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Lichenia is a new web-based game from game designer Molleindustria (Paolo Pedercini) that’s about “reshaping the natural and built environment, reclaiming dead cities, and growing sustainable ones.” It takes a few minutes to get going, but what else would you expect? Resurrecting a poisoned world is hard.
Presented in an isometric perspective (and playable online for free), Lichenia tasks its player with placing some strange tiles on a polluted and ruined landscape. We don’t know what these tiles do. We don’t really know what we’re trying to accomplish. The goals and our means to accomplish anything at all are obscured. But the bottom of the screen tells us a mythological story of death and rebirth, and enough puzzling around reveals some basic parameters that allows us to “play” Lichenia.
Playing Lichenia is all about trial and error, but that’s because Pedercini wanted there to be an unclear relationship between what you were doing and the effects you had on the world. “I wanted the player to observe the dynamics and not interpret the visuals in the most immediate and normative way,” he writes in the release notes, and this lack of immediate interpretation is helped by the use of Everst Pipkin’s Mushy tileset, which was produced by training a neural network on isometric art.
Lichenia forces us to think about the power of misrecognition and the planet. Do we really ever know the full effects of our actions? As climate change accelerates, and our complicity in that continues, what are the meaningful actions we can take? Lichenia is more about effects than it is a logic, but through enough trial and error you can figure out how to create some new cities, or at least new ruins, from the charred and roiling planet that you’re presented with at the beginning.
In the release notes for Lichenia, Pedercini explains that the game is a work in his Playable Cities project in which he produces “a series of magical realist alternatives to SimCity.” Originally released in 1989, SimCity remains both a classic in the city builder genre and a titan that looms over city builder game design. If you are making a game that features the construction of a city, there’s an almost guaranteed chance that you are in conversation with the standards that SimCity and its progeny have laid out for you.
What’s so refreshing about Lichenia is where it diverges from, and criticizes, that SimCity legacy. Instead of an idyllic plain in which you plop down zoning for houses and factories, Lichenia presents a small world covered in rumbling, polluted water and what looks like burned-out cities and warped fields. This world is one that has been used up, and playing the game is mostly about choosing tiles, placing them in this worn-out landscape, and seeing what can happen.
"There are consequences here."
What’s special about Lichenia, though, is that your personal impact on the world is vague enough that you might not realize the effect that you’re having. A traditional city builder game tends to see any intervention as a good one: There was no road here, and now there is a road, which means that you can have houses, which are better than no houses. Lichenia has no such illusions about the universal benefits of intervening by plopping down tiles. The first time I played the game I accidentally drowned everything in sight by placing too much water on the way. In the next attempt, I’m pretty sure I flattened dense jungle to create stumpy beige ruins. Environmental experimentation is a two-way street in Lichenia, especially if you’re not paying attention to the effects of your previous actions. There are consequences here.
As climate change accelerates over the next few dozen years, and the social and economic relationships on our planet change, the lessons that can be learned from the blank earth of SimCity are going to be more and more limited. The fantasy of the unbroken earth will be revealed as just that: a fantasy. In that context, I think that games like Lichenia, in all of their complication and abstraction, will be much more instructive and helpful than the traditional city builders of old.