Going Green: Video Games Grappling with the Health of Our Planet

By Mark Delaney,
How many times do you think you've saved the world in video games? Seriously, try to put a number on it. One hundred? Five hundred? Two thousand? It's perhaps the most overused premise in the history of video games, so much so that I felt annoyed enough to write about save-the-world fatigue a few years ago. We've saved the world from superintelligent aliens, rogue AI, encroaching zombies, warmongering militaries, and pretty much every other entity that could be presented as villainous.

Despite us retreading that ground so often, recently, a certain depiction of world-saving has introduced a new enemy threat: us. We've seen plenty of flawed humans as bad guys before, but only recently have the villains represented all of us at once in this way. There's no evil mastermind, no final boss. It's just us, our fossil fuels, our factory farming, and our refusal to give up short-term comforts for long-term benefits. A small collection of recent video games are ushering in an era of environmentally-conscious, animal-friendly themes in our games that we sadly haven't seen enough of yet, but as climate change is the threat that truly dwarves all others, I'm hopeful we'll see more games willing to remind us to save our own world for a change.

Gamescom 2017

"Tigertron is our way of fighting back." said James Mielke, creative director of the New York City studio. The activism-centered developer is preparing to make its debut with PS4 and PSVR's timed exclusive Jupiter & Mars. "[I]f our game world inspires a person to learn a little more about the things happening to our environment, then I feel our efforts have been worth it."

It's a difficult message to deliver because so many are opposed to hearing about what they're doing wrong. It comes off as preaching, and at a time when public discourse seems never to have been worse, it's much easier to double-down with those who confirm your biases and make you feel comfortable with rejecting new ideas.

In Jupiter & Mars, players take control of two dolphins years after humans have disappeared and the Earth slowly rebuilds without us, free of our influence. I asked Mielke about his thoughts on this theme of reclamation and to his credit, he didn't mince words. "It takes a proactive kind of denial to understand our role in all of this[...]It's not that humans are inherently evil, but we've become accustomed to a certain way of life, certain creature comforts, and it's hard for us to walk back from that[...]The planet, on the other hand, doesn't care about any of that."

While most games are about making players feel strong, if not invincible, these games depict humans as those who had the power to do great things but chose to do terrible things instead. Is that unfair? One look at the way we treat factory farmed animals should be enough material for a year of ceaseless nightmares, so instead we've made it illegal to film inside slaughterhouses and have largely ignored the concrete link between climate change and factory farming. By making it difficult to see and focus on these things, it's painfully easy to ignore them.

Gamescom 2017

Fe's story is told mostly on dry land, but taking place in a vibrant but endangered forest invaded by humanoid villains, parallels to Tigertron's debut are simple to draw. Andreas Beijer, the creative director behind Zoink! Games' Fe, had this to say about the allure and endearment of the forest, both in the game and in our world:
There is this feeling when going into an unknown forest that we tried to bring into Fe. At first it's a bit scary and dark. Pointy branches that poke you and roots that make you stumble. It doesn't feel very welcoming at all. However, after a while, you start to see small animal paths and clearings that almost form corridors and rooms between the trees and under the canopy. You start to be able to move around without getting poked and it starts to feel safe. It might sound a bit silly, but if you’re calm, observant and respectful it's like the forest lets you in. Welcomes you.
Fe shows players a group of antagonists, bipedal and thieving from the creatures and the forest, deliberately familiar, and begs you to show more respect than them. Taking back what was stolen from you is the central mechanic to Fe, and through literal harmonizing with other animals, players form a close bond with all walks of forest life. Like Jupiter & Mars, it asks us to consider our place in the world and think about how we may improve it — and never just for ourselves, but for all creatures.

ABZÛ has often been called "Journey underwater" and though that comparison is reasonably fair, it's much more spiritually linked to these other green games. ABZÛ, like Journey, never spells out much for players, but the themes are apparent by the end, when you're aiding in the deactivation of monolithic artificial devices harming the sea life. Much of the game is spent swimming alongside all kinds of creatures, the only objective being to feel as they do, see as they see, live in their world.

Like its genre-mates, ABZÛ is about evoking a feeling of closeness with the world around you, so you feel compelled to defend it, rescue it, reclaim it. They each do this in different ways. In Jupiter & Mars, humans are long gone and it's up to the dolphins to aid in the oceans' return to sustainability and habitability. In Fe, the human-like villains are lurking in the forest and must be challenged head-on. In ABZÛ, we never see other humans, but their automated processes destroying ecological systems are perhaps the most confrontational of all. It demands to be seen as the way we find a way to make something easy for ourselves, then shut off our empathy receptors when the same process is doing great harm to others.

Maybe we’ve seen few games like these because this problem is still relatively new for an industry such as gaming that has only begun to comment on real world issues like this within the past few years. The hope is these three games will inspire others to be made with similar themes, and more importantly, inspire players to act to improve the conditions in which we all must survive. Time will tell if they can be successful in this way, but when done well, compelling fiction can the most moving of all methods in delivering a crucial message.

If we can feel this closeness in these games, if we can harmonize with the deer, or race alongside the dolphins and whales and get swept up in those moments, surely we must be able to find the compassion — or if nothing else, the urgency — in improving the lives of all creatures. As best we can tell right now, this planet is the only one we have. Video games have elicited so many feelings from players over the years, and we've saved the world more times than we can count. Now it's time we feel for our own world. With any luck, games like Fe, ABZÛ, and Jupiter & Mars will help motivate more people to do what they can to save it.

To read my full, unabridged interview with Tigertron's James Mielke, click here.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.