I love all the ideas posted here about big-picture permaculture systems, and trying to encompass that complexity into a game.
Personally, I'd love to play a 'Soil Building' game where you play as 1 kind of organism, then once you complete that one's life cycle with educational tidbits along the way, you go to the next organism, and work your way up the food chain until you're a bug or a plant. Just a 2-D cross-section of dirt, like watching an ant farm but its at a microscopic level.
Maybe the player gets to choose forks in the path, to choose which organism they want to learn about.
As you progress through the game, there are events on the surface like leaf fall, rainfall, drought, or someone tilling to show you how different things interact with the soil.
Each playthrough should be brief and simple to understand & play. Maybe 5-10 minutes to complete each stage.
1 - Fungi
You are a spore that landed on the surface of the ground. You have sprouted. The sun can kill you! You want to get underground
. (Familiarize them with the controls)
Now that you're underground, you need food. As a fungi, you can create hyphae to seek out food. Choose a direction to send some threads. It costs a little energy to send out threads.
As a fungi, you can only see 'yourself' and 'food', with a tiny area lit up if your hyphae take damage from a passing fungi-eater. (Though the game should prevent the player from being eaten right away)
Connect to a food source. Once you connect to the food, you get information about what kind of food fungi feed on, and how they break down organic matter.
Now you have food, which = energy to build more threads to find more food.
will have a small cloud of 'food' around them, so the fungus is encouraged to grow around roots.
As the fungi is eating stuff, it is giving off small particles of 'phosphate' and 'minerals'
You have a 'maturity' meter which fills up as you create more threads.
While you're playing, you see other organisms pass by you.
Once you're fully mature, you can choose to keep playing as a fungi and encounter things like a patch of dry soil it cant move through, or they can 'fruit' and send up your spores - successfully creating the next generation. Once you're mature, things can start feeding on the fungi, like bacteria, bug larvae, etc. However it's always very fast & easy to get more food & grow more mycelium. As a fungi, you can spread across shapes that are called 'wood
' and break it into smaller chunks.
You can choose between Nitrifying bacteria, which can travel freely through the soil, Actinomycetes, which grow similarly to fungi (spreading hyphae), but break down cellulose and chitin.
A. For the Actinomycetes
, you have to 'eat' 3 leaves and 2 dead bugs before you can go to the next life form.
B. For Nitrifying bacteria
, you can move freely through the soil to seek out ammonium and eat it, Once you eat enough (very low bar), you can replicate. The replicating bacteria acts as a 'swarm' to break down detrius faster than a single bacteria can. Once you reach a big enough swarm, you can choose to move to the next organism.
Larger swarms with more 'eating' activity will attract Protazoa/Hunting nematodes.
If you can't find enough food, bacteria in your swarm will start to die off - when you die, their bodies burst and release all the extra nitrogen compounds stored in them.
As a bacteria, your view of what is around you is larger than fungi, but only Actinomycetes can build a 'wide view' via the hyphae like fungi can.
So, bacteria can eat up nearby nitrogen to get the strength to break through carbon-heavy organic matter (like wood). When wood breaks down, it's turned into Carbon, which fades into the 'dirt' background, and extra nitrogen, which the bacteria may eat up to continue breaking down the wood.
A good example of mulch
tie-up might be an exploding population of bacteria eating the nearby nitrogen particles just long enough to eat through a whole woodchip that's buried in the soil.... and then since they already ate all the nearby nitrogen, they die off, releasing that nitrogen back into the soil nearby.
3. Soil Protozoa (Amoeba) / Nematodes
Choose whether you're a root
feeder, a fungi-and-bacteria eater, or a predator.
Predator nematodes for bacteria & eats them. Can also eat fungus. Same rules as free-moving bacteria. As they eat, they emit nitrogen compound and mineralized 'particles' -
Protazoa & Nematodes can also eat each other if you find one that's smaller than you.
The viewing area is again larger than bacteria.
Predatory nematodes can eat arthropod larvae.
As a single-celled creature, you may have seen worm tunnels in passing, with a lot of nutrients lining them. As a worm, you create those tunnels.
As a worm, you can move much faster, munching on the organic matter that bacteria/fungi had been nibbling away at - and you can break apart much bigger pieces.
You leave behind nitrogen compound particles in your tunnels, and can eat dead bugs if you find them.
As a worm, you can now see living insects in the soil.
A burrowing insect or vole may cause 'vibration' pings from that direction, which you can flee to survive.
This is where 'rainfall' comes in. During heavy rain, the water starts to saturate the soil in a downward flow, and you're prompted to burrow upward through it to breathe - this would be the first time 'oxygen' is a requirement.
Maybe in worm-view, you can tunnel up to the surface, then dig deeper and the oxygen will be present in your tunnel, and all connecting tunnels until rain fills them in.
Normally a worm can't dig too deep down, but if you connect the surface directly, you can dig much further down than you otherwise could - though most of the food would be up near the soil.
If you wander into an ant's nest, they'll bite you. It might make the screen wiggle and turn red unpleasantly to get the player to leave the ants
Choose your character: Predatory Soldier Beetle, Ant (aphid-farming), or Slug.
Gotta go through the life-cycle of the insect you choose. Now you have to eat AND drink water.
Arthropods no longer see the smaller nutrient particles - they only see larger chunks of organic matter that they can eat, whatever that species can eat, and their own excrement. Anything smaller just renders as part of the dirt.
You start as an egg that just hatched into a larvae.
Gotta munch your way around the food nearby. Beetle larvae have to work for it.
Larvae Soldier Beetles live in the leaflitter, come out to eat any insect it can catch, like aphids and ants, and insect eggs. This is the first time you can emerge fully from the soil and crawl up plant stems. Once it's an adult, it can hunt bugs, or drink flower nectar.
Slugs are very slow, but can eat pretty much anything it comes into contact with, including other invertebrates and animal waste. Only ants in a swarm could bother it.
Ant larvae get handed food by caretakers until it pupates, and then the player is shown how to herd aphids and defend against bugs who want to eat the aphids. (Finally, an attack function! Bite! Swarm!) - for the purpose of completing the life cycle, maybe your ant can't die. You get to choose what plant to herd your aphids onto - some plants will attract aphids, while others will kill your flock =(
If an aphid tries wandering off, you just run over and touch it, and it'll obediently follow you again- so you have to be kinda running across the aphids to keep them together, between defending them. (Ants have chemicals on their feet which tranquilize and subdue aphids.)
Once you collect dew from the aphid and returns the flock to the underground nest, you can move on.
The 'Megafauna' of the soil micro-world.
Play as a shrew hunting soiltop insects like slugs, beetles, and ants, who has to eventually dig a burrow and have young
Or a mole who burrows through the ground to eat - slurping up worms and grubs.
Or as a vole, who eats plant roots and fallen leaves.
Your excrement becomes some of the 'organic material' that other organisms are eating.
As a Vertebrate, you can see that your poo is becoming the 'organic material' that other smaller organisms are eating, along with whatever bits of bug you leave behind after a meal, or if you nibble enough of the roots off a plant, it falls over and becomes accessible organic material as well.
Is searching for food and running from predation too stressful? Be a plant!
In plant mode, you don't have to move. As other organisms leave plant-available nutrients nearby, your roots will automatically reach toward them. You can watch what's happening below the surface and hover over active organisms to get a close-up look of what they're capable of without directing the action.
You can see the rain fall, and watch all the worms/moles head up to the surface to breathe. Watch it soak through the soil, often following worm and mole burrows.
See plants near you get eaten by aphids or beetle larvae and die, and see how their roots decomposing also leaves little gaps in the soil for air and water to flow through.
See how other plants lose their leaves, which become a target for food, and how the nutrients are dispersed through the soil by moving worms, bugs, and bacteria.
Maybe in plant mode, you can 'terraform' - or show what happens when you do various techniques in the garden.
Introduce extra rainfall, or stop rainfall from happening.
Remove all the nearby plants (aside from yourself) - see how all the plant-eating guys now target you like a magnet.
Mulch over the nearby plants with woodchips alone.
Spread some finished compost
Drop a peach onto the soil.
Till the soil (goodbye, mycellium threads. ;A;) - till it over and over again.
Mulch, then till.
Mulch, then till, then mulch again.
Or just till, plant, remove plant, till again, plant, etc.
Hopefully the game would prompt you to try different actions, in different combinations to see how they fit together.
At any point, you can sit back and hit 'Fast-forward' to see all the little organisms interact and fulfill their programmed AI.
Different things will create different amounts of nutrients for the plants, and different dangers for the plants from predators.
From plant mode, you can jump into any stage that you've already completed, at any point in their life cycle. Want to replay as a beetle over and over? Go for it, once you've 'unlocked' beetles.
It'd be up to the designer to set each organism's feeding & breeding & movement/spreading rate so that it can kinda... do its own thing, rather than be micromanaged.
While the main bulk of the game would just be 'Complete the life cycle of 1 organism / learn about soil food web' - I'm sure if it got through development and folks had time to bulk it out, you could add stuff like breaking down what 'particles' the bacteria/fungi/nematodes are creating into NPK and other nutrients like calcium & magnesium.
Maybe have a couple different premade biomes to live through, with different food levels & rainfall & disturbance patterns.
A home garden with different areas - A clay-lined pond
, a mulched garden bed
, regular lawn
, and a lovely moist compost
An arid desert/scrubland (seasonal monsoons that flood away the leaves and small plants at the surface, and makes the surface dry out really fast without protection)
A 4-season garden, where temperature comes into play. Movement/energy gain changes depending on temps.
A cornfield whose farmer regularly tills, shredding the hyphae of fungai and animal/bug burrows.
A natural grave of some sort of animal - I definitely wouldn't want graphic decay, since I hope this would be like... middle/high-school-level - but blood and bone meal are a common part of organic gardening, and decaying bodies are a concentrated source of nutrients. Maybe a mole/shrew/vole, since you play as one later? To the micro-organisms, it's this colossal feast and you only can tell what it really is when you're something larger like a beetle or ant.
It's... education about the micro-level. A focus on "Feed the soil, and the soil will feed the plants", with some interactive 'I'm a worm, lets eat some decaying plants yum yum' and 'oh no! run away from the mole before you get eaten!' to make it entertaining.
The permaculture techniques about like, building swales and planting understory and vining stuff, or hugelkulture, rotational grazing.... those are all methods to feed the soil long-term and get it to feed itself.
Once someone learns 'There's all these critters in the dirt that feed my plants, I have to feed & water & shelter
the critters, and they'll feed the plants for me.' then collecting rainwater and composting kitchen scraps and mulching are a pretty straightforward conclusion.
Even as a 2-D cross-section of this underground habitat, it would probably take one heck of a physics engine, tho.
Especially with 'Nearly all larger objects can be broken down/destroyed into smaller objects' being a core part. Lots to keep track of.
Plus the 'burrowing' and airflow, waterflow, individual chunks of plants/frass/bodies, and all the little bacteria/nematodes/fungi that you're not in control of - they've all got their own mini-AI.
Each map size would have to be really limited so normal laptops could render it.
Ahhhh.... I'd love to play this game.