Games Are Reimagining Nature in the Age of Climate Catastrophe

Nine indie developers discuss how their games tackle capitalist and colonialist understandings of the natural world.

Even in Arcadia is one of the most faithful portrayals of nature you’ll find in video games precisely because it is so breathtakingly fake. In Phoebe Shalloway’s far-future satire of space capitalism, mega firms shop planets around like condos, converting them to landfill when they’re drained of life. You play a guest at the launch party for one such disposable world, wandering through air-conditioned chambers that recall the botanical gardens of Europe’s imperial heyday, where conquerors displayed the species they took from subjugated territories. It’s uncomfortably reminiscent of a video game press event. There’s even finger food, though it consists of supermarket fruit catalogues wrapped around static cubes.

Even in Arcadia is part of a spectrum of nature games, from Proteus to Subnautica, that navigate feelings of dread and anguish about life on a warming planet in the grip of a mass extinction crisis. In recent years, as milestone after milestone has fallen behind us, there has been a surge of virtual experiences that are more explicitly about ‘saving’ nature by acting out practices of de-industrialization and rewilding.

These projects risk falling into hypocrisy. Video games are, after all, products of the same economic systems and imperial legacies that are busily unravelling our biosphere. They also risk forgetting that ‘nature’ itself is broadly a fantasy – an ancient daydream about nonhuman life that has justified considerable cruelty. As Shalloway explains in a historical study that can be downloaded with Even in Arcadia, even well-intended representations of nature often portray nonhuman organisms and their haunts as remote and exotic, detached from the reality we live in and therefore, easier to invade, exploit, and commodify.

Even in Arcadia has the player attend a launch party for a disposable world, in which everything is breathtakingly fake.

But if nature games often regurgitate these damaging stereotypes, she argues, they can also be a way of “making strange our world” and encouraging us to dream anew. And while not every nature-saving game is as openly political as Even in Arcadia, all aim to cultivate a healthier idea of nature.

Industrial Roots

Management sims and builder games have an especially fraught relationship with nature, committing themselves to intricate, open-ended renditions of creatures and habitats only to task the player with converting everything into wealth and structures. 

Hence the buzz around Free Lives’ Terra Nil, an “anti-builder” born of the game jam theme “start from nothing,” which explicitly challenges the genre’s extractionist ethos. Here, you aim not to fill maps with buildings but to erase all traces of human activity, restoring wasted environments by placing automated machines such as irrigators or detoxifiers, then removing them all by airship once the work is done.

It’s an attractive premise, but in practice, it begs a few questions. Terra Nil isn’t really about saving nature but easing the pain of being witness to its destruction. Influenced by Studio Ghibli films – patron saint of environmental aesthetics in modern media – it leans on the pastoral cliché of the natural world as a haven from urban and industrialized society. 

“It’s not real nature in the sense that real nature has lions hunting down deer and tearing their guts apart,” says lead artist Jonathan Hau-Yoon. “Real nature is balanced but cruel. The representation we have is a lot more…sanitized isn’t the right word, but it is cuddly and cute and more about the reduction of anxiety, particularly climate-change-related anxiety.” 

This thinking extends from the game’s lush pixel art to its puzzles, which transform the complexities of ecology into cathartic and digestible relationships between props and tiles. The eco-saving gadgets at your disposal are acts of pure wish-fulfilment, conjuring forests from dust in seconds. “[In reality] we can’t make a building that just removes all the nuclear waste from an area,” says Hau-Yoon. “We need a toxin scrubber, just for the game mechanically — what should it look like? And we don’t know because it doesn’t exist, so we make it up.”

Terra Nil is a reverse builder in which you return a barren wasteland into an ecological utopia.

While its narrative suggests otherwise, Terra Nil interprets ‘the natural world’ according to the same logic as an empire-building game, presenting it as a passive, improvable space waiting to be ‘painted your color.’ Although largely a question of limited development resources, the absence of human figures from its maps evokes the colonialist underpinnings of modern-day conservationism, with local people sometimes evicted to make space for wildlife reservations. 

“I just think it’s a little bit more beautiful to have this world where we have all these devices and buildings to help restore the environment, and then there’s a slow introduction of different animals and things like that,” argues animator Marcelle Marais. “For me at least, I think there’s much more of a positive message in introducing animal life as opposed to spending time on little men running around to different buildings.”

If Terra Nil‘s idealization of the natural world deserves scrutiny, it’s easy to undervalue the goal of providing emotional relief. Anxiety about climate change is a subject of mounting clinical concern, especially in young people; the ​​Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report includes sections on the psychological impacts of living with ecological disaster. Falling back on the concept of nature as a refuge can be useful, providing it isn’t accepted at face value — and Terra Nil already has an active community of players who see its primary color vistas of natural rebirth as just the start of a conversation. 

“It clearly shows that there’s a need in our general consciousness to really start being environmentally driven,” says Marais. “There’s a huge community behind us, helping to steer the ship.” The game’s followers include hobbyist rewilders. Hau-Yoon (who came to the project partly as a way to manage his own fears about the changing climate) has incorporated some of their suggestions, including a tacit argument for “industrial scale” solutions to the climate crisis in the choice of architectural style. 

Noio’s laidback puzzler Cloud Gardens may initially appear to be even more of an escapist fantasy than Terra Nil, but in crucial respects, it’s closer to the ground. While also devoid of human figures, it insists on entwining nature with overtly human spaces – specifically, the neglected corners of cities, carved out of the concrete and presented as rotating dioramas that must be tended like bonsai trees.

For level designer Eli Cauley, “’nature’ and ‘the wilds’ are more culturally situated ideologies – or myths even – than they are fact.” Portraying nature as a binary alternative to the industrialized urban world, “existing wholly outside the realm of humans,” may be “naive at best, and potentially dangerous at worst,” he adds. It makes us less able to respond as climate conditions change and the boundaries between settled and ‘wild’ environments begin to crumble.

Puzzle game Cloud Gardens cleverly intertwines nature with the industrial.

“Should we consider the highly managed, closely monitored, and frequently tinkered-with ecosystem of Yellowstone Park to be any more ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ than the would-be ecosystems we’re likely to see develop in flooded or abandoned coastal cities around the world in the coming decades?” 

Cloud Gardens leans into this blurrier, diffused understanding of nature. Like Terra Nil, it embraces the cliché of the natural world as a therapeutic escape from urban and industrialized living. It too softens nonhuman organisms into puzzle pieces that offer catharsis and comfort. But it finds nature nearer at hand — in car parks, backyards, and rubbish dumps. The player’s job is to render each level green enough by dropping a plethora of road signs and junk that operate like magic compost, sending foliage shooting over metal and concrete. Rather than a high tech, top-down solution to environmental disaster, it encourages us to attend to what flourishes in our trash.

Water Workers

Neither Cloud Gardens nor Terra Nil grounds its ideas about nature in a specific place and culture. By contrast, eco-management game Among Ripples: Shallow Waters draws on the tradition of “Allemansrätten,” or “all people’s right”, a Swedish constitutional freedom that enshrines public access even to privately owned landscapes. 

“For me as a ruralite, nature means identity, balance and sustenance — the system that makes human life possible,” says creative director Martin Greip. Like Hau-Yoon, he takes a certain consolation in the idea of a sheer divide between urban existence and the natural world. “Cities are 95 percent human-made, everything is self-referential, although humanity has shaped the countryside there’s a sense of nature as anarchy, and humanity as order.” But he is conscious that this binary thinking has drawbacks — that “we have a tendency to paint nature in extremes.” In practice, nature entails “a complex web of relationships.”

Developed in consultation with scientists such as Gunilla Rosenqvist, Among Ripples sees you restoring Swedish lake and river ecosystems, trying to achieve equilibrium between predator and prey species such as puddle ducks, otters, and pikes. While there are objectives, the game is inherently resistant to the idea of an end state. 

“Gunilla once said that organisms are never fully adapted to their environment; it’s an endless compromise,” notes Greip. “Sometimes a species loses their primary food source, so they try to adapt with a new food source — sometimes they succeed, sometimes not. To show that endless evolution and balance is what the game is about. To achieve new balances that were upset by human sloppiness before.”

Where Terra Nil and Cloud Gardens‘ worlds are closer to metaphor, Among Ripples makes deliberate historical connections between this endless evolution and balance and the social and political forces that guide conservation projects. Set in 2045, the game casts you as an agent of the Mutual Assembly, a decentralized global government that takes inspiration from Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels.

This organization reflects Greip’s view that “our current economic system can’t support this large-scale restoration.” It began as a rural revolution led by indigenous people and countryside dwellers. You’ll encounter that history through the memories of the game’s cast of conservationists, which includes Millennials and older Gen Z characters. For them, rewilding is partly about processing grief for our current times. 

Restore Swedish lakes and rivers in Among Ripples: Shallow Waters.

“Åsa looks back at the colonial past of Sweden, of destroying Sámi culture and lands,” says Greip. “Samira looks back at the colonialist heritage in North Africa, or Morocco to be exact, about the struggle for water resources in hotter countries. Alatea from Brazil […] had grandparents who died protecting the Amazon forest. I guess Melker is pretty happy though, but he’s like 25 years old so he wasn’t really around with the pandemic and all the insanity.”

Among Ripples takes a “sour Scandinavian realist” view of our relationship with nature and the prospect of surviving ecological catastrophe. “It’s not dreams, it isn’t nightmares,” Greip says. “It’s life, it’s a future that’s imaginable, not a utopia, but a flawed hopeful future.” 

Eat Create Sleep’s decision to call it a “tycoon” game — albeit a “reversed” or “eco-tycoon” game — speaks to this pragmatism. It might seem desperately out of sync with the premise of a publicly funded conservation programme, but it makes sense if you’re trying to reach players weaned on the neoliberal logic of SimCity

Natural Hazards

Where meditative experiences like Terra Nil, Cloud Gardens, and Among Ripples cling to the idea of nature as a space for healing — however knowingly fake in its beauty and serenity — other games engage with nature as an object of fear. Spencer Yan’s monochrome survival game My Work Is Not Yet Done treats the natural world as neither a place of repose nor a wasteland awaiting restoration; instead, it is a site of unearthly absence and horror.

The game casts you as Avery, the apparent last surviving member of an expedition sent by a mysterious empire to investigate an overgrown national park that is both “well-documented” and capable of eerie “malfunctions and aberrations.” As you survey this environment — and keep Avery herself upright and sane — you’re invited to “interrogate the ways in which we negotiate and sublimate” our feelings of dread toward ‘wilderness’ spaces that resist understanding. 

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Yan’s game is essentially about what happens when nature as we know it collapses. The idea of nature, he suggests, is broadly an “interface” between the world of human speech and the uncanny, opaque, and voiceless realm of nonhuman creatures. As such, it is also a falsification of the nonhuman world, which is openly or covertly “reconstructed through the very technologies which made it palatable.” By way of example he points to weather software that reduces hurricanes to swirling colors, and national park trails that are “strategically designed to balance scenic views and engaging hikes, engineered to be easy to find and follow, yet also ‘invisible’ the way a paved road or motorway is not.”

The game’s plot follows the crumbling of those technologies, and by extension, of that interface between human and nonhuman. It is about “the slide into a language-less and undefined wilderness” brought on by the misbehaviour of the player’s own scientific tools and methods. Embedded sensors give unexpected readings. Accompanying documentation can’t quite be trusted. The map is designed to get you lost. 

This mounting sense of disorientation and incoherence extends to the strained relationship between the player and character. Avery’s mental state determines both what she perceives or says and how much control you have over her. As a means of investigating the world, she is as imperfect and unpredictable as the gadgets at your disposal.

Analgesic Productions’ spelunking game Sephonie also focuses on acts of data-gathering and scientific classification, but presents this as a creative exchange with the nonhuman world, rather than a falsification. It centers on three biologists from Taiwan, Japan, and the US. Marooned on a strange island, the trio must explore a winding cave system while documenting its creatures. This is carried out through “ONYX Linking,” a Final Fantasy-esque minigame in which you arrange pieces on a board, beating a certain score to add the organism to your database.

My Work Is Not Yet Done views nature as we know it through the lens of horror.

This comparatively playful process is less about ‘gamifying’ scientific methods than the theme of “mutual understanding between the trio and the island’s creatures,” says studio co-founder Melos Han-Tani. “Each creature’s [board and level are] different, so you have to adjust your strategy to what the creature expects.” There’s plenty of eeriness, nonetheless. As you delve deeper, the cast’s memories become physically manifest, externalized as spaces that harbour ecologies of their own.

This erosion of the distinction between character and habitat prompts characters to reflect about the concept of identity at large. This extends to a reconception of nature as something we are intimately involved with, as Analgesic’s other founder Marina Kittaka notes, rather than a “fetishized other” to worship, exploit or study. “Perhaps we could more responsibly inhabit our place in this web of connections if we didn’t pre-suppose our total alienation?”

New Growths

Untame’s Mushroom 11 might seem to take this presupposition of alienation to its greatest extreme. It’s a gleefully grotesque inversion of human/nonhuman relations in which the natural has become ‘hero,’ with human civilization essentially reduced to background graffiti. The game is notionally a platformer, but there is no traditional platform character, no singular human or anthropomorphic avatar at the heart of the experience. Rather, you play a fungal colony subject to real-time physics, which moves by erasing and spawning cells to alter its shape and weight — even splitting into several pieces — as it explores a city emptied of human beings.

This reflects Untame’s desire to deprioritize humans in stories about nature in the age of climate change, drawing on the research of mycologist Paul Statemets and forest scientist Suzanne Simard. As Untame’s art director Julia Keren-Detar explains, Mushroom 11 rebuts the view “that nature is there to support us instead of understanding that we are but one component of what nature is, and that our survival in the continuum of evolution might mean much less than we think.” Fungal organisms, she points out, may be better equipped to weather a human-caused ecological meltdown than humans. Some breeds can even eat plastic waste

“After we humans mess everything up, what does the clean up process look like? Most extension periods wipe out significant portions of populations, and these organisms can help transition the next period to support new life,” she continues. “We wanted a rebirth story that didn’t include us humans in it.”

Mushroom 11 explores nature at a microscopic level, navigating the player as a fungal colony through decrepit environments.

Mushroom 11‘s ideas about nature call upon Keren-Detar’s distant family connection to the Anishnaabe, a group of culturally related indigenous peoples from what is now Canada and the United States. While she cautions that she is “no authority” on these cultures, engaging with this inheritance has given her “a different reference point than if I had grown up in a Judaeo-Christian community,” wedded to the belief that nature exists for human benefit. In playing Mushroom 11, we can work through horror at nonhuman forces that don’t respect human boundaries, and take inspiration from the tenacity and adaptability of self-erasing fungus. “The cycle of destruction and growth works well for the mushroom, but also for the course of life itself,” design lead Itay Keren notes.

One of the paradoxes of today’s ecological crisis is that it requires both unified global action and greater respect for differences of circumstance. We might be ‘all in it together’, but we all live in different cultures and places, with different degrees of responsibility for and exposure to the fallout. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the games discussed here vary so hugely in their efforts to reinvent nature for the age of climate change: what makes sense in Sweden may not be appropriate to South Africa or Japan. But all these games have common ground in dismantling the covetous and antagonistic framing we have inherited from colonial times. And they all suggest that we owe what we call the natural world a more imaginative response than mere guilt and self-effacement about our history of exploitation.

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Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Edwin writes about things like fractals, punk, and low poly dogs for places like Edge, Wired and The Guardian. He also makes poetry involving solar systems and gardens, and tweets under @dirigiblebill.

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