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We Need Games About The Climate Present, Not Just The Future

Spilled and Synergy are part of a growing number of environmentalist video games

12:45 PM EST on February 7, 2024

A screenshot from the video game "Synergy:" a futuristic city of different buildings on tan sand
Leikir Studio

I, like I’d guess most people these days, spend a lot of time thinking about the climate crisis. Given what a very serious and urgent crisis it is, I often feel like I’m not sure where to go with my feelings. One outlet I’ve found is a novel I’ve been working on for far too long, but since I would simply die if you saw that, another place where those feelings sometimes go is art, including games. To that end, a couple of environmentally-focused demos caught my eye during Steam Next Fest. 

One of those games is Spilled, a peaceful little game about cleaning up an oil spill. Another is Synergy, a city-building game about creating a sustainable culture in a drought-afflicted landscape. (An aside: I just want to be clear that I’m not shilling for Valve here by writing so much about Next Fest. I’m just excited to have so many bite-sized bits of new games to check out, especially after the slow season of the holidays.) 

Spilled and Synergy are very different games. Spilled is pretty basic: you steer a little boat around some lovely waterways, made less lovely by big blobs of oil. Your boat sucks up the oil when you float over it, and then you toddle over to deposit it in a collector, which earns you money to upgrade your boat with features like a bigger storage tank. You can also corral floating trash, and on occasion rescue adorable pixelated animals. It’s made by a solo developer who lives on a boat (fun fact: I also used to live on a boat, a story for another time), which felt most evident to me in how much the boat feels so boaty, heavy and ungainly as it motors around. The demo is short and sweet, and despite some trouble I had with its controls, I really enjoyed it.  

Synergy is a lot more complicated. You control a gaggle of tiny people as they build water collectors, homes, kitchens, storage and more. It’s got some Frostpunk vibes in its management of workers and the looming threat of environmental disaster, but where Frostpunk feels stressful and grim, I found Synergy to be almost too slow. This isn’t a knock; for one, you can speed up time to get everything going faster, but this pace also brought a peaceful, realistic feeling to the game. I followed every step of one character wandering across the giant landscape to retrieve some berries, then carry them all the way back to my buildings. Resources have to be analyzed before they can be used, and that takes time, as does building your buildings and other tasks. It’s a lovely counterpoint to the out-of-control pace of city-builders that let you create a bustling metropolis with supernatural speed. The chill soundtrack, punctuated by bird sounds, adds to the peacefulness that feels at odds with the game’s narrative setup, but in a way that kept me from scream-whispering, “Oh god, climate collapse…” as I often tend to do. 

The Synergy demo is the game’s tutorial, and as such there’s a lot going on. I will admit that despite years of dedicated self-improvement, I tend to struggle with tutorials, getting overwhelmed by new information and wrestling with my own tendencies to skim their text instead of actually reading it. As such, I found the demo a little confusing; it wasn’t always clear to me what order I needed to click a building then a resource in to analyze it, or why my little people weren’t turning my ingredients into meals despite seeming to have all the resources they needed. There’s also the challenge of many of the Next Fest demos, where you’re getting an in-progress slice of a game without a developer standing over your shoulder explaining whether something isn’t implemented yet, something is broken, or you just don’t get it. So given all that, I hesitate to make any kind of proclamation about how the Synergy demo is, but I will say that I’m hugely intrigued by it and excited to play more. I’ll probably start the demo over now that I have some sense of what’s coming.

Spilled and Synergy join a growing number of environmentally-focused games, like Terra Nil, Alba, Eco, Cloud Gardens, and others. These games all have different takes on interacting with the world around you, something that, in video games, is often violent or extractive. They imagine different kinds of futures and give you different ways of shaping them, and that imaginative exercise can do a lot to combat how hopeless addressing the climate crisis can feel for those of us who aren’t the rich, powerful people and companies largely responsible for that crisis in the first place.

Games like these fit into a broader world of storytelling projects about the environment, standing alongside cool things like Grist’s Imagine 2200 fiction collection and Anna Jane Joyner’s Good Energy storytelling consultancy. These projects try to move climate storytelling toward creativity, hopefulness, and action, something I agree we’re sorely in need of. 2021 climate disaster movie Don’t Look Up divided critics and audiences in part because its message could feel pandering or unactionable; the idea that the climate crisis could be solved if people would just pay more attention to it feels laughable when convincing people climate change is real no longer feels like the tallest hurdle. At the same time, the lifestyle changes individuals are often encouraged to make–recycling, low waste cooking, etc.–can feel more like ineffective distractions, another brand of consumerism to keep us from disruptive public action–or, in a more generous take, can feel like drops in the bucket of the scope of the problem. Political action taken by everyone from scientists to youth to elders feels like a far more effective (and cathartic) strategy to me, but even that struggles in the face of people like Joe Manchin and the rest of the powerful who seem determined to steer us all into the abyss. 

I appreciate games and fiction projects that try to tell new, proactive stories about climate and the environment, but they often don’t resonate with me. This is largely down to my own personal tastes: artistically, I’m perhaps overly-committed to dour realism, taking to heart the words of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “And I Always Thought” that “the very simplest words must be enough.” I dislike sci-fi and fantasy and magical realism, rebelling against metaphors for current human crises in favor of exploring what things are like now, here, for regular people. I know this preference closes me off to tons of great work that has lots to teach me, so I’m not arguing that I’m right here, but I know how my own tastes run and what resonates with me, and that’s the kind of work I tend to seek out when it comes to art about the climate.

But it’s hard to say what art firmly rooted in the everyday here and now can tell us about the climate crisis. Movies like First Reformed and How To Blow Up A Pipeline are one version, but what you should do with their lessons is a thorny question. Don’t Look Up at least captures some of the panic I can get mired in if I reflect on our current situation too long, but art like it or Jenny Offill’s novel Weather can indulge in a sense of stagnation or helplessness that isn’t useful either. Not that all art has to spur the audience to action: as Brecht writes later in the poem, “When I say what things are like/ Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds”--the emotional resonance of a story can be enough for it to be valuable. There’s lots of good to putting words to how we feel, in making room for that emotional space, even if climate despair is becoming both a genre and a problem

But I’m not a scientist. I’m not going to run away and start a farm (I would, though); I’m not going to found a new civilization; I’m not going to pilot an oil cleanup tanker (I would, though! Get at me!). As much as I loved Terra Nil, as much as I enjoyed Spilled and Synergy, I felt a little at ends when I was done with them. Again, this is hugely just my personal storytelling tastes, but I would also love to see more art that holds a mirror to our daily lives in both their hope and despair, that honors the times we’re living through with respect and complexity. We all need to imagine what things could be like in the future, but we also need art that, as Brecht writes, says what things are like.

Luckily, there’s limitless room for art in the world, and environmental games and solarpunk concept art can stand side by side with whatever gloomy literary fiction I’m drawn toward. When I can’t find the kind of art that scratches my itch, I castigate myself that my novel could do that if I’d ever fucking finish it. (I’ll resist the self-indulgent urge to tell you about it, suffice it to say it’s about cults and climate change, the two topics that occupy 90% of my brain.) There’s both room and need for every story about the climate we can tell, and anything that galvanizes more people into action, helps them feel less hopeless, or even just helps them feel a little less alone is a good thing.

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