Next week, every company in the games industry will attempt to trump every other company in pure sexiness. Sleek new hardware will be unveiled, eye-popping graphics will lay siege to our eyes, lasers will fly from screens towards bespectacled viewers, hairy muscle-men in combat fatigues will save the world many times over, super-cars will peel around corners at impossible speeds, and we’ll frantically try to keep up with the week-long orgy of self-congratulation that is the E3 Expo.
But before that happens, I urge you to try The Fate Of The World.
In many ways, it’s the antidote to everything for which E3 stands. Created by a self described group of “techy activists” – including core staff from Battlestations Midway, Conflict: Desert Storm, Mass Effect, and a writer from the BBC series Doctor Who – The Fate Of The World is unsexy for more reasons than I can neatly summarise: it’s a brutally difficult, card-based strategy game that does almost nothing to guide the player towards success; it’s based on the rigorous research of an Oxford University professor; it has a moral and political agenda; it’s a serious game; it’s edutainment. But please, don’t stop reading yet.
The year is 2020, and a monumental natural disaster – a “hypercane” – has jolted the various leaders of the world into finally taking climate change seriously. You are the president of the Global Environmental Organisation (GEO), which was hastily formed to try and stop mankind from destroying the planet or each other, whichever comes first.
On the face of it, the range of available actions seems fairly narrow. The GEO has a pool of money drawn from the economies of its supporting nations, which can be used to recruit “agents” in twelve geopolitical territories. These agents can be assigned cards that represent short and long-term initiatives. When you’ve spent your money and assigned your cards, you finish your turn. Five years pass. You wait to see the results.
No doubt this all sounds very familiar, but The Fate Of The World is buoyed by a unique mix of complexity and severity. Red Redemption has tried to make regulating global warming and saving the Earth as difficult as it would be in real life, so it isn’t as simple as telling America to stop using so much bloody oil. Do that and another, potentially more harmful fuel might spring up in its place, or its people may start a revolt, or the government may withdraw its funding, crippling your efforts in other areas.
Your goal is environmental, but it’s inextricably tied to industrial, political and social factors that can blow up in your face at any time. Red Redemption claims that the game features 100 real-world policy decisions leading to more than 1000 equally real outcomes. And, believe me, when you play The Fate Of The World it will feel like more.
Not least because everything that happens in the game hits uncomfortably close to home. Your well meaning policies will drive entire species to extinction, and the game will cheerfully inform you every time it happens. Pay too much attention to one problem region and the starving residents of another will kidnap some of your agents, forcing your hand. The sense that global stability is just a teetering house of cards is inescapable, and once it starts to topple you’ll be surprised at how quickly your moral code goes out the window.
One playthrough resulted in me being hanged. During another I sterilised the population of an entire region. As far as I could see I had no other choice.
The vast majority of videogames are designed to let you win, but in The Fate Of The World the opposite is true. Don’t get me wrong, its goals are achievable, but only through diligent study of the complicated graphs, charts, telemetry and reports the game throws at you after every turn. These are supplemented by two Wikis – one official, the other user-created, both horrible to navigate – which contain vital information and definitions that you simply will not succeed without. Indeed, my performance only seemed to improve when I took my research beyond the confines of the game, learning more about climate change from real world sources.
And this is what makes The Fate Of The World so remarkable. I have played many “serious games” in the past, and for the most part they have been poor clones of popular genres with an issue plastered over the top. Here, knowledge is the most important gameplay mechanic, and the penalties for cutting corners are simply too horrible to bear.