We blogging goblins in the game review department, we’re sometimes guilty of cherry-picking the games we write about. We tend to pick the games we, ourselves, are really good at, and also enjoy. That’s how we look so cool.
Today, I will break that mold and confess there’s one game I just don’t get, at all. Plague, Inc. is a game that already had a cult following years ago, when it started out on Apple iOS and was later ported to Android. Then COVID-19 hit (and the Fire Nation attacked…) and it’s since exploded in popularity.
I downloaded it for Android a few months back, intending to review it during the lockdown months in the US. That didn’t happen, because I found the game more challenging than I’d anticipated. I’ve been picking at it in the background all this time, and have not yet won a single round! Clearly I’m doing something wrong. I can’t pass the tutorial, I can’t make any walkthrough I can find work, I’ve watched YouTube videos, I shelled out for the extra features and enhancements. Nothing works! It’s like the game has it in for me personally. I watch other people play it and win, I follow the exact same steps, and the game just thumbs its nose at me and does something different from the scenario I just saw somebody else play.
Perhaps I’m developing mental blocks because I can’t believe the hype around this thing. For a game that is allegedly so realistic that the Centers for Disease Control actually brought in the game designer to consult, I’m flabbergasted at how unrealistic it is.
Plague Inc. Is Not Realistic Because…
 – Evolution does not work this way.
When you evolve your virus in Plague, Inc., every unit of that virus changes at once, even if it’s spread around hundreds of thousands of individual people. In actual genetic mutations, one individual develops the mutation and then spreads it only to their offspring, if it’s successful.
When one fish evolves legs and flops onto the shore, fish all over the world do not spontaneously sprout legs and follow the charge. This is exactly the kind of reasoning anti-science conspirators use when they ask zingers like “If man evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys?” It’s actually not a good way to teach a natural subject at all, the way the game is hyped in the academic field, no less.
I get it. The game would be slower if you had to follow real-life evolutionary mechanics. That still doesn’t make rank-and-file instant mutation make sense.
 – The world doesn’t work this way either.
In the game, the entire human race inevitably bands together to stop your plague at all costs. And I do mean all costs, up to shutting down ports, halting all activities to focus on quarantine and a cure, and declaring international cooperation. The map in Plague, Inc. is a united utopia where China, the US, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Hong Kong all link arms to work side by side cooperatively. No wars, not even diplomatic fumbles. As soon as a cure ships, a jolly plane flies from country to country wiping out your disease without so much as getting a passport stamped at customs.
That’s nice. Could you bring back Woodstock and John Lennon while you’re at it?
We see right now from COVID-19, no such thing is happening. In fact, we currently have one country claiming to have a vaccine and the rest of us being suspicious about the claim. Come to that, we can’t get everybody to wear a mask for a few weeks. Far from dropping everything to focus on the cure, we can’t even let football go. We’ve had eight months to plan how we’re going to continue school; time’s up with no plan, we’re just marching back into classrooms now like so many lambs.
Get a load of this: We’ve had concurrent studies in CBD (cannabis extract, the non-psychoactive part) as a COVID-19 treatment, spanning Israel, Canada, and the US, including a simple mouthwash that has been shown to inhibit infection in the first place. Imagine, if we got our act together, ending the pandemic could be as simple as mailing everybody a little bottle to gargle. Oops, wait, we broke the mail too.
God forbid there was an actual intelligence masterminding COVID-19 as a bioweapon. It could have pulled the kill switch on us ten times by now. If you’re going to play a game on a world map layout, even Risk is more realistic.
 – The difficulty is stupid.
Like I say, I can’t win this game no matter what I do. In some games, I start a new game, get up to five, count them, FIVE infected people and they start working on a cure already! This is on easy granny difficulty.
Look, nobody cures anything with just five symptom-free patients. There’s actually a thing called the human virome, a host of asymptomatic viruses which infect all of us all the time. There are even some viruses we don’t treat because they might have a positive effect. Viruses are even considered essential to life:
> “If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a half, and then we’d all die – that’s the bottom line. All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things.” – Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Now with all those supposedly benign viruses running around, if one of them turns rogue, we’re all screwed. We’re even discovering new viruses by the day. But we can’t just eradicate them all and be done with it, because it turns out they serve essential functions.
Beyond that, there’s the game mechanics. I realize the irony of going on about how this isn’t a realistic simulation when the game play involves popping bubbles over the map to collect DNA points or delay a cure. But it does drag the game close to clicker / idle territory. You have to pause it while you go research country stats or consult your evolution board, lest you miss bubbles on the map. It’s just one more annoyance that I think could have been designed differently.
But the final insult has to be the requirement of 100% total annihilation being the only win condition. You don’t get points for “close enough.” I’ve wiped out 98% of humanity countless times, but oh well I still lose. If one primitive tribesman hermit at the South Pole survives, it’s like you did nothing at all. Loosening things up to at least give you a score would be a nice compromise.
Plague, Inc. : Unshakable Following
A few months, back, the developers announced that this game was actually being banned in China! I would attempt to investigate why, but I know the answer isn’t going to be satisfying already.
To their credit, NDemic Creations, makers of Plague, Inc., have pledged a cool quarter million from profits of the game to help search for a real-life cure for COVID-19. So I’m sure they’re doing something positive. In fact, the game’s creators mention that they see a surge in interest in the game whenever there’s an outbreak, such as ebola and swine flu in the past, and donate to cure research efforts in each case.
There’s also signs that NDemic itself has gotten cold feet about its popularity. Back in January, despite current claims of educational value, NDemic was begging people not to take the game as a scientific model for pandemic spread.
Clearly, I wouldn’t be pouring my frustrations with the game out here if I didn’t care about it. I see how popular Plague, Inc. is and I want to like it that much too. Or else find out what version everybody else is playing, because it seems to be vastly different from mine. Certainly, any game which inspires playthroughs from a disembodied animated head straight out of a Black Mirror episode must be doing something right.
Come to that, the game, the pandemic, and everything else lately feels like a whole season of Black Mirror. Did that show just curse this timeline or what?
But you know, some people just aren’t cut out for some games. We blogging gamers, we don’t own that fact that often. Perhaps it’s best to accept that cult followings, by definition, have a niche that us green-nosed newbs can never catch up to!