Darwinia: An early Steam darling.

I’ve had a Steam account for about 18 years. I got mine the day it was available to the public: September 12, 2003. More than half of my life has been giving money to Gabe Newell and the folks in Bellevue so I can play PC games. It’s kinda surreal when you think about it.

It took Valve several years to make Steam a reliable service. Those first few years of Steam were not very great: The always-online factor, an unreliable community service where alternatives like Xfire shined, having to get used to not being able to play games on day one due to server overloads, the works.

A handful of companies weren’t on board with Valve, one of them being 3DRealms, who opted to sell their gravity-defying shooter Prey on rival service Triton first. And that’s not even getting into the recent kerfuffle Epic Games has been doing by trying to posture themselves as the David to Valve’s Goliath.

Those early years were pretty much bolstered by Valve’s offerings and any small-time developer or publisher that was willing to support their endeavor. Stuff like Rag Doll Kung Fu and Shadowgrounds. But a small fledgling UK company by the name of Introversion Software, who self-proclaimed themselves as “the last of the bedroom programmers,” decided to try putting one of their games on Steam, and it was quite a game.

This was available to people on Patreon one week early. Thankfully you don’t need any computer skills, just $1. You can support me here.

One of the many intros the game will play after the initial launch. Others include a cracktro, a dedication to Cannon Fodder, and even a reference to the ZX Spectrum.

Darwinia is one of those early Steam darlings. Originally released in 2005, the game would be Introversion’s second game after Uplink, and featured a similar theme of computers. Though instead of being a hacker like in Uplink, you’re a user trying to stop an evil threat on a network.

Wow, a free keychain and poster? Sweet!

Back then I wasn’t 100% on-board with digital distribution – technically I’m still not on-board, but regardless –  thus I ended up getting this game not through Steam, but through a physical copy published by Cinemaware Marquee, a publishing label known for taking niche games and bringing them to US audiences. In essence, Cinemaware Marquee was the Limited Run Games of the 2000s.

It came with the game, a poster and a keychain of one of the little Darwinians. Funny enough, since the game is so tiny, the game comes with a 500MB video splash screen that is about 10 times more than the size of the game. While I still have that physical copy, I eventually grabbed Darwinia on Steam proper along with a bunch of other Introversion games years later.

They don’t take long to throw you into the fray.

Darwinia is a real-time strategy game with some action game elements. You play as the unseen, unnamed player who’s entered the world of Darwinia, a life simulator with little characters called Darwinians. Darwinia has been infected by a mysterious virus which is slowly corrupting the world, of which you join in just as it’s happening. After being briefly scolded by creator Dr. Sepulveda, he lets you learn the mechanics to hopefully stop the virus.

This is quite a simple start compared to other RTSes….

The player is given the Task Manager to create units in the world. At the start, the choices are a Squad which will attack the virus either on their own or through your own control; and an Engineer which can collect the souls of the virus to deposit into incubators, reprogram satellite dishes and incubators, or acquire new software. Later on, the game gives you Officers to control Darwinians and Armour which can double as a Darwinian transport vehicle or a defensive turret.

I can’t think of many real time strategy games that give this level of control when it comes to stuff like this. It’s pretty neat.

Since it’s a real-time strategy game, you can spawn and control specific units. Left click will by default move the selected unit to a destination, and right click is context-specific, depending on the unit selected (for example, Squaddies will shoot lasers with right click). Unlike conventional RTS games, you can only control one unit at a time and you have a limit on the number of “tasks” you can have running at one time. Even activating the later Officers requires at least one unused slot in the Task Manager to use it, which is rather frustrating as time goes on.

I had to use a Mobygames screenshot here, because by default Task Manager is on the “ALT” key, which doesn’t play nice with Steam’s screenshot feature.

At least it’s better than the original premise, which involved the player using the mouse to draw symbols to create tasks or to switch weapons. This was in the original release and eventually was phased out in later updates, though you can still toggle it on if you wanted to see what Introversion originally had in mind. It didn’t take me long to get frustrated with how finicky it was on gestures, thus switching back to the simple version.

Ain’t a real-time strategy game without some researching elements.

Dr. Sepulveda can help passively by researching certain upgrades, including increasing the number of tasks, improving squaddies and engineers, the works. Sepulveda will only work on one upgrade at a time, so it’s imperative to carefully choose which things need upgrading in the moment.

Some of the baddies on offer. Nasty little things.

The rest of Darwinia is fairly simple real-time strategy stuff, but often just involves eradicating enemy viruses as well as the other depictions of viruses in the game which are much tougher, such as spiders, ants, centipedes and such. These often require a few groups of powerful squads to make it easier to progress.

There was one mission where I had to get an armor factory running that required me to brute-force through a virus-filled area with spiders and centipedes and enemy spawners called triffids that were guarding two incubators. It was pretty frustrating to get through, because if I didn’t go through it fast enough, the arena would be filled with spiders spawned from those triffids, requiring me to “reset” the arena so I could try again.

On the bright side, if an engineer has already reprogrammed a satellite dish, incubator or Trunk port; resetting the arena doesn’t revert that, making it easier to cheese certain parts of the level.

It’s so much fun to try to wrangle a Squad up what should be a fairly easy hill, only for them to get stuck on it for some reason…

Even for being a simple RTS, the game’s AI is considerably lacking in spots. Often times I’d see squads get stuck in level geometry or have difficulty climbing certain areas. Other times I’d send an officer through a satellite dish, transport to the other area, then start constantly bumping around the exit until I told it to move. These aren’t dealbreakers, but I expected some better pathfinding for a real-time strategy game.

While the game’s graphical style is rather unique and stark, it does cause problems where it’s overly bright and hard to see enemies like the simple line viruses. One of the more frequent annoyances was Darwinians screaming in panic over a virus strand I couldn’t easily see because they were buried in the bright water. A more clearer indicator would’ve been nice.

Looks like Christmas up in here. Maybe I should’ve saved this for December.

Despite the minor technical shortcomings, the game is visually impressive for a 2005 game. The stark 3D graphic pattern combined with the simple 2D design of the Darwinians brings a distinct style that I hadn’t seen from a PC game from that time. Introversion seems to have a knack for making their games visually appealing, and Darwinia is no exception.

The music, composed by Timothy “Trash80” Lamb, fits the vibe of the game well, with “Schroeder’s Failure” being one of the standout tracks, a melancholy piano tune of which was the reason I thought about writing this game. One other track is the is the tracker track “Visions from Dreams” from Mathieu “DMA-SC,” Stempel which plays in the demoscene intro shown above.

The whole game gives a “80s European computer scene” vibe. The days of Speccys, C64s, and Amigas. As someone from the United States who really never got to use those machines, I can’t say this hearkened any kind of nostalgia to me. However, it did make me mildly interested in that computer scene, which I feel isn’t really covered all that much in the retro game scenes beyond the mainstream stuff. It’s clear Introversion did this as a love letter to an era of computing they loved dearly, and I’m here for it.

This is a pretty cool depiction of a world map for a game like this.

There’s about 10 levels to go through, with one optional bonus mission, and once you’re done, you get praise by Dr. Sepulveda and the option to make your own levels in the world of Darwinia. There’s not much in replay value outside of that level editor and mods. It took me about 10-12 hours to beat, which is likely on the low end of RTS games, but I wouldn’t know as it’s not really my genre.

Eventually Introversion made a multiplayer driven followup named Multiwinia, which had multiple players controlling their own squads and Darwinians, and a console spinoff called Darwinia+ that combined the original game and Multiwinia. After that, Introversion moved on to other projects, including DEFCON, a simulation of the famous “Global Thermonuclear War” game from WarGames in 2006; and Scanner Sombre, an exploration-driven game, in 2017.

They eventually struck gold with a simulation game called Prison Architect in 2015, of which they were the main developers on it for several years before selling the IP to Paradox Interactive. As for what they’re doing these days, they’ve been showing off failed prototypes but haven’t announced a game in a while.

These are quite insurmountable odds for this lone Red Darwinian.

Darwinia is on Steam and GOG for a “tenner” as the Brits might call it, and it’s honestly worth playing, even if you’re not big into real-time strategy games. It may not have been the game that got me hooked on the genre, but it did make me less hesitant to play something that wasn’t a shooter. 

There’s even a reference to Conway’s Game of Life in here. They went all-in on those references, didn’t they?

While I wouldn’t mind a sequel to Darwinia, I figure that’s not something Introversion is really interested in doing. They seem to be a studio wanting to move forward and try to make something amazing, not cash in on their past. But who knows? Maybe they’ll take a big fat stack from Epic Games and put their next game on the Epic Games Store, just like how they used Steam to gain a widespread audience. Either way, I anticipate what they’ll work on next.

I’ve now covered two PC games that were highlights of Steam’s early days. I don’t know if I’ll cover more of them after this. Cause that would mean having to play Rag Doll Kung Fu, and honestly I wouldn’t even wish that on my worst enemy.

B.J. Brown

I'm the creator and writer of You Found a Secret Area. Fascinated by obscure pop culture and wanting a place to write about curated stuff, I created the blog in 2012 and have been running it ever since. Also on Twitter. (Pronouns: she/her, they/them)

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