Niche – an Eco-Romp to Give Linnaeus Nightmares

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The game’s full title is Niche: a Genetics Survival Game, and thank Darwin fish for that, because “niche game” is the worst Google search term in history.

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Niche opening screen. Image via niche-game.com.

Anyhoo. Niche is an eco-bio-something sim that charges the player with raising a pack of vague mammalian critters, collecting food, breeding, fighting off predators, and exploring their surroundings. The game world’s science is a biological grab-bag of sorts. Differently colored tiles represent different “biomes” with different physical characteristics. Each critter has its own genome, where some traits divide to dominant versus recessive, and others mix interestingly, like fur color. A “mutation menu” lets the player pick specific traits to introduce into their newly-bred nichelings, rolling the dice and letting the odds determine the outcome. “Immunity genes” exist to discourage consanguinity. Later in the game’s life cycle, “alpha/beta” status for critters was also introduced.

Although each of these different mechanics leans on some solidly biological idea, the overall mix combined with necessary simplification, is probably enough to make any real scientist cry tears of blood. Nichelings are critters somewhere between the feline and the canine, who can evince any color fur, with stripes or spots, with blue or black or yellow eyes. They can have ram horns or poison fangs, clawed forepaws or (eventually) even gills and flippers. It’s a taxonomic anarchy, but it’s a lot of fun.

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Adam and Eve, and a baby nicheling. They birth live young, but in nests.

As befits a game that bases its ethos on evolutionary biology, the game begins with two critters, a male and female named Adam and Eve. Nichelings are omnivores, and their diet is limited only by their ability to gather or hunt, with particular anatomical adaptations to make each of these skills easier. Lean-bodied critters are weaker but faster, increasing the range of hexagonal tiles they can traverse in one of their limited daily turns. The game is mostly turn-based, but still requires a little alertness, such as for gathering food before the rabbits that share your ecosystem eat them all up.

As the game is in early access, it’s still changing with every update. One late update radically changed the game’s strategy, when it shifted the food consumption algorithm. Instead of being able to breed your nichelings with relative impunity, with food being consumed per action taken, food is now removed per member of the pack. Instead of any rogue wanderer automatically joining your pack, you now have to chase them down and invite them in politely. Perhaps by engraved invitation? Some wanderers won’t join your pack, they’ll only breed with your females and skedaddle, leaving your pack to handle whatever genetic surprises the bundle of joy has in store.

The menaces facing nichelings are many. There are carnivores stalking in the tall grasses, and birds of prey that specifically prey on the newborn members of the pack, if there is not a watchful adult protecting them. Food can run out, causing starvation. Nests are required for breeding new nichelings, and food sources are varied, but also easy to deplete. The game begins at the lowest difficulty level, on an island rich with food and low on predators. Moving on to the bigger islands gives more room, and lets you explore different biomes like “Savannah” or “swamp”, which have their own menaces.

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Nichelings come in many colors and patterns.

Heat and cold are meant to affect the critters, although they don’t seem to have been added yet. Disease also afflicts them at random, permanently reducing their life span every time they catch the sniffles. This is also where the immunity comes in, since nichelings with two copies of the same immune gene are more likely to get ill. Since this is a statistical effect, the player is actually more likely to notice it not come into effect, through the magic of attentional bias.

Niche is a game with deep strategic potential, throwing twists and turns to keep the player on their feet. It’s also a game with a lot of story-telling potential. Having watched an untold number of Niche LP videos on YouTube, it’s safe to say that each player brings their own particular balance of story and tactic to the game, sometimes combining the two to form surprising additions. Critters with stunted forelegs, for example, can’t forage for food, so enterprising players have set them as babysitters for the endangered cubs, or found them other useful roles. As much as the game is about breeding out undesirable traits, it’s also about utilizing each critter in the manner most appropriate to their abilities.

For players immune to the emotional effects of watching their beloved pixel pets die, Niche can provide hours (…and hours) of entertainment. Finding the right mix of cosmetic and utilitarian traits can be very satisfying, and the player can pretty easily control the difficulty level of their game. Though the game isn’t quite finished, it still has an impressive array of features and is interestingly flexible. It’s worth noting the presence of those wandering males impregnating females, which some players are likely to find disturbing. Otherwise, there’s immense satisfaction in creating a species of antlered, fox-eared panda catdogs.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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