From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week: everyone laughed about Goat Simulator, but as SimCity creator Will Wright once proved, not all animals have such a fun time of it.
Welcome to the battlefield in your back garden. For all our sakes, let’s pray this isn’t how ants ever actually manage their colonies, or I suspect we’re all in deep trouble. In fact, that’s the ultimate goal here—to not only use your army of black ants to obliterate the evil, possibly communist red ants, but empty the house of those pesky humans who counter your raids with Raid. Tsk. Talk about antagonistic.
SimAnt is easily the oddest of Maxis’ simulation games, but hands-down the best remembered of most of the ones people didn’t play. SimLife and SimEarth were about as friendly as a rhino with toothache halfway through an unsatisfying speed-dating evening, while SimHealth—to give it its full title, “They Made SimHealth?” is less a game than the slow torture of all things fun. But SimAnt? That’s just cool.
The big question is whether it’s a simulation or a strategy game, but that’s just arguing SimAntics. It’s certainly not an accurate representation of being an actual ant, with an interface that never seems entirely sure whether it’s being bouncy, peppy and fun, or auditioning for a processing job at NASA. As a test, I put an actual ant in front of it to see what happened. It crawled under my S key and died valiantly the next time I typed the word “sandwiches”. Until then, it accomplished nothing. Absolutely nothing. In its defence though, I didn’t show it the manual. That might have helped.
SimAnt really is the weirdest simulation. For starters, you literally play as an ant. One ant. A single, solitary ant. Only not! You’re really more like the God of the Ants, with powers that would be amazing and world-changing and beyond belief, if not for the unfortunate fact that… well, you’re just an ant. You can die and be reborn for instance, like Ant Jesus, only with a larval stage. You have effective omnicognisance, with the ability to see the world and understand the human residents who dwell within it. Your charismatic power allows you to draw armies of fellow ants and lead them into battle against the foul humans, spiders, and other things that stalk the back garden. Too bad the whole “being an ant” thing means it doesn’t usually go so well. If only you had some proper weapons. Like the Holy Hand Grenade of Sim Antioch.
Ant Jesus begins every game in a nice safe hole in the ground, free of all concerns except starving to death and being invaded by the evil red ants who want to kill your queen. Initially, as with all battles throughout history, your problems are digging a hole in the ground, finding food to bring home in your mandibles and avoiding the giant spider with a taste for your flesh. Also there are termite things in holes. You do not want to fight a termite. That is not a fight that will go well for you. Imagine jumping into one of the sandworms from Dune and expecting it to go well. Like that. Only ickier.
The early game is essentially a rush to get food from elsewhere on the map before the other nest has a chance to outgrow you, though there are options. Killing their queen is a perfectly valid tactic, and you can gather up an army, race right across and seize victory pretty early on. For the most part though, regular strategy rules apply, just on a much, much, much smaller scale. You can lay trails across the map that act as alarms, give orders, pick up boulders and lay defences. You can also starve to death. That’s not much of an ability, but ants aren’t exactly the most capable creatures. Though fun fact, they’re strong. In fact, they have the proportional strength of an ant!
What? Some superheroes would kill for that.
Along with your own survival you also have to control the colony as a whole, dealing with not just a big cast of characters, but three whole castes. It’s your call—or stinky pheromone trail anyway—how much time your fellow black ants spend foraging, nursing and digging, as well as whether the hard-working queen lays breeders, workers, soldiers, or underperforming dreamers voiced by Woody Allen in an underrated movie.
You can also jump between squares in the garden to get closer and closer to ultimate victory; infesting the house and declaring it a free state for ant-kind. In the sequel, your ants would have stood on each others’ shoulders, donned a trench coat and fedora, and tried to get by in a society that didn’t understand them, or understand why it suddenly felt very itchy after shaking hands.
That wouldn’t be any sillier than some of the stuff actually in the game. Unlike SimCity there’s no Disasters menu, since an ant’s life is more or less one short-lived disaster that ends in inevitable death and then some dick pouring concrete into your house because it makes a funky looking sculpture.
There is however a “Silly” menu, which makes everything start talking. Everything. The spider that torments your ants now regularly pauses to ponder its own coolness, the queens sigh at laying eggs, and in a moment that seems all the more notable after what happened in SimCopter (opens in new tab), declare they’re having identity issues. The spider can also infamously shoot lasers. Yes, really. And thanks to an easter egg, it’s possible for Ant Jesus to sacrifice its life so that others may live… and then possess its eight-legged arse and murderise all the enemy ants in short order.
The biggest surprise of SimAnt for most people who do play it isn’t that it’s silly, but that it’s silly stuff written by a team of smart people who knew how to balance that side of things with scientific knowledge to make it feel plausible. Ant Jesus aside, which was likely done primarily because even RTS games weren’t up to looping a few hundred units and then sending them into battle, never mind SimCity engines, it’s mostly interesting because unlike, say, Battle Bugs (opens in new tab), SimAnt takes the basics seriously.
Sit back and you can watch the colony largely manage itself in virtual ant-farm style, and it feels… right. The problems of an ant colony are exaggerated and extrapolated into graphs and strategic maps, but the core of what you do is fulfilling their big problems—food, space, predators, drowning in the rain—using the actual tools at their disposal.
In particular, numbers. As said, Ant Jesus is prey for just about everything. But Ant Jesus and friends are a destructive force such as the world has seen many times before but will still kick a spider’s arse, eat termites and ant lions in their holes, and ultimately get rid of humans faster than you can say “Infestation”.
In short, hard as it is to imagine the day Will Wright walked into his office and said “You know what I just saw? ANTS!” while everyone’s eyes spun around, it was a wild idea that actually resulted in something really cool, and well worth remembering. It’s strange to play a Sim Whatever game with such a defined end and goal, though there is an Experimentation mode that lets you back up Ant Jesus with Ant God wielding insecticide and creating life on a whim, but it definitely helps.
Somehow, it’s hard to imagine getting the same satisfaction as building a town out of simply building a nest. They don’t even have arcologies to aspire to, only sugar water and inevitable death. Pity the poor ants. Unless of course they try to get into your stuff, because now we know for an almost certain fact that it’s not simply nature, it’s war. And I think we can be certain that ant-kind never signed the Geneva Convention, though if they all worked together, they could probably steal the pen. And then Gibraltar.
Anyway. You were probably expecting a final bad pun to end this on, weren’t you?
Well, I don’t have one. Just this picture of a nest to finish with.
Sorry about that.
Sorry for the anty-climax.