Ever get hit by a hurricane, twice?
Rewind back to late October 2012. I'm flying all over the country on Microsoft's dime, fulfilling boring, businessy agendas by day and writing or performing folk music by night. I've just finished a required visit to the home base in Charlotte, NC and just like all the other non-locals, I was trying to get the hell out of dodge before Hurricane Sandy mucked up my plans. Unfortunately, we were all stranded. Stuck in the airport until the weather cleared. There were no available seats, but luckily enough, I found an open spot against a wall next to an electrical outlet.
Eighteen hours without internet access
I had recently bought the excellent game-making tool Construct 2 (now cloud-based Construct3) and had been experimenting with tutorials while building out a point-and-click adventure game about an endearing Gnome character named Pan. All I wanted to do was work on that game, but alas, I was stuck on some complicated feature that required research to resolve. And seeing as though the internet at the airport ranged between non-existant to unusable, I decided to make something different entirely.
an early render of Pan, my gnome character
Simulators are cool 😎
I had just recently learned about Conways Game of Life, a fascinating zero player game whose progression is determined solely by the initial state of the game as it plays out according to the rules. I've always been fascinated by the concept of emergent gameplay and the idea of a player discovering unintended scenarios that arised due to a strange and interesting combination of rules and systems. I wanted to explore these notions in my own game.
An animation of Gospers Gliders, a cellular automaton discovered in Conway's Game of Life
Plants are cool too 🌱 🌿 🌳
At this point in my life, I was pretty obsessed with plants. I'd spent countless hours watching videos of plant-growth timelapse videos. I'd seen Microcosmos and the Plants episode of BBC's Life dozens of times. I'd even produced time-lapses of my own. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that it dawned on me: A plant growing simulator! I mean, how many games have you heard of where you get to be a plant, right?
Time-lapse of a sapling sprouting
A Digital Terrarium
This early version was extremely simple. It was two-dimensional, there was only a single plane on which the various plants could grow. I had to re-learn some basic trigonometry in order to make the Sun and Moon orbits, and I went with a typical bullet-hell-style balls to represent photons. When photons hit grasses or plants, they would grow until they reached maturity, at which point they would flower, spawn a new instance or two elsewhere on the map, and die. Mushrooms, on the other hand, shrunk on contact with light and only grew or spawned in prolonged absense of light. The player took control of a sapling who had just emerged from a fallen seed, and through very basic left-or-right controls, had to collect enough light to be able to grow, at which point the camera would zoom out to reflect your plant's increasing size.
Short clip of the original Into the Thicket
Thanks, Hurricane Sandy
18 sleepless hours later I boarded my flight to CT with a stiff back and a rudimentary forest simulation. This was before I became a software engineer, so it was a spaghetti-maze of repetetive, nightmare inducing pseudo-code. But it worked. I finally got home up in Connecticut, just in time for Hurricane Sandy to say hello again. So I hunkered down and added a brief, cinematic introduction with some original music to hopefully add some flavor to the experience. If you're interested, you can play the original Into the Thicket here.