Do you remember the “god game” genre? Distinct from the few management sims we still have today, which tend to focus on financial and ministerial affairs, the god game, popular throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s, put you in the role of a supreme being with literally world-altering powers.
It’s a genre we don’t really see a lot of these days, with most strategy gamers tending to gravitate towards experiences with more board game-like mechanics such as Civilization and its numerous imitators, or the aformentioned fiscal frolics such as Cities Skylines, Two Point Hospital and the like.
Releasing a new god game is a brave step, then, but Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada has never been about taking the easy option. And so it was that his company Toybox came to bring us Happy Birthdays, an expanded, rebalanced and enhanced version of the earlier Birthdays: The Beginning, and a game in which you get to play God on your own little cube-shaped world.
In Happy Birthdays, you take on the role of… well, yourself, really. While out walking, you discover a mysterious cave, black out and find yourself floating in space in control of a cute little Ultraman-looking dude called The Avatar, accompanied by a sparkly sentient diamond-shaped object that refers to itself as Navi.
Navi explains that the cube before you is a world in its formative stages, and that in order for you to return to your own world, you must give birth to modern humans on the cube. No big deal, right? All in a day’s work.
No additional narrative context is given and even if you manage to “finish” this whole scenario by completing Navi’s request, the whole thing is left feeling rather unresolved with an inexplicable cliffhanger that there appears to be no way of following up on.
However, narrative is emphatically not what Happy Birthdays is about, so it doesn’t matter too much. The story-based scenario that will likely be your first stop on your worldbuilding journey is little more than a well-disguised tutorial, providing you the option of several ready-made starting worlds for you to experiment with, and perhaps challenge yourself to see how quickly you can develop humanity. Once you’ve exhausted its possibilities, there are a number of Challenge scenarios, which task you with accomplishing a particular goal against a time limit or under certain restrictions, or what is arguably the main attraction: a completely free mode where you can just play with the game as you see fit.
Happy Birthdays’ mechanics are surprisingly simple. There are two main ways of looking at your cube-shaped world: micro mode and macro mode. In micro mode, you affect the world directly; in macro mode, you sit back and watch what effect your influence has had.
In micro mode, time is frozen and you control The Avatar directly as it flies around the world. Depending on the circumstances in which you started the game, this may either begin as a completely featureless lump of rock or a partially constructed world ripe for fiddling around with. Either way, your main method of interaction in the early stages of the game is either raising or lowering the land, initially just a single tile at a time.
Raising the land above an altitude of 0 creates land, hills and mountains; lowering it creates seas. Every tile you affect costs some of your HP, and when you run out of HP you need to switch back to macro mode to let it replenish once you allow time to start again.
Moving the land around isn’t just for show: raising it tends to lower the temperature of the world, while lowering it tends to raise the temperature, with tall mountains and deep seas having particularly significant effects on the climate. The makeup of your world also has effects on things like moisture levels, and eventually all these factors will combine to create life.
There’s a tree-like chart of all the organisms (plant and animal) that it’s possible to create in Happy Birthdays, and each clearly spells out the conditions required for it to be born in the first place as well as the conditions it needs to thrive and grow. Using this information, you can tailor your world to encourage the birth and development of a particular life form, and follow the various paths through the tree in order to create more advanced life over time.
Once a new life form has been born, you need to “capture” it to add its information to the in-game library. This is done by locating it in micro mode, either in its standard view or via the very enjoyable first-person mode, and hitting a button, at which point you will acquire stars and experience points. Gain enough experience points and you will level up, giving you a greater stock of HP with which to affect the world, and at various level thresholds you also become able to affect more than just a single square at a time, too.
The stars are of critical importance, as they allow you to use skills. Each skill costs a particular number of stars to use, and there are a wide variety of different possible effects. Intangible skills allow you to do things like inflict global warming or cooling on the world as a whole without affecting the land, or to affect the moisture in an area. More tangible skills allow you to quickly create a large mountain or valley without spending HP. For an appropriate star outlay, you can also promote the growth of a particular species, force it to evolve, immediately make it extinct or cause it to become completely immune to the elements — though this latter option also causes it to become sterile, so it won’t breed any further.
Stars are initially quite hard to come by, particularly if you’re completely starting from scratch, but you get a decent amount from capturing a new species, a gradual trickle just by popping into micro mode and flying around a bit, and a huge bonus every million in-game years. As such, while the game tends to begin feeling like it takes a while to get anything significant done — and to develop any life more advanced than plankton — it gradually accelerates over time, with things really starting to pick up after those first million years. Which, in the context of this game, isn’t very long, whatever it might sound like!
While the story mode and the challenges give you specific tasks to try and complete, probably the best thing about Happy Birthdays is its free mode. Here, you start from a barren, rocky cube and develop it as you see fit. There’s no way to “win” or “lose” aside from any arbitrary objectives you decide to set for yourself, so the joy simply comes from experimenting with the environment in various ways and seeing what happens.
There’s also an achievement-like system in the game that rewards you with various “monuments” for accomplishing particular tasks, so if you really want a checklist of things to experiment with, that’s worth looking at. The monuments run the gamut from various coloured Avatar statues in different poses to national flags and bits of three-dimensional pixel art, and they allow another way for you to customise your creation besides the simple lay of the land.
The whole thing is presented really nicely. The way the world is constructed of cubes makes it feel very distinct, though notably different from other games that make use of a similar aesthetic such as the famous Minecraft. Looking at the various animals and plants up close, there’s almost a “hand-crafted” look to some of them; when the humans finally appear, for example, their hair in particular has the look of soft felt about it, and their stylised faces further add to this toy-like aesthetic.
The soundtrack, too, is designed to be relaxing and to reflect what is going on at any given point. Most things you do have an impact on the soundtrack; moving the land up or down causes randomised melodic notes to play, for example, while the biological density of a particular region of your world is reflected by the overall texture of the soundtrack when your camera is in that region. Pan into an area with human civilisation and you’ll hear the beating of tribal drums; head out into the jungle and you’ll hear gentler sounds; move out into a barren, rocky area and the music becomes appropriately “cold” and thin.
Happy Birthdays really is a joy to play if you go into it with the right mindset. It’s not a game you play to “beat”; instead, it’s a game to fire up when you tire of shooting things, racing cars or hitting your enemies with pointy objects. It’s a wonderfully relaxing, creative experience that enriches and invigorates the mind, and once you get past the slow start and start really figuring out how to nudge your cube’s ecosystem in the directions you want it to go, you’ll find that checking in on your little world — your creation — becomes monstrously addictive!
Games with a grand scope such as this can easily be daunting or feel overly complex, particularly to the more casual player or those unaccustomed to more cerebral, strategic affairs. But Happy Birthdays is simple enough for anyone to enjoy; it’s a “software toy” that classic-era Will Wright would be proud of, and a fine addition to the more thoughtful gamer’s collection.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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