I was waiting in line for another game at one of the booths at PAX when I saw a guy sit down at another computer and the creator, Eric Hermit, start describing it. The game was called Earthtongue, and he described it as an ecosystem simulator. As soon as I heard that it was out of one line, and into the line to check this one out because I just had to see what it was. When the guy in front of me stood up, I eagerly took my seat. Eric reset the world and I had a little procedurally generated landscape set up, with nutrients in the ground, and a couple of basic life forms - a slimy looking pink fungus, and a rhinoceros beetle. And I loved them - the first creatures on my planet and they needed to learn to coexist with each other.
The fungus spread, and the beetle ate. And ate and ate and ate and laid eggs and the spawn ate more and soon I found myself running low on fungus, but running with an excess of beetles. Two organisms and I'd already wrecked my ecosystem. Time to try and fix it.
Speaking with the creator, he mentioned that the reason he created the game was that he wanted a terrarium, but figured he probably couldn't take care of a real one, so out of that came Earthtongue. And with such an origin story it's probably not a surprise that the site describes it more as a virtual pet than a fully interactive world. Instead of changing the world in your image, you're more giving it nudges, and the most direct thing you can do is drag insects to different places.
The other influence you have over the world is through interventions, which are earned more quickly as you gain more biomass on your planet. These allow you to import bugs and fungus or cause a weather event - random events are cheaper, but you can spend more intervention points to get something specific. If you look at yourself having too many rhinoceros beetles, for example, you can import some wasps to try taking care of the population. But then what if the wasps are too successful and start kissing the beetles too quickly?
These events can happen randomly (fun moment I saw at the show: "The roach has immigrated!" Seconds later: "The roach has gone extinct!"), a way to make sure that even if you don't pay attention, your world will still try to have some life. If you have a fungus, the bugs can live, and even if it all winds up dying off for whatever reason, life will still find a way back.
In fact, most of the mechanics wind up just being natural phenomena. You cause a burst of wind to make spores fly. You replenish the nutrients in the soil to help mushrooms grow, and leave dead bodies around to release their nutrients, which an then be fed to carnivorous plants. I was told you'd also have to worry about things like carbon dioxide emissions, but there doesn't seem to be an indication of it. To give a sort of end goal to the game you also unlock entries in research journals by keeping plants and animals alive for a certain amount of time, as well as journals of your character as you watch this planet.
It's surprisingly in depth for the way it considers all of this, and more than that, it seems like a great way to help teach people about ecosystems. But it really goes back to the idea of the terrarium. Earthtongue does feel like a small little living world, and while you do have to worry a little about making sure it doesn't all die away, in the end, nature does what it does. You'll go through extinctions, and you'll go through invasive species destroying everything you've worked for.
I can't say it's the most exciting game I saw, nor is it a game for everyone, but I really liked what I played of Earthtongue, and hope I can see it evolve a little more and track more of what's going on. It's like stress relief to throw it on and just watch what happens, a game to help you get your mind straight. It's sad to see a species die off - it's exciting to watch one thrive.