It’s possible to learn more about Hawaiian culture via the free game “Wao Kanaka” than it is from an actual journey to the Pacific Ocean islands.
One of the opening scenes immediately sets the tone — a small village, with dilapidated fishing huts, sits tucked on a tiny hill, while around the bend and down in a valley, resorts and high-rises squeeze into every last inch of coastal land. Those who don’t speak the language may opt to take a second to translate the native Hawaiian that adorns an especially glossy hotel, which offers the not-so-subtle hint that the game developers aren’t christening these developments with a welcome name.
Part exploration into the life of native Hawaiians and part call-to-arms, “Wao Kanaka,” which was a selection at the recently concluded independent game festival IndieCade in Santa Monica, reminds us through lighthearted yet clever mini-puzzle-like games that understanding how to communicate with our environment is now more vital than ever. Our current climate-change crisis wasn’t necessarily the sole impetus behind making “Wao Kanaka,” but it’s never divorced from it, as early on our grandmother — (our tūtū) — informs us “that if we continue the way we are going, the story of the land which we love will cease.”
We then take part in a fishing game, where accumulating bait is just one goal, as we are instructed to “take one fish and leave another.” Another game has us rerouting irrigation pipes to redirect water to increasingly depleted taro fields, while between games we can click around our homestead and either trash a glass bottle or opt to reuse it and turn it into a vase. “Wao Kanaka,” a collaboration between the Montreal-based Initiative for Indigenous Futures and the Hawaii-based Kanaeokana, which works with schools and cultural institutions to foster native Hawaiian learning, has an educational but not activist bent, viewing respect for the land as intertwined and inseparable from its narrative.
It’s one of a number of recent digital and tabletop games, some commercial releases and others grounded more heavily in academia, that take a nuanced look at themes surrounding climate change, where the goal isn’t to stoke paranoia at what may come to pass but to instead foster a love for the environment.
Such an approach is present in the virtual-reality game “Fujii,” released by Pasadena-based Funktronic Labs, which seeks to luxuriate players in a peaceful, magical setting of mystical plants, and even the acclaimed boardgame “Wingspan,” a work that celebrates birds by tasking players with building natural habitats for them. As a whole, these and other playful endeavors are about fostering wonder at plant and animal life rather than inspiring fear.
“Climate change is on our minds as a studio,” said Funktronic co-founder Eddie Lee, noting that “Fujii” is inspired heavily by a love of gardening and the meditative sensations it provides. In “Fujii,” players can collect seeds and glowing orbs to help spread light and bring the otherworldly landscape to life.
Plants can be tapped and played as instruments, and animals rarely shy away from a head scratch. If there’s a benefit to being in virtual nature rather than actually outdoors, it’s that we can see dream-like point of views than can stoke our imagination. Lee said the inspiration was Japanese aquascape artists, as he wanted players to explore a world as luminescent as a coral reef where everything would be just unfamiliar enough to stoke curiosity.
“I guess there was an option for us to really make it about climate-change awareness, and that’s a thing we want to do, but we were hoping this would be more of an indirect artistic statement about having people appreciate nature,” Lee said. “Hopefully people will just be more conscious of plants and their surroundings.”
“Mutazione,” recently released for Apple Arcade, home computers and the PlayStation 4, is a narrative adventure game that encourages players to meet a host of odd-but-friendly mutants as they bring gardens to life by song. “Spring Falls,” in development for mobile devices by Eric Billingsley (“Cuphead”), also takes inspiration from rearing plants, only here we move a hexagonal board to spread the flow of water, resulting in a soothing puzzle game full of natural and ambient sounds.
They follow the likes of 2015’s “Prune,” a puzzler about nurturing trees in an environment influenced by Japanese ink-wash paintings, and last year’s Electronic Arts-published “Fe,” in which a forest’s ecosystem is threatened and only the songs of nature can save it.
Such themes are on the mind of young developers.
“In Other Waters,” an in-development game at IndieCade, used sonars and simplified takes on scientific instruments to learn how to see in an underwater landscape. Also in the works is “Beyond Blue,” from the studio that published “Never Alone,” a game that introduced players to little-known tales of native Alaskan culture. Here, we command a diver as she discovers an oceanic world — the water landscapes are vibrant and otherworldly, and while climate change is a theme, executives at the game’s E-Line Media earlier said they want to avoid a “soapbox,” Steve Zimmerman said the goal is to get people to “start thinking about the world beyond what they see.”
The thoughtful “Plasticity” came out of USC’s game program and is currently available for free download on computer platform Steam. Set in a ravaged future world, the game avoids the standard dystopian themes by putting the emphasis on hope. Players navigate a world by solving simple puzzles and running and jumping amid approachable landscapes that serve as a contrast to some of the more heartbreaking images of the game — animals, for instance, trapped in plastic.
The game shows the immediate effects of making an environmentally conscious decisions, some as simple as freeing a dog from having his snout trapped in a plastic bucket, with the hope of inspiring players to think about actions big and small, be it reusing products or thinking more deeply about which company’s to support.
“We wanted to create an experience that could inspire people to care about animals and the environment,” said Aimee Zhang, recent USC grad and ""Plasticity’s” game director. “With this game, we just wanted to teach others that it’s never too late to make a difference.”
As the experience unfolds — it’s about 40 minutes total to complete — the game’s characters try to find an imagined paradise, only to find that the latter has succumbed to environmental disaster as well. Here, though, the players roll up their sleeves and get to work.
“Our old original philosophy was much more, ‘If you do this wrong, you should feel bad,’” said Michelle Olson, the lead designer on the game. “But then we realized that’s not how you actually get through to people and enact change. We needed to inspire, to empower them with hope and forgive people’s mistakes.”