In games, the environmental crisis is just another bedtime story
Recently, storytellers have started to reckon with the Anthropocene, our current geological age in which human activity has exerted a dominant influence on the climate.
Some, like author Richard Powers, have found hope in the challenge; his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The story, tells the uplifting story of five trees and how they shape a set of characters’ lives. Others, meanwhile, were shocked and impressed, perhaps to galvanize the action; writer David Wallace-Wells gives a flawless account of the worst possible scenarios in The uninhabitable Earth. Children’s books and literature, drawing on fundamental environmental stories such as Dr. Seuss The Lorax, also have started to struggle with more seriously the determining question of the future of their young readers. What else to do if not prepare them?
We now have a bunch of eco-friendly video games that have the tone and feel of bedtime stories, but can only be experienced with a controller in hand. Biomutant asks players to take on the role of a kung fu creature in the post-apocalypse of Earth; Island Minute focuses on a young girl who must save her house from deadly fungal spores; and The Eternal Cylinder, arguably the strangest of the bunch, presents players as a tiny invented creature called Trebhum in a world threatened by a gigantic cylinder the size of a volcano. The events of each of these games are relayed using the book’s oldest storytelling trick – the Omniscient Narrator, who becomes an eerily heartwarming guide in their tales of environmental collapse. Of course, these eco-stories aren’t exactly new to video games – just watch Horizon Zero Dawn and Civilization IV: Gathering Storm for different big budget approaches – but they rarely felt so comfortable, if ‘part of life itself’.
To take Biomutant, a relative anomaly in the realm of open world adventure; intended for children rather than adults. It has the bright colors and cuddly protagonists of a Saturday morning cartoon and an vibe that oscillates between melancholy and uplifting, but its narrator, played by David Shaw Parker, guides the player through each beat of the story as s ‘he was turning the page in a vast, digitally rendered picture book. We never see the moment of environmental catastrophe that turned his world into an irradiated and mutated space, but we hear a lot about it via simple illustrated sequences. Toxanol, a name of mass subtlety befitting the wacky style of the game, was a company when humans were still around, and it has committed all manner of heinous environmental crimes, from irresponsible dumping of nuclear waste to offshore drilling. . These actions led to the so-called “great apocalypse”.
You never see the moment of the environment disaster who turned his world into a irradiated, transferred space out.
Still Biomutant pulls its blows when it comes to cataclysm. There is certainly a visible residue of this world-changing event – areas engulfed by green plumes of unbreathable air, gray landscapes stripped of their resources – but overall the game is, as written. Reid McCarter in a excellent try for Fleas, “a nice place to live.” The game’s “great apocalypse”, which probably must have been hell to live with, elsewhere gave the lush, vegetative world a toxic, saturated shimmer, almost as if it had drawn some more life out of it.
How, then, to reconcile the disaster with such idyllic scenes? Well, maybe taking care of young players is part of it. biomutants case, but the beautiful apocalypse is not unique to games designed for children. It’s everywhere, The last of us and Nier: Automata To Death stranding, each opposing the death of humanity to the life of nature, as if the latter made up for the former.
The approach reminds me of how critic and writer John Berger describes storytelling as a form of refuge. “If I think of someone telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together and around them a huge space – pretty scary,” he said. Recount her fellow writer Susan Sontag in 1983. “Maybe they’re huddled around a fire. And somewhere for me, in the very idea of the story, there is something to do with shelter. To some extent, every game that portrays the disaster as aesthetically appealing looks like this – a way of shielding yourself from the real terror of the disaster. Corn Biomutant looks at this sensitivity; its narrator announces the bad news of the earth with the warmth of a caring grandparent.
For Berger, the story in its most primal, perhaps even elementary, form is a safe place for spooky things to be explored, which is precisely how the heavily narrated story of the platform adventure game. Island Minute feels. To an even greater degree than Biomutant, it looks and sounds like a children’s book – but its dark and disturbing story is expressly aimed at adults, director Anjin Ahnut said on a Zoom call. Mo, the young protagonist who explores a craggy archipelago in her yellow jacket, looks like Greta Thunberg, and like this young climate activist, she carries the weight (and seemingly fate) of the world on her shoulders. The existential stakes arise from polluting fungal spores that wipe out wildlife and cause the human population, their neighbors and the community to leave before they also kill them.
His narrator break it bad news on earth with the heat attention Grand parent.
As Biomutant, the omniscient narrator in Island Minute, played by Megan Gay, is a remarkable presence, framing the story throughout. But over time, his tone becomes more and more slippery, shifting from that of a withered elder to something akin to a pragmatic therapist. Mo has to deal with his own blockages, and perhaps misplaced feelings of responsibility, in a world that is already on the slide.
Despite Island Minute ‘ clear backdrop of ecological collapse, rendered in an alluring hand-drawn style – psychedelic flora, fleshy decay, and eerie cosmic fog – Ahnut doesn’t consider the game to be simple environmental work. “Usually these are warning tales or hopeful tales of how to deal with the environmental impact and reverse it,” he says. “Our game is to accept that certain things exist, which is not really an environmental message.” Yet this may well be the form that these kinds of stories take more and more as various environmental crises escalate (which, it should be noted, already makes it seem like this is happening at an increasing rate. – Forest fires, flood, heat-related deaths have all arrived in recent weeks).
Yes Island Minute is often depressing – a study of Mo’s character that becomes as toxic as the landscape she loves – then to come The Eternal Cylinder is rooted in hope and an absolute refusal to succumb to an environment that wants to kill you. This alien land is special in its characteristics – creatures that resemble overturned mouths, trees in the shape of giant pine cones, a shimmering cosmic skyline – but its threat is decidedly allegorical. The titular cylinder, as wide as the horizon, rolls across the planet like a slow-motion tsunami crushing everything in its path. Director Carlos Bordeu says he is inspired by geometric shapes that populate the paintings of surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali. What, he thought, if these objects actually moved – what could it look and feel like? The result is both awe-inspiring, terrifying and quite hilarious, a metaphor that leaves a trail of smashed and crushed debris in its wake.
As little Trebhum you run, then you run again, slowly learning to adapt, evolve, and ultimately survive thanks, in large part, to the narrator who walks you through the game’s mechanics like David Attenborough hosting an alien documentary about nature. In fact, the original inspirations included the 1978 cartoon version from the classic novel by Richard Adams Ship down and the 1982 Jim Henson film The black crystal – as part of an attempt to give the impression of a ‘bedtime story’. Similar to the best children’s stories, there’s a sweet lesson in play, which emphasizes the diversity of tiny Trebhums – their ability to mutate and transform – in the face of the giant mechanical threat of the cylinder.
The two Island Minute and The Eternal Cylinder present environmental upheaval as a constant, roaring background noise, a threat that is inevitably in the present. Of course, this is precisely what many would describe our own ecological crises, but in those games, which Berger could describe as shelters, the narrator offers additional shelter – another narrative cocoon in which we can both consider the current history and the exterior. world.
If we dig deeper into these two games, they both relate, to some extent, to the generational legacy of crises. Mo is a young woman who may never have asked for the salvation work she thinks she needs to do, and in The Eternal Cylinder, a key part of the game is caring for the baby trebums born into its hostile world. Each one reminds me of other environmental fictions like that of Cormac McCarthy The road and Megan Hunter The end from which we start. In these flexible and poetic novels, the protagonist must take care of a child before, finally, handing over the mantle to him. that of Hideo Kojima Death stranding is about that too, at least in his relationship between grizzled delivery guy Sam Bridges and the baby tied to his chest
In a way, these video games and the works they interact with feel like they are digging into the same central question: what does it mean to deliver a world struck by disaster? In another, they are rooted in the here and now. Island Minute and The Eternal Cylinder are certainly not childish, but their narrators speak directly to the child within each of us – the burning desire for someone to help us understand this spooky world beyond our computer screen.