Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Birthdays the Beginning is a really challenging game to describe in just a few sentences. It blends some genres and will undoubtedly be a divisive title as it is a slow burn that often provides more of a passive experience than an active one. The thing is – I find myself enjoying the time spent with it more often than not, despite some of its flaws.
I really struggle to find a genre to drop Birthdays the Beginning into, and perhaps that is some of this title’s beauty. I would say it is more of a simulation title than anything else, but there are some interesting strategic elements that go into it, and a limited amount of action. Perhaps most notably Birthdays the Beginning has you spending a good deal of time in a passive role, watching your evolutions as they occur.
The premise is simple on the surface, but potentially incredibly deep. You are tasked with creating life. Easy, right? But goals usually revolve around creating specific types of life, and that is where Birthdays the Beginning starts to show some of its deeper complexities.
When you first fire the game up, you are introduced to a gently drawn series of images with some very well-written blocks of text to start wrapping a story around what is about to happen. However, before long this RPG-like introduction gives way to a small helper who walks you through the basics of how to play the game. Things start with creating a foundation – literally – as you are tasked with raising and lowering the land and eventually adding great depths that help to create seas – and the beginnings of life.
There are a lot of small, micro elements to manage in Birthdays the Beginning, which then falls into sharp contrast with how you pull back and take a macro look at things. What do I mean by this? Say your next objective is to create a certain creature. You need specific types of terrain, you will require a particular temperature range, and perhaps most importantly, you need other organisms that either mutate into something new, or serve as sustenance for your impending creation. I could almost visualize the flowchart-like branching map in my mind, not unlike games such as Civilization with their technology trees. Meet these three conditions and then X happens. That is the primary crux of Birthdays the Beginning – try to make something happen through some trial and error through environmental manipulation.
To its benefit, that is a lot of data to juggle and deal with, but Birthdays the Beginning deserves credit for properly onboarding the player and then providing lots of useful data easily. The ability to watch time pass quickly or slowly is also a nice perk, and that in and of itself leads into what makes Birthdays the Beginning so unique, but also perhaps for some players, frustrating as well. You spend a good deal of time simply watching your cube/world spinning around slowly, populating with new life forms, watching some organisms spread and mutate while other species go extinct. The development of the ecosystem is fascinating and there is a great deal of flexibility to be had, the there are long stretches of time where Birthdays the Beginning is more of an experience than a game. I do not see anything wrong with this, as it provides something enjoyable without all of the tension that so many ‘play the game this way or you lose’ titles employ.
There is a beautiful minimalist art style and simple if enjoyable music that help to set the stage. It is far from a technical marvel, but the environments are brightly colored and watching plant and animal life spring to life over your landscapes is rewarding. My kids enjoyed watching their world grow from barren husk to thriving seas that could sustain life that changed over time and moved from plants and bugs to big, beautiful dinosaurs. The experience is a rewarding one if you can let go of typical video game conventions and simply enjoy seeing how things develop over time.
However, there are some small details that did not quite mesh with me either. For one, the controls were often very finicky. You can twist and turn your environments, rotating the camera and using your cursor to shape the landscape the way you would like. The smaller cursor however, felt a little clumsy at times, making it something of a chore when I had to try and line up a specific spot in the map – like digging out space for a river. Finding and zipping to a new creature – especially on larger maps – is also a bit cumbersome when you want to capture them and add them to your database. Also, despite the lovely attempt in the title’s opening minutes to try and weave something of a story around Birthdays the Beginning… it really just kind of falls off and provides nothing of substance. That is a disappointing payoff that could have been paid more attention to.