Introversion's surreal curio, Darwinia, could have changed strategy games forever

We're digging into the PC Gamer magazine archives to publish pieces from years gone by. This article was originally published in 2005, in PC Gamer UK issue 153. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

Darwinia is more than just a game about a virtual world where you have to zap arcade-style baddies. It’s a theme park, and the theme is the Darwinians themselves. Their AI is cultivated by evolution, but they don’t actually reproduce. Instead they are reincarnated, their digital DNA (or ‘soul’) fed back into the system and reborn. The clever bit is that their soul contained information about what kind of Darwinian they were, and how it worked out for them.

Long play

Darwinia: An overlooked gem
Played by: Tom Francis
Played for: Five months

Before the soul is reprocessed, this information is read in and the master template adjusted accordingly. If the little guy led a long and fruitful life by staying inland, that tendency will be strengthened in future Darwinians. If he learnt something the hard way about the Virus that is currently threatening Dr Sepulveda’ artificial world, future generations won’t make the same mistake. And with thousands of Darwinians roaming the place, they’re learning fast.

The best of it is that you see the whole process, starting with the main menu. The huge, pulsating, nebulous sun of Darwinia hangs at the centre of the inverted planetoid: the Soul Repository. It’s connected to every location in the game by thin streams of orange light, and it’s not immediately obvious what these are. Then you notice that one of them is flowing downwards, and the penny drops: they’re souls.

Virii and Darwinians are dying in every location, and their digital DNA is surging up into the sky along these curved paths. The downstream feeds it to the Receiver for reprocessing. It’s one of the most beautiful locations in the game. Large, glowing orange souls rain slowly down like floating embers from a bonfire, lost on the dormant arrays because the virus has killed the Darwinians manning them.

Almost as spectacular is the Pattern Buffer itself, which plays host to your epic battle for the soul of all Darwinians. This master template, a giant Darwinian atop a snowy blue mountain, turns green limb-by-limb as you wrest back the datastreams feeding into it. The final piece of the ecological puzzle is the Biosphere, at which point—for about the fifth time—Darwinia turns into a different game. Suddenly the souls of the fallen that have been your only resource thus far are rendered irrelevant—they’re being pumped into the Biosphere for rebirth constantly. All that matters now is taking control of the Spawn Points—claw-like buildings clutching balls of digital fire, spewing out evil red troops at an alarming rate.

The story changes at the Biosphere, too. The central spawn point is surrounded by monolithic polygonal human heads, which Darwinia’s fictional creator Dr Sepulveda sheepishly explains are the Darwinian’s idea of his effigy. When trying to change the sky texture of the world one day, the feed from his webcam was accidentally pasted all over the sky, and for one glorious moment the Darwinians saw their creator. This is the first you hear of their religion, but you’re about to discover a whole lot more: the final level is the Darwinian’s Temple, a shrine they’ve built in an attempt to commune with God. They’ve altered one of their portals to point straight at heaven: the great Soul Repository in the sky.

“For years they’ve been trying to communicate with me,” Sepulveda explains, as the blinding datastream casts long shadows over the Darwinian congregation. “It never occurred to me they might actually succeed.” Their talk with God did not go well, though. What they actually talked to was his PC, and what came down the datastream were the design documents for the Darwinians themselves. It’s one thing to talk to your creator, quite another to download your own source code.

They weren’t ready for the information, but they were even less prepared for what they found next: Sepulveda’s inbox, complete with virus-ridden spam emails. Suddenly the whole sorry story of this little green race comes into focus. Their plague wasn’t an invading force, they brought it upon themselves in their search for God.

Darwinia is for people who love games—not least because it’s like playing five of them simultaneously at times. You’ll be using your Cannon Fodder-controlled squad as a strike force to cripple enemy forces, while directing your main army like Lemmings to swarm in and mop up the remainder. You’ll also be levelling up specific bits of tech as you possess more of the map. And through it all, you’re fluidly controlling streams of your two-dimensional troops by creating new Officers and issuing them conflicting orders to split off Darwinians in their aura of jurisdiction. This is you. You’re like us—you love games, you love discovering new worlds, and you long for something genuinely original, brilliant fun and with enough strategic depth to set your brain buzzing.

But the sales figures we have here say most of you didn’t buy Darwinia. In fact, they say many bought mediocre, sci-fi, FPS Area 51 instead. We know you better than that: you don’t want the rubbish to win. Perhaps the demo put you off—it lacked depth and was a little obscure. A new demo will be out by the time you read this, a Half-Life: Uplink type one-off story, especially made to show off the game. Did the gesture system annoy you? You now have the option to click icons instead.

PC Gamer readme

First review: PCG 146, 90%
Why now? Developer in danger of going under.
Everyone who moans about mediocrity in gaming must buy this, now, or face our heavies.

Unless something changes, Introversion will be gone within the year. Unless you actually buy Darwinia, we’ll lose the most exciting independent developer around. They spent three years crafting a refreshing, exciting, even spiritual experience, and the gaming world ignored it. Let’s not send that message to the people who control what we get to play: that anything deviating from the mind-numbing norm won’t sell. Shops are telling Introversion they won’t stock the game because you won’t buy it—you’re only interested in the next formulaic FPS or WWII strategy. Screw them. Buy Darwinia, pay £20 straight to the people who deserve it, and save one of the great hopes of gaming.

A note from 2019: Introversion did struggle, but the studio moved on from Darwinia and launch Prison Architect, which was brilliant, and enormously successful for the team. Prison Architect now belongs to Paradox, and Introversion is looking at new projects like space base sim Order of Magnitude. Today you can grab Darwinia on Steam for a couple of bucks.