Review of Cultivation

Cultivation is a game I've mentioned before, but in case you have not tried it yet, here's a description from the "press section" of the website:

"Cultivation explores the social interactions within a gardening community. You lead one family of gardeners, starting with a single individual, and wise choices can keep your genetic line from extinction. While breeding plants, eating, and mating, your actions impact your neighbors, and the social balance sways between conflict and compromise.

Cultivation features dynamic graphics that are procedurally-generated using genetic representations and cross-breeding. In other words, game objects are "grown" in real-time instead of being hand-painted or hard-coded. Each plant and gardener in the game is unique in terms of both its appearance and behavior."

So basically, you have this little circle creature, which you can direct around the map and plant seeds, water them, eat fruit, share fruit and stuff like that. A cool thing about it is that all the stats, the graphics, and even the music is all based around a genetic system and is different every time. However, the basic play experience is very similar each time, at least on the surface.

It's pretty interesting. I wouldn't really call it "fun" though. If I'm not misaken, it's still in development, so hopefully the author will continue to improve the game.

The main problem is that it doesn't seem to go anywhere. After the first time I tried it, figured out how to play, I wasn't really compelled to keep going. It just seemed like I would be repeating the same basic strategy I had figured out in the first few minutes. This is an issue of gameplay progression.

Most games use techniques such as levels and upgrades to structure their gameplay progression, as I've mentioned before. But it's my impression that Cultivation is meant to have a more freeform progression, where the player may uncover for themselves new complexity and strategy that already exists in the mechanics. It fits with the procedural approach to the rest of the game content.

Unfortunately, just having lots of depth hidden in your game doesn't mean that players will find it. I've struggled with this myself in my game Braids. It also has a lot of complexity and depth, and also fails to get that across to many people who try playing it. The time when it does manage to get people interested in it, is when they are playing against another person. Us humans are very social, and we learn socially as well. When you are playing with other people, you can learn by watching what they do, and by communicating.

With Cultivation, it's hard to learn socially like that. It's hard to learn by watching what the computer players do, partly because most of the time you can't see them on the screen, but also because the important actions of the game are not reflected strongly in the graphics. You pretty much just see some circular creatures gliding around, with things occasionally popping up and disappearing around them. It's hard to see what they're thinking, what strategies they are using in the game, how game events are influencing their behavior.

Right now the actions and graphics in the game are pretty distant from the interesting parts of the gameplay. Though I haven't really gotten to that level of play, I presume that the interesting parts of the game come from the social dynamics of the gardeners. But I haven't been able to see much beyond noticing that if I try to enroach onto their territory, they get mad, and if I give them food, they like me.

And the basic actions of the game, like planting, watering, harvesting, seem even further removed from the actual game. I know the basic sequence - plant, water, harvest, repeat - but it doesn't seem to really tie into the social dynamics in a significant way. From what I understand, you could cut it out completely and just have establishing territory and giving gifts, and the social part of it would be relatively unaffected. If that's true, then maybe it should be simplified in that way, or at least made more significant to the gameplay. And if I am mistaken in dismissing the connection, the connection should be made more clear through better feedback! Hopefully this is an issue that can be simply resolved by improving the user interface.

So if I'm lucky, the author of Cultivation will come read this and improve the game. :) But anyway, I think it could be fun for me to make my own game like this, expanding more on the cultivation side of things, with more interesting things you can do with the plants, and easier guidance of the evolution of your garden. I am eager to play with procedural generation of plants, and right now I don't have a clear idea of how the social aspect of Cultivation is supposed to work.

But something that could be fruitful to integrate into the game would be the dynamics of sexual selection. There is mating in Cultivation, but everyone is hermaphroditic and you don't really have much choice in the matter. When I played I couldn't help being pregnant constantly since the other creatures seem to exchange eggs at every opportunity. :p

I'll leave you with that thought. :D

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