Plague Inc.

So, I downloaded Plague Inc. last night, on my phone, and I suggest you do, too. If you’ve got an Android device, then get it, because it’s good and it’s free, and I played it for a shocking number of hours. So many, in fact, that I dreamt about it. I’ll get to the dream in a minute, but I wanted to talk about the game first.

The mechanics of the game tell a shockingly detailed story. There are little news head-lines that whiz by the top of the screen and pop-ups that tell you exactly how well you’re doing in the kill-the-world-goal. Oh, did I forget to tell you what the game was about. Well then, slap my wrist. Plague Inc. is a touch-screen game wherein you are a pathogen. Or rather, you control the “evolution” of a radically mutating, dangerous disease. You can unlock and play as a number of different strains from bacteria, to virus, to fungal, and, eventually, bio-weapon. You pick an initial country to infect and away you go! Diseases are spread through different means, represented by your infectivity, and you can up-grade your strain to improve and add additional ways to spread the infection from person to person. The GUI is basically a world-map with an up-grade screen and a scrolling news bar. Occasionally, events will occur that you can take advantage of. For instance, the fungal infection is difficult to spread from country to country, but, occasionally, there’ll be a massive bird migration or something. If your disease has evolved to be spread through birds, then you’ll have a much higher chance of mass infection.

You evolve your strain through the use of DNA, which is collected by infecting new, exciting people and locales. The world, in opposition to your rampant infection, will begin researching a cure as you become more obviously infectious. Eventually, you’ll be racing against time to kill off the countries of the world to slow down research, while trying to keep enough carriers alive to spread to the rest of the uninfected population. You can also evolve drug-resistance and shuffle your DNA around to slow down research attempts. It’s a pretty deep game that offers many different paths and play-throughs. Occasionally, your strain will spontaneously mutate. One minute I was sitting on a relatively harmless cough with high infectivity and a relatively high resistance to research when it spontaneously evolved immuno-suppression. Suddenly, I was an AIDS-like bacteria that was spread through coughing and water. It was a bit terrifying. The symptoms themselves interact and can add interesting synergistic elements to the game. Anaemia plus insomnia equals the walking dead. Not literally, the infected just look grey and shuffle around because they haven’t slept. This reduces the research speed because the researchers are sleepy. Like I said, deep, but intuitive.

The full version adds up-grades and you can pay to unlock all of the available strains, but you’ll unlock them all the same through play, so why pay someone else to take half the game away from you? It’s a lot of fun, and it’s an interesting look at infectious disease from a less-than-WHO-friendly perspective. If you like interesting RPGs, and you can get past the whole killing-the-world thing, then I highly recommend this game.

Oh, the dream I had last night. Basically, I was in the middle of the infection I was causing while playing Plague Inc. I had to hide, while interfacing with my phone to spread the infection and kill everyone off. Eventually, they found me, but I managed to evolve a zombie-strain that killed my attackers off. Then, though, I had zombies to deal with. Fire rained from the sky, and I had to run out in the middle of it to scavenge food and ammo to survive. All the while, my phone was slowly spreading the virus… well, i say slowly… and evolving the strain in new, frightening ways. Eventually, everyone dropped dead and I was declared the winner, just as the zombies beat down my door. Then, everything reset and I was allowed to live comfortably again, until I got too far in the game, and got to watch everyone I knew and love die, again. It was terrifying, but downright fun. The GUI was massive, and the symptoms trees were nuts. I suppose this just reflects exactly how well the simple interface of Plague Inc. told its soul-crushing, thoroughly entertaining story. Anything that makes me say, “Yay! I’ve infected all of Russia!” or, “Hurray! I’ve gotten boils!” is a unique enough experience to really give a good look into. Games are about more than just fun, or even fun at all. They’re about telling a really good story in really interesting ways.

I have two nit-picks with this otherwise solid game. The first is that you get the opportunity to slow down research by pressing research icons as they pop up. Presumably, you’re breaking the vial that contained the cure… I’m not sure. It didn’t make a lot of sense, whereas everything else made a half-way decent attempt to make it seem like the natural course of things, with a very hands-off, arm-chair approach to realism. Again, I suppose it was to add more of a game-element to it, but it kind of fumbles the narrative a bit. My other complaint is that killing everyone is a victory. A true bacterial victory would be maintaining the host population, while still feeding on it and spreading. You know, like that one skin-eating disease that kills so rapidly that its victims rarely get far enough to infect everyone else, so it still has a whole race producing hosts for it to infect. Killing all of your hosts off is akin to suicide. However, I guess homoeostasis wouldn’t be a very exciting conclusion.

With a game that tells such a harrowing, and frankly frightening, narrative through brief news releases alone, simply because it’s how we’re used to getting such information, I don’t think token game elements were required, especially since the DNA gathering and evolutionary trees already adds this. Overall though, these things don’t take much away from the game, while adding just enough of a frantic pace to make the moments leading up to your inevitable victory (or defeat) interesting.

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