As the world grapples with the enduring impact of climate change, indie creators are finding ways to use games as a form of interactive education.
Nature isn’t exactly new territory for games. From the loathsome lusus naturae of behemoth horror series to the sprawling cosmopolis of complex management simulators, video games often feature wrenched contortions of the natural world as core tenets in environmental design. In some cases this is largely innocuous and more a product of pure creativity than a riposte against real-world issues.
But more recently, smaller creators have been designing worlds as mirrors to our own. Their purpose is to reflect injustice and encourage change as we seek to undo the damage done by the contemporary climate crisis. This could mean anything from a game exploring the oceans made in concert with the BBC, to an interactive look at the importance of bees.
One such case originated in 2016 after developers at E-Line Media were approached by the BBC to commence work on Beyond Blue. Kevin Jorge, senior producer for games and interactive at BBC Studios, explains that Never Alone — a game centered on native Alaskans — had brought the studio to their attention. “We realized their goal of developing games that are a force for good and help[ing] players understand the world aligned with our principles and we began chatting,” Jorge explains. At the time, Blue Planet II, a BBC documentary series on the wonders of marine life, was still in development and served as the basis for many conversations to come.
What struck the BBC about Never Alone were its “Cultural Insights,” which appear as short, unlockable documentary videos centered on thoughts from members of the real-life Alaska Native community. In the words of Michael Angst, E-Line Media co-founder and CEO, contributors spend these vignettes “discussing the cultural background behind creative decisions and providing an opportunity for players to get to know the perspective of the elders, storytellers, and artists that helped create the game.”
On top of this, the BBC’s Blue Planet II was a huge hit that helped bring important conversations to a larger audience. “Everyone is becoming more conscious of the world around us, so it would be great to provide our content and expertise to game developers who are interested in bringing these stories to life in new and exciting ways,” Jorge tells me.
He explains that BBC Earth alone creates over 60 hours of natural history content a year, with their continued and constant aim being “to raise big issues and provoke discussions about our planet.” Angst shares these sentiments, explaining why it’s important to make games that are innately tied to reality and contemporary issues. “We believe the real world is as mysterious, complex, and beautiful as the most richly imagined worlds of fantasy and science fiction,” he says.
Games set in the ocean are a testament to this, and, as Angst notes, certain indie experiences like Abzû and Subnautica have already proven “how engaging the setting of an underwater world can be.” In his eyes, the structure of Beyond Blue is close to the serene Abzû. “We really wanted to balance the goal of progressing through a narrative with an invitation to relax into the environments and explore,” he explains.
As a result, the team at E-Line Media has taken pains to depict a waterscape and soundscape that prioritize the beauty and mystery of the ocean. Depictions like Blue Planet and Beyond Blue show people the ethereal majesty of the underwater world, and also emphasize just how ephemeral this magical world is. One could certainly design an experience centered on darkness and dead zones as a fear-instilling deterrent. But Beyond Blue is more acquainted with optimism, hope, passion, and appreciation.
”We thought it would be interesting to set the game in the near future, not so much to project [it], but to invite players to be part of imagining what our ocean’s future might realistically be,” Angst tells me. He explains that the scientists who consulted on the project helped to imagine a future that we can aspire to, while simultaneously depicting the harsh realities our ocean is experiencing as a result of the contemporary climate crisis. “The impacts resulting from a warming ocean, the flow of waste / plastic, and growing noise pollution have reached a crisis level in some regions,” he adds. “The threat of population collapse in species, especially large, social animals like whales and dolphins, is always looming.”
Here’s how Angst describes the world and premise of Beyond Blue:
When our game begins, some areas of the ocean are under significant pressure and disruption, while others are showing revitalization following increased global action to mitigate human impact. The world in our fiction is one more attuned to the tie between the health of the ocean and the health of our planet and a growing sense of awe and wonder of the ocean has led to an enthusiasm for exploration of this largely uncharted world, the hope of discovery of new life forms here on earth, and the promise of potential insights into medicine, human health, and well-being.
This cohesive experience is altogether designed to engage players, to challenge them to consider the significance of scientists in a rapidly changing, globally connected world, question what underlies the human drive to explore and discover, and find hope and feel agency amidst a natural environment under real pressure.
Angst remarks that Sylvia Earle, one of the scientific advisors on the project, once said, “there’s a lot of water we now know elsewhere in the solar system and elsewhere in space, but to have a liquid ocean with frozen polar areas — it’s taken four and a half billion years to shape the world in a way that is favorable to humankind. It’s taken us about four and a half decades to significantly unravel those systems.”
Naturally, E-Line Media also partnered with a variety of other academics to ensure their depiction was accurate and respectful. David Gruber is a marine biologist and ocean explorer. Gruber has been a biologist for the state of Florida, an underwater tour guide at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a professional divemaster, and a test pilot for new underwater devices. Clearly, Gruber loves the marine world, but what drew him to its equivalent within game spaces? “I recognize the power and allure of gaming,” he explains. “I am also a very visual and tactile learner. I feel gaming is a creative vehicle to bring across all the fun aspects of being an ocean scientist.”
Gruber first met the team at Beyond Blue in 2016, right near its initial conception. “Along with Dr. Mandy Joye, we would have monthly discussions framed around different aspects of ocean related stuff,” he tells me. “We covered both the science and the social aspects of exploration and science. We even got into how to prepare for a ten-hour dive in a submarine with no bathroom.” Some specific elements Gruber consulted on for Beyond Blue include fluorescent sharks, whale communication, bioluminescence and biofluorescence, underwater robotics, and liquid breathing.
Gruber’s passion and expertise had a direct influence on the game’s systems. “Our near future world is one where technology has enabled ocean explorers and researchers to more intimately explore the ocean at depths currently difficult to reach,” Angst tells me. “Our scientists in the game are powered with less-invasive sensing and sampling equipment that can feed data to machine learning models and simulations developed by scientists around the world working on diverse questions. Our lead character (Mirai) utilizes an advanced diving suit that can help her bring human dexterity and intuition to complement the power of the technology and enable players to explore with a human lens.” The idea is to educate players on how to interact with the ocean in a way that enriches it, as opposed to continuing to destroy it and the countless organic lifeforms to which it is home.
Education goes further in this case, too. Like in Never Alone, players will have access to unlockable “Ocean Insight” videos that feature commentary from the researchers consulting on the game, as well as never-before-seen footage from the Blue Planet II production.
Although Beyond Blue is a carefully considered force in the contemporary climate crisis, environmental destruction isn’t solely confined to the ocean. Javier Ramello, co-founder, CEO, and programmer at Herobeat Studios, tells me of how Endling, a game initially designed as a side project to work on in his free time, evolved into a radical critique of habitat destruction.
Endling was originally a point-and-click game, and was closer to a fox simulator than anything else. But when Herobeat started to actually pitch Endling, the game received a remarkably strong reception, despite only having a small amount of concept art at the time. After getting accepted by GameBCN, quitting their jobs, and receiving an Epic MegaGrant, Herobeat was eventually noticed by its current publisher, HandyGames, with Endling consistently becoming a more scathing and essential critique all the while.
“Foxes are animals with incredible capacities for adaptation and survival and are masters in stealth and cunning,” Ramello tells me. Although foxes are common in contemporary wildlife, Endling imagines a different future. “This fox is the last [fox], thus emphasizing the concept that human beings have reached the zenith of destroying ecosystems.”
In Endling, you control the mother fox, but you are not alone. Your cubs are also a significant part of the game. “You need to protect them and guide them, but cubs will evolve, grow, and learn much like a party member of an RPG,” Ramello explains. “Our intention is to strengthen the bond the player will forge with the protagonist and her offspring. What better way to do it than witness the birth of the puppies, see them grow up, and develop unique skills and personalities?”
Ramello says that the team at Herobeat wanted to explore the idea of video games as more than mere entertainment products; an “awareness tool,” as he describes it. “We aimed to reach both young people who do not consume traditional media and a more mature population concerned about the current environmental crisis and social impact issues,” Ramello explains. “From the beginning we knew that we wanted to sensitize players by representing a dystopian universe close to the world we are living in, where we could express our concerns about many different topics. What better way to explore it than through the eyes of an innocent animal?”
Each scenario in Endling addresses a major issue in the modern world, including problems that arise from “intensive livestock, pollution of the seas and rivers, the accumulation of electronic waste, overpopulation, [and] climate change.”
At the same time, its depiction and critique, although scathing and necessary, are carefully considered. “Endling is a very emotional game, and for the sake of immersion we will avoid making the eco-conscious statement too obvious,” Ramello tells me. “The mother fox’s only motivation is making sure her litter survives. She can’t read nor understand humans, so there won’t be voice over or texts talking about how fucked Endling’s world is. Our goal is to present this landscape in a way that reflects how we think the Earth can end up being in the near future if we don’t act now, and Endling’s players will [draw] their own conclusions.”
It doesn’t shy away from what is at the heart of its story, though. Endling raises awareness by balancing an emotional experience with the harshness and violence that are inherent to life. It is a tale of an innocent animal’s perseverance in the wake of a dystopian disaster wrought from human greed.
And, as with all stories, especially lasting ones, form is important. In Ramello’s eyes, Endling earns its pathos at least partially due to the interactive affordances held uniquely by video games. “[This] interaction is a much more powerful medium to empathize with the situation we present,” he explains. “A life and death situation where the mother fox is defenseless in a dangerous world: a selfish society is destroying the environment, food is in short supply, humans are desperate and dangerous, your cubs depend on you and your only tool for survival is animal instinct.”
This is, unfortunately, reality. According to a 2018 report from the World Wildlife Fund, populations of vertebrates have declined by an average of 60 percent since 1970. “It is a problem that cannot be ignored, since the result of the decisions we make today will mark the future,” Ramello says, before explaining that Herobeat’s ultimate goal is to “make players feel more responsible for our actions.” In his eyes, developers of entertainment products released digitally on a global scale are presented with a unique opportunity to educate and influence younger generations.
This feeds into other games, too. For example, the recently released Temtem, which has drawn a range of comparisons to behemoth franchises such as Pokémon and Persona, has been received favorably on a global scale. It hit over 30,000 peak concurrent players the first week it launched on Steam. Its colorful palate and warm humor make it a game that is accessible to people of all ages, which, by extension, increases its potential reach and subsequent influence.
Narrative designer Victor Ojuel tells me that the world of Temtem is sort of pre-climate change — at least man-made climate change. “The societies of the Airborne Archipelago are a kinder, more social version of our world,” he explains. “Because they have emerged in relatively small landmasses, they are very aware of how limited their resources are, so they have more conservationist traditions.”
According to Ojuel, this influences the game world’s emphasis on coexistence and eco-friendliness. However, the world of Temtem is simultaneously on the verge of becoming radically smaller. The recent invention of technology such as airships, which facilitate readily available travel between detached islands, and TemCards, which are Temtem’s equivalent of pokéballs, make Archipelagian society more universal and easily traversable. As a result, the Airborne Archipelago is a world on the eve of globalization, which nefarious forces such as Clan Belsoto — the game’s antagonistic party — seek to exploit, on one occasion even instigating a devastating natural disaster by scientifically rekindling an ancient and sacred volcano.
There are also forces in Temtem more resemblant of contemporary ripostes against environmental issues. One such example is the FreeTem! organization, which Ojuel describes as “another reflex of new tensions within Archipelagian societies; a new movement, clearly an heir to their long conservationist traditions, but also boldly challenging something as deeply ingrained in Archipelagian culture as temtem taming.” Like the problems we face with conservation, domestication, and animal care, this movement is a sort of reinvigoration of values that have been held for a long time, but haven’t been challenged in almost as long. “You could say man-made climate change hasn’t happened yet, but the first signs of change are already there,” Ojuel says.
Other indie games are more focused on the directly contemporary, eschewing speculative thought for what we face in the current moment. Lukasz Rosinski, founder of Bee Simulator studio Varsav, explains that although games are obviously designed as entertainment products, they have the potential to give us so much more. “In our opinion, they are a medium that could be the best link between generations, and the best way to educate players in the most modern and effective way: via entertainment.”
This idea was at the core of Varsav’s first game right from the get-go. It all started when he was reading a book about bees to his young daughter, which made him realize the potential of stories told from unique perspectives. “During development we focused on raising awareness of bees with our players, educating players on how major a role bees play in our environment and about how important they are for us as pollinators, and highlighting the major troubles they’re facing right now,” Rosinski explains.
The knock-on effects of potential bee extinction have been widely discussed, but few creative experiences have sought to make the phenomenon tangible. “We wanted to show a completely different perspective for this small insect using realistic models, graphics and gameplay mechanics inspired by real bees’ tasks, not cartoonish ones with an infantile story and mechanics,” Rosinski tells me. “We wanted Bee Simulator’s players to be much more aware of this micro world and its challenges after finishing the game. For example, implementing a huge glossary that’s full of information regarding different species of bees and all the flowers and animals encountered during the game. We also planned for Bee Simulator to be a link between generations.”
Rosinski firmly believes other creators should follow suit and focus on weaving inspired and important experiences that seek to educate and motivate. “All initiatives that could slow down the soaring consumerism and, in consequence, the amount of garbage that we produce globally are very welcome,” he explains. “We may show the beauty of our environment and warn of the dark future that awaits us, and we may show animals that were fascinating, but became extinct through human activities. Such small things may be worth doing, but in my opinion this may only influence game players, not necessarily the politicians who are the final decision makers in global nature conservation initiatives.” Clearly, the phenomenon that has spread among indie games is a step in the right direction, but change, resolution, and redemption demand more. Our climate and planet demand more.
This small movement is inspiring, though, and indicative of our capacity for change. Angst definitely thinks so. “We believe that well-crafted games have the power to speak to the human condition,” he tells me. “[To] bring new and diverse voices to the medium, and celebrate the complexity and beauty of our planet, helping us to understand and shape our world.”
If this contemporary trend in games continues to gain momentum, we could, potentially, learn to do exactly that, preserving the wondrous natural phenomena of our world and ensuring Earth’s successful retention of its status as a safe and sublime home for posterity. Not just for humans, but for animals, environments, and the wonderfully weird mysteries we have yet to unravel.