A cute game that casts a player as a gibbon gliding and sliding through a beautiful, hand-painted landscape was all Felix Bohatsch wanted to design. But his creation, inspired by a trip with his three children to see the apes at his local zoo, felt disingenuous when he discovered that gibbons are one of the most threatened families of primates, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Such knowledge eventually changed the course and message of the game, which urges people to think more broadly about our world and who we share it with. Gibbons: Beyond the Trees, available on Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows and iOS, is not only here to give you a swinging good time, but also wants you to know the clock is ticking on our furry friends as they face grave deforestation, habitat destruction and extinction.
Here’s a quick primer on the game: When your adventure begins, you swing among spreading branches, inviting vines and mighty tree trunks in a lush forest. But as the journey continues, those forests begin to thin out, as the primal green backdrop so familiar moments ago is replaced by harsh, chugging construction and a dissonant rumble of man-made machinery. Things could also get tense and bleak, as your character becomes hunted, a sad nod to true-to-life representation of poaching and trafficking as young primates are ripped from families to be used as tourist attractions. Your mission is to help our heroic animals survive a planet menaced by human impacts.
Game development studio Broken Rules, of which Bohatsch is a co-founder, ensures that the emphasis of Beyond the Trees stays true until the end so one would never lose sight of the majesty of the gibbons. To achieve that, the team avoided reward trappings such as high scores or leaderboard rankings — the goal is never about beating your best record, but to always lead your characters to safety.
“We realised we couldn’t just build this purely escapist infinite runner, where everything’s lush and beautiful and happy. Gibbons are endangered. They’re losing their habitats and their forests are being destroyed. And that led to my second motivation: to show the world the difficulties gibbons face. Not to be preachy, we want to show how it might feel to lose your family, or to live in a world where there’s maybe not much of a place for you,” says Bohatsch about his brainchild, which picked up an Apple Design Award at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June.
Broken Rules was not paying lip service when it rallied for conservation. Although Covid-19 derailed a planned trip to Borneo and different parts of Southeast Asia to investigate the afflictions threatening the gibbon population, the team managed to consult with rehabilitation groups in Thailand to do justice to real-world facts while maintaining an approachable take to the game. The latter initially starred two gibbon friends, but the developers soon realised that these primates live in close intimate family groups. A rescue mission to save a young gibbon was later added to the ecological adventure, as they learnt about baby apes being shot by illegal loggers for their meat or turned into pets.
The poetic connection Bohatsch and Broken Rules have established in their expansive design catalogue awakens a consciousness of how games — and on a larger scale, edutainment and the digital landscape — can spark emotion that lingers in people’s minds even after their play has ended. The studio’s previous work, Old Man’s Journey, a soul-searching puzzle adventure that tells a story of life, loss and hope, also won hearts as well as honours. By interacting with a poignant storybook setting around them, players uncover touching memories to lift the old man out of solitude and chart a new journey through a sun-kissed world.
Developers are calling citizen scientists to play their way to a better world, which will help produce a generation more attuned to the pursuit of sustainability and responsibility. For example, educational underwater diving game Beyond Blue, inspired by BBC’s Blue Planet II nature documentary series, takes you deep into our planet’s beating blue heart to study a family of whales. Plasticity offers a wake-up call on plastic and waste management as players traverse flooded cities and ravaged lands. The coral classification you make in the NeMO-Net app, created by Nasa, will go directly to the American space and aeronautical agency to help protect oceans in real life.
Granted, these titles may sound a little too righteous or culturally prescient for restless teenagers and even adults to devote their time to stress relievers that overtly scream social causes. But this is where modern developers come into play — they are working towards experiences in which the thrill is as engaging as the social messages inherent in the game. We tend to gravitate towards models of sustainable development if they are a natural yet subtle part of the game dynamic. If we look closely, gaming for good parallels the sustainability strategies peddled by big corporations — as such, a company that focuses on building a stronger, greener and more ethically sound business is more believable than a hollow corporate social responsibility initiative that saves the polar bears.
Whether in the virtual world or the vast bureaucracies that structure our lives, we find ourselves stuck playing games over and over again that we may not even win. But Bohatsch wants you to succeed in Beyond the Trees because it proves that a virtual manifestation can engender empathy while deepening our understanding of the social and environmental systems in the actual world. No matter how many people feel moved to support gibbons or donate to charities after this, Broken Rules’ meaningful endeavour will have made a mark through its advocacy. Games are communication tools — at least make them devices with something worthwhile to say.
This article first appeared on Aug 22, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.