Many of our worlds have gotten smaller in 2020. Tiny spaces — a well-tended box garden, a stocked-up kitchen — have become more important and more satisfying. Orb Farm is an entire little world in a glass jar in your web browser, and it might be one of the most soothing things you try all day.
Orb Farm was inspired by Life in Jars?, a YouTube channel dedicated to self-sustaining jarred ecosystems. It’s a simple pixelated ecosphere that you fill with grass, fish, and water fleas, plus all of the bacteria and natural resources they need to live. The simulated days and nights pass as your little animals dart around stone formations and driftwood, snapping up algae and ricocheting between fronds of grass. They’ll live as long as you keep your oxygen levels balanced, hanging out in a spare browser tab.
One of Orb Farm’s best features is its deceptively simple art. Instead of precisely drawing grass or stone formations, you create clouds of pixels that sift to the bottom of the sphere. Sunlight filters in between algae spots and rocks. Fish bounce around continuously, while water fleas lie dormant much of the daytime and then zip around at night, leaving blue motion trails behind them. Its designer, Max Bittker, previously built the very chill terraforming game SandSpiel, and Orb Farm feels like a more explicitly structured iteration of it. (If you’re on Twitter, you may have also seen his New New York Times bot, which publishes words when they first appear in The New York Times.)
Technically, my aquarium isn’t a viable ecosphere yet — its oxygen starts runs low a few times an hour. But unlike a real jar full of fragile living organisms, Orb Farm doesn’t judge me. I just have to click over and draw more algae, hoping that elusive equilibrium is finally within reach.