Cannibal games

William Latham explains why players get to eat their enemies in his new game, Evolva.

Topics: Evolution, Charles Darwin, Video Games,

A critic once asked William Latham, a U.K. computer artist famous for weirdly contorted, alien-life-form-like software programs, if he took drugs. Latham replied that his computer — or, to be precise, his extraordinary program Mutator, which modified computer graphics in accordance with Darwinian genetic theory — hallucinated for him.

The London Times has called Latham the most innovative artist in cyberspace. A genial 38-year-old with Spock-like sideburns, Latham has exhibited his computer graphics in shows around the globe, winning numerous awards. In 1996, he released a new version of Mutator in the form of his “Organic Art” screensavers, which let individual consumers harness the power of Mutator and personally set evolution in motion. You started with a basic form, such as a cone. A few clicks later, you stared with revulsion or wonder at the mutated, gyrating microbe thing that you had created.

Ten days after Latham made “Organic Art” available on Microsoft’s Web site, the screensaver had been downloaded 100,000 times. One magazine compared him to God; a high priestess in the Arizona desert projected “Organic Art” onto the inside of her temple.

But Latham was unsatisfied with creating mere images. His newest application for Mutator is a computer game called Evolva, due to be released in early 2000. Like everything else Latham does, Evolva enacts the process of evolution — but this time, it is the game warriors themselves who evolve. In the far future, humanity has mastered the art of genetic engineering and created the ultimate Darwinian warrior — the Genohunter. Whenever a Genohunter kills an enemy, it analyses its DNA, and then mutates, stealing any useful attributes that the victim had: strength, speed,
weaponry.

Not every new game on the market makes cannibalism into one of its main selling points. But William Latham is not your everyday game designer. And his game is no ordinary game. Genohunter evolution and adaptation in the face of danger reflects our own changes as a species, and our own changes as individuals over the course of our lives. After playing Evolva, the prospect of going back to a game where the characters stay the same the whole way through is about as unappetizing as talking to a zombie. The gaming industry better take notice.

With an industrial chemist for a father and a conductor for a mother, Latham studied at Oxford University and then the Royal College of Art. While at the Royal College he frequently visited the Natural History Museum and, after gazing at ammonites and fractal ferns, developed a fascination with primitive forms. He would also hatch business schemes, to the alarm of his tutors, who told him he should open a chain of launderettes. But before setting up his company, Computer Artworks, he took one more detour — as an IBM research fellow involved in pioneering the production of speech recognition software.

Why did he leave?

“One of the things was that home PCs were just becoming phenomenally powerful and one could just see where that was going,” says Latham. “Previously I’d always relied on a big laboratory stuffed full of machines.”

He has no regrets. Now Latham talks about Evolva like a rather exotic, frightening but deep-down-loveable pet that everyone must meet. When he says the game has a life of its own, he means it.

“What tends to happen in computer games is that everything revolves around you,” says Latham. “A bit like a ghost train and you have a sense that everything is happening only because you walked through that door. Whereas to make it a truly immersive experience, you need to change that perception completely and so you have events that you just stumble across and if you were there five minutes later, you’d have missed it. And boy if you got there two minutes earlier you’d be right in the middle of it.”

Ultra-high resolution enhances the drama. Each Genohunter is made up of 7,000 polygons — you can see every ridge and scar on their flesh. Because the Genohunters evolve unpredictably, there is no such thing as a typical specimen but the general look is that of Arnold Schwarzenegger crossed with a triffid and a stegosaur.

For someone as obviously entranced with mucking around with DNA as Latham is, he still projects an ambivalent stance on genetic engineering. On the one hand, he says why not? Let’s see where it takes us — it could make the world incredibly beautiful. On the other hand , he calls it a “black art,” questioning whether we can control our attempts to make things evolve the way we want them to. Mutator, he notes, was unstable in the early stages.

“You’d hit troughs and parameter space where everything would turn inside out, back to front,” says Latham, who mistrusts any scientist who reckons he or she can control genetic engineering. “I think there’s some chaos in there.” His eyes glitter.

What was the biggest technological challenge he faced in creating Evolva? “Oh God,” he sighs, “multiple, multiple challenges. One was physics — getting true physical modeling into the game. This seems to be the Holy Grail that everyone’s chasing.”

He admits he did not entirely succeed. “The problem is that the human eye is very good at picking up things that are wrong,” he says.

The key to Evolva is that playing the game creates fear and addiction, says Latham. “That’s what you’re trying to do — create something completely addictive.” I tell him that sounds ethically questionable. He pauses, leaning over his desk like a man about to launch himself into a swimming pool, then says I shouldn’t patronize the public.

But what about his own four small children? He says he cares about what they’re exposed to, and he himself can’t watch some television shows — “Television is like prison,” he says. “The television director probably went to, you know, Oxford University — twit. And every idea he wants to put in this damn program — you’re on the receiving end.”

Computer games, even if they are as violent as Evolva, help the younger generation escape from the trap of television, says Latham.

“You make decisions, you change the plot, you’re thinking: Do I go down there? Do I talk to this thing? It’s a completely different experience,” says Latham.

But isn’t it essentially still just a shoot-’em-up? Latham disagrees. He says it tests your wits — you can’t go around just blowing everything up, left, right and center.

“The way to eventually win the game is to actually, strategically think things out,” says Latham. “There are some very neat weapons so if you can go and kill the alien that breathes fire, your Genohunter breathes fire. And then 10 minutes earlier you might have encountered an ice door that takes you through to a secret tunnel and then you think, ah yes, with the flame breath I can go and melt the ice door.”

For a moment, Latham is completely immersed in the image he has just conjured up. He’s an artist infatuated with his own creation, and his own intensity offers a warning indication of Evolva’s potential addictiveness.

David Wilson is freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.

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