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Vilmonic is an artificial life simulator and genetics and evolution sandbox game. Released in 2019, it's the creation of Mark Stramaglia, who single-handedly wrote the code, designed the graphics, composed the music, and continues to maintain all aspects of it. It's beautiful to look at and listen to, and even though it has a cartoon vibe, the mechanics are complex. The creatures have genetic codes and you can engineer their DNA sequences to change their appearance and behavior.
As you play Vilmonic, your goal is to breed plants ("fungolites" or "fungols") and animals ("animatroids" or "anims") in a colorful vivarium filled with both friendly and hostile life-forms. It's like a cross between Creatures and Minecraft, but more intellectually and aesthetically sophisticated than either of those games. Here's the official game description:
You are the last caretaker of the final few life forms on the planet. Protect each animatroid and fungolite species, analyze their DNA, selectively breed new species, craft tools and buildings, dig rivers and make new islands, find ancient tech, and fend off the mindless haywire zombitons.
I bought Vilmonic on Steam for $15 (it's available on other platforms, too, including iOS). I started the game and found myself on a grassy island dotted with rocks, plants, and animals. It reminded me of a low-rez, highly stylized version of the latest Animal Crossing game. I noticed a humanoid life-form on the far side of the island, so I headed over to greet it. But as soon as I got next to it, the creature flashed red a couple of times and my character's coloring took on a sickly tone. A warning popped up that informed me I was now "infected." It told me that to heal myself, I I had to grow some red fungols and make a cola from them. But first, I needed to dig around to find a buried bottle. And to dig, I had to first make a shovel.
I wasn't sure how to do that so I headed over to the Vilmonic Discord server and, as luck would have it, Mark Stramaglia was on the server and happy to help. "How do I get a shovel?" I asked Mark.
"Ha! Craft one: two fung piles make fiberoyd, two fiberoyd piles make a trowel."
A couple of minutes later I had a shovel and I started digging. I found a bottle on the second hole. Beginner's luck, I guess.
Since I had Mark's attention, I told him I read somewhere that animatroids have neural net brains and wanted to know if that was true. He said, "They do, or more accurately, 'Braitenberg-style' attraction/repulsion graphs. Use the binoculars on an anim and you will see that individual's brain graph. All anim behaviors are 'bottom-up' based on that. So it's pretty cool when you observe creatures navigating to food and water, it's completely emergent." ("Braitenberg" refers to the simple artificial creatures imagined by the late cyberneticist Valentino Braitenberg, as described in his book, Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology.)
The animatroids also have metabolisms that process hydration and nutrients, and it's important that the ones you are caring for receive the right kind and in sufficient quantities.
If you want to understand how to play Vilmonic, you should become a member of the Discord channel and visit the pinned messages in the General channel for important hints. It was there that I learned the creature that infected me when I tried to befriend it was a zombiton and that it had been a mistake to get near it. From the Discord post:
Step one: stop attacking them! "Attacking [zombs] could set off their swarming instinct." – Vilmonicryptographia
From the Vilmonidex: "Unless you enjoy the chaos of a zomb infestation, or if you are trying to balance a zomb-carnivorous-animatroid ecosystem, don't ever attack the zombitons."
After that, I stayed clear of the nasty zombitons and was able to tend to my crops and critters without being hassled.
I've barely scratched the surface of Vilmonic. There's so much more to do! (Read this Rock Paper Shotgun article about the community of Vilmonic researchers who are cracking the animatroids' genetic code.)
For a free taste of Vilmonic, try the browser-based version on Itch.io, called Vilmonic-Lite.