At the bottom of a pristine, lifeless ocean, I use a terrain tool to draw a rocky horseshoe shape onto the sandy sea floor. Then I sprinkle a few handfuls of DNA inside the protective barrier. As all gods do when they create life, I have just made a huge mistake.
I'm playing the free demo of Ecosystem (opens in new tab), a simulation game due out in 2020. It's a sim where you give life to a number of procedurally generated aquatic creatures, modify the environment to create spots for them to breed and hatch, make sure they have enough food sources to survive, and watch them grow and evolve over generations. And it's a bit of a horror show, frankly, as you can see from my gifs, but as nightmare fuel goes Ecosystem is a pretty soothing and enjoyable simulation.
After creating a safe zone for a nursery, you can decide what type of creatures you'd like to hatch there. Plant eaters, scavengers, predators, and so on. I begin with some plant eaters and watch as they quickly grow from dots of DNA into awkward blobs, feebly flapping their lumpy appendages to propel themselves slowly through the water. I place a variety of plant life around on the rocks, and they begin to feed, grow, swim, and eventually die and decompose.
But a few survive and breed. Their offspring evolve, taking on a slightly different color and shape, growing their fin-noodles a bit longer and their upsetting, gaping mouths a bit wider. After creating another nursery, this time for predators, I watch as they grow to maturity and begin feasting on my earlier creations. It's the circle of life, and it's not terribly appetizing.
Is this how god felt when he started creating things? Vaguely disappointed? Disgusted yet amused? Probably. At the very least, I don't need to sit idle and let natural selection do all the work. As creator of this watery carnival of horrors, I can cull the creatures I deeply despise and give survival boosts to those I despise a bit less. I can also drag them around, so if my predators are hungry but can't swim worth a damn (which is the case here) I can just yank the prey through the water and drop it close to the meat-eaters' mouths.
My favorite critter so far is a fish that hasn't even evolved an interest in the third dimension. It's completely flat, and I love it for that. And at least it's a fish and not a land animal. Imagine being at home and seeing something like this slide through the gap under your front door:
As horrifying and awkward as the creatures in Ecosystem are, it's fun watching them change as they evolve. A purple squashed eel-sorta-thing with a horrified expression and a habit of swimming on its side eventually graduates into a purple squashed eel-sorta-thing with a smile that swims mostly upright. It's still a mess of an organism, but it's definitely an improvement. I'm actually proud of it.
The Ecosystem demo (opens in new tab) is pretty cool (and free!) and I'm interested in playing more when it's released next year. One can only hope evolution and natural selection breed out a few (though hopefully not all) of the upside-down gimpy fish and produce some real wonders of nature. And if a proper shark manages to evolve, I hope it doesn't mind eating lopsided mutants.