Arguably the most Hegelian moment in all of video games, at least in an aesthetic sense, comes at the start of E.V.O. as the player’s avatar – at this particular moment in the game a fish – meets a jellyfish and is welcomed to the dialectical process of evolution. The jellyfish explains the three rules of evolution: fight for survival and for food, only move forward never back, and evolve and become strong. At which point the dialogue ends, the player bites the jellyfish in the head twice, and then eats the juicy roast his corpse converts into thus regaining some health and gaining experience. The process reiterates until eventually the player evolves into a human being, defeats the monstrous Bolbox, and reaches Eden where he is finally allowed to become Gaia’s consort and bring about civilization.
It is, to say the least, one of those games that stops you short, critically speaking. Its psychochronographic space is a British coast, expanding endlessly the closer you look at it. Every detail is strange, the explication of one leads inexorably to another. There is too much meaning here; in every direction lies rabbit holes to topple down.
And yet at its core this is an almost obvious game. Evolution is a more or less inevitable thing to pair with an experience system, and I’m sure prior art exists, although this is the earliest instance of it I’m aware of. Everything else slots into place at least reasonably sensibly around the clever gameplay mechanic in a very classic function follows form bit of game design. Add the detail that it’s an Enix game (not from the Quintent sub-studio that produced ActRaiser and Soul Blazer, although it shared production staff with the former) and almost the entire thing clicks into place. RPGification of existing game styles was very much their thing, so of course the RPG side-scroller is a thing.
But it also helps explain the game’s strangest and most interesting aspect, which is its curious mishmash of an ideology and worldview. It has the characteristic slight obliqueness of a Japanese game – a phenomenon we’ve discussed previously – and the tendency towards slightly distorted and cracked mirror versions of European cosmologies, a tendency emphasized by the slightly dodgy translation in E.V.O. In this case the player is shepherded by Gaia, a personification of the Earth, who is apparently the direct daughter of the Sun. But this is laid alongside an almost-sensible version of evolutionary biology – one that’s not even close to scientifically accurate, but that has at least seen a science textbook at some point in its life. And then on top of that there are Martian bird people perverting the course of human evolution.
The Martian bird people in many ways distract from the real strangeness here, which is the attempt to merge the eco-hippy rhetoric that Gaia is being plucked from with the pop-evolutionary biology, which, inevitably, gets simplified down to “survival of the fittest.” These are in some key regards a rough fit. The former is vaguely mystical, and usually associated with the then-trendy Gaia hypothesis (which was actually the underlying philosophy of SimEarth, also released for the SNES in 1993), which suggested that the Earth was a self-regulating system that would act to preserve life, while the latter still invoked the barely repressed social Darwinism of 80s laissez-faire capitalism.
But there’s an underlying compatibility between the two approaches in their view that, as Debord would have it, what appears is good; what is good appears. Or, to put it another way, that there is some sort of invisible hand guiding and regulating the world. In real life, this becomes dangerous in both cases, in that way that creating gods always is. But in terms of E.V.O. a rather more fundamental complexity presents itself: of course there’s an invisible hand. And it’s holding a SNES controller.
As a moral actor, of course, the player is locked into the same neutered conceptual space that most games place them in. On occasion E.V.O. contrives to throw some sort of ethical dilemma in front of the player, sometimes even giving them the means to make the choice instead of would-you-kindlying them through. But the dilemmas are always paper-thin, with an obvious correct choice and a generally game-ending wrong one.
But in this case it is less what the player becomes as a moral actor than what they become conceptually. Simply put, there aren’t a lot of video games, including in the so-called god game genre, in which the player is invited to do anything quite so epic as direct the evolution of man over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Only Color a Dinosaur, released a few months later for the NES, comes close in the era.
This level of power, even if only over a fictitious world and within a carefully delineated set of rules, is an odd and unsettling thing. There is no other way to put it. Playing E.V.O. feels strange. Despite the bulk of the game not being, strictly speaking, fun the game is an unheralded classic simply because it is so vivid an experience and avoids ever being an actively unpleasant one.
But this gets at how we know by now to understand even the godlike power of setting the start conditions for humanity, which is through game mechanics. What, in other words, is the process of our godhood? We’ve already described the basic mechanic – kill animal, eat power-up, spend experience, evolve. There is much here to have reservations about, most obviously the idea of “buying” evolutionary upgrades, although ultimately that just serves to reinforce the class mechanics that are one of the driving forces of video games as an American cultural phenomenon. But the more interesting detail is the relationship of animal to power-up. When you kill an animal, it drops a big, juicy looking bone-in hunk of meat, which you then eat to gain points. And it is very specifically the act of eating that acquires the points. You can’t just touch the power-up; you have to actually perform a bite-attack on it.
On one level this is simply a reminder that survival requires killing. But evolution doesn’t, at least not in any direct sense. Indeed, evolution requires fucking, which, Nintendo being Nintendo, E.V.O. leaves out. It is possibly the bluntest and most thorough sex/death metaphor ever attempted, even leaving the basic carnality intact. The result is a sense of humanity and civilization as something that is built atop a foundation of countless bodies. This is not strictly speaking untrue, of course, but the scale of it, and particularly the way in which the resulting tidily butchered cuts of meat give proceedings a weirdly mechanized feel.
All of this is increased, of course, by the fact that the game is in practice mostly about farming experience. The bulk of time spent in E.V.O. is, in each of the game’s five major phases, spent walking back and forth across the same terrain so that creatures respawn and can be killed again until the player has saved up enough experience to afford the upgrades necessary to tackle more difficult enemies. There’s some depth to be had in finding the most efficient way to do this, which can be satisfyingly done on replays alongside finding all the secret areas and alternate paths in the final few levels, but for the most part it’s a pretty obvious process, and the bulk of the game is thus spent alternating between farming and boss-fighting.
But there’s a metaphoric significance here. E.V.O. purports to track the evolution of humanity and birth of civilization. But the endpoint of that process – the neolithic revolution – is precisely the development of agriculture and the transition away from hunter-gatherer societies. In other words, the disparity between what E.V.O. presents (kill prey and eat it) and what it actually provides (harvest the herd and eat it) is precisely the transition it narrativizes.
This is an ugly knot, to say the least, with no easy way out of it. Indeed, in contrast it’s difficult to see what, precisely, is wrong with Bolbox, who seems to save the creatures cast out by the player’s monstrous agriculture, giving them sanctuary and subsisting on alien crystals instead of flesh. Sure, he’s a giant amoeba who thinks he’s a man, but there’s not really anything concretely wrong with his position except for the fact that Gaia doesn’t seem to fancy him as her consort in the land of Eden.
But this reason just highlights a larger horror of the narrative, and what is possibly the single biggest validation for Anita Sarkeesian’s point that the damsel in distress trope is seriously fucked up: the game ends with the player in effect rescuing Gaia from the unwanted attentions of the monstrous Bolbox. Somehow, against all odds, reason, and sanity a game about the evolution of human life itself collapses into a princess rescue.
There is an ominous chill to this that all our prior flirtations with nihilism did not quite prepare us for. Even in our most cynical moments to date we have generally held some sliver of hope that a utopian solution existed somewhere in amidst the rubble. The possibility that video games were irrevocably tainted was always acceptable in the face of their potential. But there is an alternative formulation here – that video games’ potential is why their irrevocable taint is so unacceptable. That the gravity of female objectification is so strong as to infect the reenactment of civilization’s start conditions is, by any measure, troubling. That it does so alongside the gravities of mechanized slaughter and capitalist consumption is even moreso. If these are the conditions under which the world must be represented, why should we represent the world at all?