processes, but in general, it isn’t particularly dynamic.
The other thing you’ll be doing a lot of is waiting. And I mean A LOT of waiting. The campaign (as such) gives you a series of goals to achieve. First, spawn species “A”, which requires “XYZ” conditions. Then spawn species “B”, which requires “ZYX” conditions. Etc. So after messing around with the landscape to create the desired conditions for the species you’re trying to evolve, you’re then stuck waiting (while you accelerate time and watch it pass) to see if you’ve done enough of the right thing to get the desired result. And waiting. And waiting.
In the meantime, the numbers of each species go up and down. Occasionally new ones appear and old ones go extinct. Aeons will pass by quickly in the game while real-life minutes crawl by. I spent a lot of time waiting for it to get fun, or for something to hook me, and it took me a long time to realise it wasn’t going to happen that way. Eventually, I learned that the game is a little more enjoyable if you have something else to occupy you at the same time. Say, for example, listening to a podcast.
Unusually for a sandbox game, the campaign seems to be the main component. The early stages double as a tutorial, and it throws quite a lot of information at you in unflattering chunks, but it ultimately does an okay job at teaching you how the game works. On the other hand, it seems a bit tangential to the game’s more open-ended purpose, with the campaign’s sequence of instructions skipping over a heap of possible unlocks and diverting the player from the exploratory nature of the game.
A larger problem is that the game’s instructions are sometimes not specific or accurate enough to get the player to the desired result. For example, the game told me that to make Ichthyostega (the first shore-dwelling amphibian) appear, I would need to propagate several thousand deep-sea dwelling Coelacanthus and achieve a shore temperature of 30 degrees. Hitting these conditions was no big deal, but then Ichthyostega wouldn’t appear for me until I’d done a lot more waiting and a heap more arbitrary fiddling around with the landscape, as well as getting up the Coelacanthus numbers much higher than was requested. This and other incidents like it make me think the instructions don’t always meet up with the actual hidden requirements for some life forms, which leads to a lot of boredom and frustration.
Furthermore, once land animals started appearing it turned out they were completely unable to traverse vertical terrain, which not only renders visually as blocky Minecraft-like tiers but seems to act as physical barriers to the avatars. One primordial species of spider repeatedly spawned into a tiny nook on the map that it couldn’t climb out of, leading to an endless cycle of extinctions and reappearances until I realised I would have to bulldoze a way out for it myself. On another occasion, an Eoraptor avatar emerged onto a small ledge on the second tier of a mountain, which meant I had to inconveniently extend this ledge myself to allow the population to grow. It’s downright annoying that these avatars don’t function with the terrain. It doesn’t work practically for the game’s sake nor does it simulate real life.
I’m also still a bit uncertain as to exactly how these avatars relate to the macro numbers within the game anyway. In one instance raising a vast swathe of deep sea seemed to directly cut numbers of Coelacanthus by thousands, despite no avatars appearing to dwell in those particular waters. Yet avatars of land-dwelling creatures appearing and getting stuck in tiny spots would often lead to their extinction, despite there being plenty of other suitable habitat for them on the map. It’s all a bit intangible.
I think it’s great that the game refers to real plants, animals, microbes and fungi that once existed on earth, but this educational aspect isn’t utilised fully. Each new species/genus that we unlock appears in our collection library, where it has a brief (like, single sentence) description, as well as the environmental parameters for its continued existence on our cube. And that’s it. I’d personally really love an option to open up extra historical information about everything, such as when and where it was found on earth, what the fossil record is like, if it’s representing a family or genus or single species, how recently it was scientifically described, and any other interesting tidbits. However, none of that’s on file. Sure, you can alt-tab and plug a name into the browser, but I’d personally rather not have to (especially with the spelling some of these names take!), and I can’t help but think they’ve missed an opportunity there.
I have many more minor gripes, though. The controls take a lot of getting used to, and it’s easy to make irreversible mistakes. The game seems determined for me to play it windowed every time I open it up, no matter how many times I’ve set it to fullscreen. The graphics seem dated and mostly charmless (although the dinosaurs are admittedly pretty cute). It isn’t a particularly accurate take on evolutionary processes. The background music is boring and repetitive and therefore (considering the stretches of time we’re meant to be playing this for) useless. And the campaign has a pointless and forgettable framing narrative.
I realise I’ve been mostly negative about Birthdays the Beginning, which probably makes it seem like more of a shambles than it is. It isn’t terrible, it’s just dull, and it feels like it should be better. I can sense it distantly appealing to the collectivist in me, but there are just too many hoops in its way. It is somehow both too simple to enjoy playing and too opaquely difficult to understand. More than anything, it’s made me want to dig out my Xbox 360 and play Viva Piñata again. Those piñatas may not be from Earth’s fossil record, but I remember them requiring me to do more than lift the earth up and down, while in turn being more transparent as to why they’d come to the garden.