Vector graphics are the three-chord punk song of games. The razor-sharp drawings and angular grids of old coin-op games like Tempest made a comeback in XBox Live Arcade's Geometry Wars, whose frantic line drawings punch you in the eyes, but they serve a different purpose in Darwinia, where the pixelated characters and backdrops aim for a soothing, enticing effect. At heart, Darwinia is a simple, independent action/strategy game: You've tapped into an experimental server somewhere on the Internet, and stumbled into a war between a swarm of red viruses and the helpless green Darwinians, a sentient species of digital life. You spend much of the game leading a squad of desktop-icon-like soldiers against the viruses, while protecting or recruiting stick-figure civilians.
But explaining the mechanics doesn't do justice to the aesthetic experience of traversing the cold, serene landscape, accompanied by snatches of electronic music and an absentminded British computer scientist whose narration only animates in jags and flashes, like it's coming from a great distance. Each life-form, good or bad, has been sketched via its simplest and most sympathetic components. The green Darwinians have stubby limbs and no gestures or faces, yet they seem quirky, curious, and ultimately indomitable—just as the increasingly huge red monsters can strike fear as they stalk across the mountains, or shriek when they fall and vanish. Watch closely when one of the Darwinians dies (because you failed to save him): its soul—a yellow structure resembling a box kite—appears in its place, and drifts up into the sky. Play this game long enough, and you'll believe there are souls in your computer, living simple, stark, beautiful lives.
Beyond the game: Darwinia dominated this year's Independent Games Festival awards, but it won a close race: to check out the other nominees, visit igf.com.
Worth playing for: The team at Introversion calls itself the "last of the bedroom programmers," and the random, hacked-together title sequences—a different one runs every time you boot—bolster its "underground" appeal.
Frustration sets in when: The Darwinians are only artificially intelligent up to a point. Expect to spend a lot of time micromanaging them as they get lost in the rugged terrain.
Final judgment: An engrossing game that makes a virtue of its low-budget design.