I love the level of experimentation that touchscreen devices are bringing to video games. Glenn Corpes, a talented programmer who co-created Popuolus, has found a way to take advantage of the iPad's touchscreen in a way that's so potent... It almost feels like a drug, it's so addictive.
Topia puts you in control of your very own planet, allowing you to literally shape and mold it however you see fit. The main screen presents you with a nondescript, round world. It’s one of those games that doesn’t spend a lot of time and energy on instructions or UI encumberments, because they’re not needed. (There’s a brief tutorial level you’ll play the first time you open the app.) Everything about it is gloriously smooth and intuitive; you can tell the responsiveness has been tweaked and honed to perfection. Familiar gestures control most of the game: pinch-to-zoom out and look at the whole world, or pinch-to-zoom in a surprisingly long way to get a very close-up view. One or two fingers move the camera.
With one finger, you can raise or lower the planet’s geography, and add and manipulate a handful of animal species. Nearly every detail of this creation process is automated, which both simplifies the creation process and adds greatly to your feeling of power and control. Raise your landscape higher and it will become a snow-capped mountain. Drop it below sea level and ponds and lakes will form. Trees and grass pop up on their own, scattered here and there. If your world is looking too craggy, there’s a smoothing tool that lets you turn sharp mountain peaks into rolling hills, or green glades into beaches. Size buttons let you shrink or expand these geography tools, which affect the size of the mountains, valleys, and bodies of water you create.
All of this comes together in a brilliantly intuitive way. I can’t overstate the profound sensation you get from altering Topia‘s geography with your fingers. It engenders an even more god-like feeling than SimCity or Spore ever did, because everything is literally created by the power of your own touch.
Once you’re happy with your creation, you can add in some indigenous life. There are six kinds of animals available, some peaceful and some predatory. Naturally, this leads to the predators hunting the other animals, which can be fun to play around with. For example, I once filled a medium-sized island to capacity with a gentle species, and then dropped in three or four predators at a few different spots. Even though the grazers had superior numbers (in the extreme), the predators started picking them off, and fast. Fortunately, each species in the game mates and reproduces fast, too. So in my scenario the gentle creatures easily bred as fast as they were being eaten by the predators. Without meaning to, I’d created a perfect simulation of population control.
If you find your world getting too crowded, or you want to stop one predatory species from destroying another, there’s a powerful “zap” button that brings lightning down on any living thing. Furthering the god metaphor, you can literally smite any creature that displeases you. Another button lets you track any animal, or draw a trail that you’d like them to follow. I’m not sure I get the point of these functions, since they have no discernible impact on gameplay.
From a technology standpoint, Topia is a wonder. The graphics are gorgeous, even at maximum zoom, with high-res textures that never pixelate. The island I mentioned earlier that I filled with creatures? There were hundreds of the little guys running around that island, overlapping and running into each other, and never once did they slow down the game’s frame rate. There’s some nice sound effects and a forgettable musical score, but you can adjust or turn these off. The real focus is on the visuals and the visceral feel of controlling the game, so the sound is almost unnecessary.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game is that it’s been introduced as sort of a beta version of itself, a “sandbox” app that costs just $.99. It’s almost unfathomable that an app with so much replay value costs less than a dollar. But Corpes and publisher Crescent Moon Games felt that the experience of building your own worlds was compelling enough on its own without needing to add in traditional gameplay elements, and I have to agree. At the same time, Corpes has promised to add in new content on a regular basis, based entirely on player feedback, including gamer objectives.
Having played with the game for almost a week, I have plenty of ideas… I’d love to be able to add in my own plants. I wish there was an option for finer, more precise control of how your geography turns out. I wish I could change the size of my worlds, making them bigger or smaller. I wouldn’t mind being able to create various kinds of weather. But more than anything, I really want to see people inhabiting my worlds. I don’t need to micromanage them as if they’re in The Sims. They could be more like the game’s animals, where you could add people to the world and let them do their own thing, maybe building structures or even settlements. It would be a blast — not to mention how much it would raise the stakes for the player — to have these little people going about their lives, and watching how they react to the changes I make to their world. Would they pack up and move to a different location? Would they build different kinds of structures or societies in different climates? How would they coexist with the animals? Would they build boats and explore the seas, in search of other cultures? The possibilities are endless. Right now, there’s nothing at risk, so there’s never a strong sense of accomplishment.
Topia isn’t without its flaws. There are bugs, such as how birds have a tendency to get stuck, flapping away in a single location forever. But bugs are inconsequential compared with a humongous, glaring oversight in the game’s design that’s almost unforgivable: you can’t save the worlds you create. That’s right — every time you start up the app, you have to start over, building a new world entirely from scratch. Maybe this is a glitch, because I get the impression that you’re meant to be able to save. There’s a “My Worlds” menu with a handful of slots that seem as though they would be the right place for game saves, but using these never actually saves any of the worlds you create. Even stranger, there’s an option to save a video recording of you creating your world, but even this doesn’t save your work. It just makes no sense. Why would a game give you so much power, only to make it pointless in the end? Hopefully a future update will fix this.
Even with that one (huge) mistake, the overall experience is so fresh, enjoyable, and beautiful, I found myself not caring about what it lacks. I’m the kind of gamer that likes a story in my games, as well as goals, direction, and progress. Like Will Wright’s games, Topia does away with all that, letting the player create their own stories. So it feels like a tool set searching for a purpose. But it’s such a wondrous set of tools, I found it compelling anyway.
Topia is crazy fun, and should be considered a required addition to every iPad.