Game developers often ask each other, how do we make educational games fun? Usually good ideas are thrown around then quickly get stomped into “People don’t want educational games. The Kardashians are still around.” Thankfully, Stray Fawn Studios stepped up to the plate and created a wonderfully fun and incredibly accurate game about genetics.
Fur colour’s, horns, and paws are all genetically chosen.
NICHE: A genetics survival game is a digital board game where you control a pack of fox creatures on a procedurally generated island. Your foxes need to eat so you’ll have to hunt, forage, and fish. All good things come to an end though and in time your foxes will grow old and die so you need to breed to keep the species alive. There’s a catch though. Each creature has a simple genetic sequence with dominant and recessive genes. These can be simple and harmless like fur pattern, if they have stripes or not, eye colour. Or these can be dangerous recessives like blindness, haemophilia, or a lack of immunity to disease.
Its easy enough to get lost in this and end up running headlong down a losing path but that’s where the educational aspect of the game comes in. It is very difficult to get through Niche without picking up the concepts and learning what they mean.
My first run I had bred for Nimble Paws which get a higher yield from berry bushes. My food needs were easily covered as the island was littered with berry bushes. However, I only had one female and she carried the blindness gene…
My second run I learned from mistakes and bred carefully. Those with dangerous genes were sent out into the wild. All was going well, until a double whammy of a carnivore taking out my best males and a rogue male sneakily mating with my best female brought a new wave of ugly foxes. Ugly foxes and more dangerous genes.
So far I still haven’t got more than a few hours into a run before my terrible choices have brought the whole pack to a sudden and terrible end. Having to resort to incest because I killed the only two outsider foxes on a small island. Then having my pack quickly succumb to illness because incest greatly increases their chance to catch disease or show normally recessive traits.
You came to the wrong neighbourhood
Thankfully though Niche is not a true rogue-like. If your pack dies out, you get the option to restart with your unlocked genes and islands from the previous run. To encourage multiple play-throughs and exploration the developers have added interesting features like; prehistoric genes from frozen foxes, achievements, and vastly different biomes that require different play-styles to adapt to.
The first time one of my little foxes died I was heartbroken. Each one is unique as their genes determine their fur pattern, horns, eye colour, and a dozen other things about them. The game however is uncaring and as they age they simply turn to bones. A fitting mechanic for the lesson being learned, no use getting caught up in liking a particular member of the species when you have to provide for them all. But still… look at them.
Cosy in the hot spring.
Niche’s style is wonderfully clear and has that colourful charm that I’ve grown to appreciate since the long colour-drought of the Xbox 360 and PS3 era. Characters are easily discernible and traits are usually quickly identifiable once you know what to look for. Food is clear and dangers are as obvious as they should be (I lost a fox while trying to get food from a cactus. Lesson learned.)
This is a great step forward for educational games and hopefully we’ll see more from Stray Fawn and other studios that can bridge the gap between fun and informative that the 90s failed to do. Just think back to Math Circus and be grateful.
What do you think? Are educational games finally getting done properly? Do you want to see more games that can teach you concepts without feeling like learning? Tell me in the comments below.