Plague Inc: Evolved, the sequel to a mobile title by Ndemic Creations, is a plague simulator currently available on Steam Early Access. As a strategy game, it’s pretty straightforward. You choose a pathogen, add a few helpful modifications, infect patient zero, and then watch as the red dots that represent the spread of your disease slowly multiply across the map. You accrue DNA points as more people are infected, allowing you to purchase new traits to help the disease transmit between hosts, resist medicine, and kill the infected. It’s the ultimate God mode, in the Biblical sense of the term.
When I played through the game for the first time it was in pursuit of that familiar sense of God-like grandeur. But as Mr. Shoeshine, my first apocalyptic bacteria, darkened the world with pestilence and death, I instead become the willing agent of my own demise and I enjoyed every morbid moment of the process. Here’s my five-stage journey from deity to non-entity, a descent in which I erased myself and came face to face with the magnificent void.
Stage 1: Anxiety
The plague that will eradicate humanity will be symptomless at first. After repeatedly failing to get Mr. Shoeshine to catch, it became abundantly clear that the most efficient way to engineer a pathogenic apocalypse would be to ensure it remains hidden for as long as possible.
With that in mind, I kept from evolving as much as a cough while Mr. Shoeshine silently infected more people until the game informed me that there were no more healthy people on planet Earth. After that a few clicks in the evolution screen would decimate the population with organ failure and hemorrhagic shock before anyone realized they should be working on a cure.
Plague Inc. lures you in because it presents a problem to be solved, and the strategy is strangely comforting to me as a player. A severe microbe like Ebola stands no chance of human eradication based on this model (which the CDC has endorsed as incredibly realistic). But if extinction is riding a microbial Trojan horse, I almost certainly will have already contracted it by the time we discover the plague. I start to wonder about that cough (maybe it’s more than asthma?) and continue to watch the world die through my clicks.
Stage 2: Embracing Objectivity
Plague Inc: Evolved takes place above me and inside of me, but I have no name in it. On the world map I can see places I know. On the evolution screen I can see the physical structure of Mr. Shoeshine. But there is no human in-between. At most, humanity is an obstacle that needs to be avoided lest it become focused on a cure.
The closest a player gets to humanity is a news ticker that parodies culture in a snarky manner. Initially it rubbed me the wrong way, with subjects that felt unfunny and often in poor taste. But I eventually realized that nothing I do matters. Humans are silly, self-involved, and ignorant of a world that easily could (and soon will) exist without them.
To win at Plague Inc: Evolved is to embrace non-human objectivity, at which point the humour of the newsreel turns from cynical to absurd. Who cares about the goals North Korea might have with its missile research program? In a few minutes the Earth will be another wet rock floating in space.
Stage 3: Dissociation
Plague Inc: Evolved subverts the ego that typically goes into a game about world domination. To win the round, I am about to kill not only everyone I know and love, but also myself. That’s the way the system works. If .01 percent of humanity is still alive once Mr. Shoeshine culls its last red dot, that’s game over. My plague will be eradicated and humanity will have won (yay us!).
To play Plague Inc: Evolved with the intention of winning is to enter into a paradox. Am I willing to put a virtual version of myself through a terrible death? There’s a red dot that represents me. Would I rather it go first or last? Would I like to be responsible for the plague that kills us all? If no, then I can never win this game.
Stage 4: Vanity
The empathy I feel for my own red dot of Canadian infection is my biggest personal obstacle in any given round of play. I hate being sick in real life, so if I’m going to kill a virtual Peter Counter with Mr. Shoeshine (or any subsequent pathogens with cute names), there are certain symptoms I’d like to avoid.
I don’t want to vomit and shit myself to death, so I usually devolve the more evacuative symptoms immediately if they mutate on their own. The same goes for cysts, abscesses and skin lesions. I don’t like fevers, internal hemorrhaging sounds like a major pain, and dying of insanity leaves too much to my (it’s fair to say by now) highly sociopathic imagination.
The fantastical disease types you can play with, like zombie viruses or brain control worms, do allow you to leave a pretty corpse at first, but in the end I have to accept that there are a million ways to die of the plague and none of them are appealing. Mr. Shoeshine will leave a bloody, necrotic corpse in the chair where I’m sitting, and I’m going to have to accept that if I want to be victorious.
Stage 5: King Nothing
The “Inc” in Plague Inc: Evolved is misleading. Despite my tinkering, there is no corporation behind the disease. Upon finishing the game, a screen congratulates me on my victory with a high score and a replay of the winning playthrough.
But something’s missing and I think it’s me. I’m left staring at the void, paradoxically conscious of the fact that I participated in the destruction of all human thought, including my own. Plague Inc: Evolved is just a game (an excellent game), but it’s the only one I’ve played that actively presents me with the most difficult of all philosophical considerations: what is the world without us?
In video games, death and destruction are normally symbols of achievement earned through mastery on the journey from human to God. In Plague Inc: Evolved they are symbols of absolutely nothing and that is precisely what I have become. I devoured myself to satisfy my ego, a final act that shows how far I’m willing to go for my own amusement.