An evil force rolls over the land and chokes the life from the once bountiful fields and muddies the once clear springs. That’s an easy plot—maybe it’s even a lazy one—but it’s one that I think still has an edge. As a Canadian, much of my country’s literary and cultural tradition is based on an almost pagan respect for the weather (please go read something by Sinclair Ross). So I could be biased when I say that no matter how urbanized society becomes or how many layers of precaution are in place, there is always fear that the natural world will, suddenly and callously, fail to sustain us. Not just in terms of Cormac McCarthy’s ash forests, but in a subtler way. We’re haunted by the knowledge that a drought, a flood, an early or a late frost, a hurricane or a dust storm can completely ruin a family, a generation, a nation, an economy, or it could balance out later in the year and mean nothing. There’s a half-understanding of nature’s fickleness in games: there’s an appreciation for how important nature is to human survival, but games seldom acknowledge that changes in natural ecosystems require a great degree of flexibility and that human influence is not always benevolent.
For instance, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles—the multiplayer must-play that could never be due to some unnecessary and frankly stupid hardware requirements—has its players keep a global poisonous mist out of their hometown. People in this world keep the poison at bay with light from crystals illuminated by sap from a rare breed of magic tree. A group from each town in the world ventures out every year to recharge their crystals at trees living at the end of various dungeons. Though the player cannot visit these trees more than once every two years for fear of killing them, there is never a bad year that prevents them from producing their life-sustaining sap.
There isn’t a storm or a forest fire or a boom in parasite population that eliminates the magic trees. Similarly, the population or land requirements of the player’s town never outgrow the safety of the its crystal’s light. Towns never compete for this natural resource, no single city-state hordes it or burns through it, there isn’t even an administration in place to ensure that every town gets enough sap to sustain their population and area. All intelligent life depends on a single organism, but that dependence has no consequence. The trees are always there for everyone in fair proportions. The means to survive lay in nature and nature will always provide without ever asking the player to adapt.
Without going too much into the details, Crystal Chronicles is very clever in how it hides its true purpose in plain sight. What starts as touches of world-building coagulate over many hours into clues; these clues uncover secret paths to secret levels; these levels result in a hidden boss; that boss is the creature producing the poison that spreads over the earth. Kill the poison-producing creature and the world’s air is instantly clear of the once fatal mist. The game misses a bit of an opportunity to put in a risk-reward system by making nature so complacent. I’ve written before about how little games put social laws or other systems of advised but non-essential rules in place to influence player behaviour (“Existing Above the Law in Video Games.” PopMatters. Sept 4 2012; “Rules, Mechanics and Laws in Video Games.” bigtallwords. Sept 10 2012) and what I didn’t realize at the time was that nature is a perfect arbiter of what the player should or shouldn’t do. Unfortunately, nature seldom dictates behaviour to a player: the player is the environment’s hero and their influence is always a positive one.
The game that got me thinking about all this in the first place, Metroid: Prime, already received an excellent treatment on the subject of nature (Atay, Sebastian. “Reflections on a Ruined Fountain.” The Ontological Geek. Jun 27 2013) but at the risk of being redundant, I’ll add my own thoughts. Metroid: Prime adapts all the video gamey enemies players have grown accustomed to for the third dimension. For instance, we know that a snake raising out of a pool of lava will spew a stream of fire, that a flying rock will become a platform when it’s stunned, that a spiky shelled creature will rotate around same pattern along a rock so that we must time our jumps around. However, what Metroid: Prime does by centring play on scanning and exploring every nook and cranny (as it always has, half-creating the “metroidvania” genre) is create an evolutionary justification for these creatures to exist.
Scanning an explosive tree reveals that it is a species that evolved to chase predators away, a plant that spews acid is explained as a result of genetic experiments by the space pirates, the metroids that are weak against ice-weapons apparently developed their weakness from their original habitat on the broiling planet Zebes. The world gives everything a reason for it being there, even when the ludological reason is to “make jumps harder” or “give the wave beam more use.” It bridges the gap between gamey platform fun and heroic space adventure. Which is great! But it creates a sharp break in logic when the player is asked to slay the same creatures every time they return to the same area.
Games like Crystal Chronicles and Metroid: Prime set up a world where intelligent life is closely associated with nature and the antagonist is a meddling interloper harming the environment. But every time the player re-enters the mushroom forest or the Chozo ruins, the same creatures pop up to be killed. Inside the animals’ dissolving dead bodies are useful items and powerups. The player is tasked with saving nature while at the same time the game rewards them for creatures killed along the path to victory. So much that the game actually insists that players kill the wildlife before them: to no consequence since those same creatures will respawn in moments. What if the player had to put their money where their mouth was? What if killing these creatures harmed the ecology they were trying to protect?
In Half Life 2: Episode Two, Freeman must track down a MacGuffin at the bottom of an antlion nest. The catch is that the nest is protected by a special, indestructible breed of antlion. Freeman can’t fight it, he has to run from narrow tunnel to tunnel, making mad sprints when the antlion isn’t looking in one of the tensest sequences I can think of offhand*. Imagine, however, if Freeman could kill it, but the game asked him not to. What if the species was necessary to the local ecology? Imagine if firing a few potshots into the antlion’s face would stun it enough to get away from it, but the player had to avoid causing any actual harm to it. What if the player could defend themselves, but if they stood their ground too adamantly they’d be dooming the fragile ecosystem around them? Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic played with this idea. There’s a massive sea creature blocking the protagonist’s path to a MacGuffin on one of the planets. Killing the monster is easy but gets the player exiled from the planet, circumventing it is difficult but it doesn’t offend the indigenous population and sparing the creature is framed as the ecologically ethical decision.
I don’t mind monsters being monsters and if there’s a goomba to stomp, I’ll stomp it: just don’t tell me that Mario is the hero fighting on behalf of goombas. It sends up a red flag when a game tells me that the only way I can stop the villains from harming nature is to kill all the animals between me and them. What if a game insisted that I intervene with nature to survive while also expecting me to preserve it? That is, after all, the paradox facing actual human society.
*For an example of how not to make this sort of sequence work, play through Dreamfall‘s troll cave area as April.
Further reading: Vanderhoef, John. “Odd Partners: Videogames and Environmentalism.” Gameranx. Jan 17 2012.
Winter, Gerrick. “Environmental Issues in Video Games.” Playing with Meaning. Aug 9 2011.
Hochschartner, Jon. “Final Fantasy, capitalism, and the environment.” People’s World. Oct 24 2013.