From “SimCity” to “Terra Nil”, video games question our relationship to ecology

Decontaminate, revegetate and then remove human constructions from devastated landscapes: this is the proposal of Terra Nil, by South African studio Free Lives, available March 28 on PC and Netflix. Make nature triumph, an unusual objective in a video game. “Most of the time, the environment is either a pretext to extract resources, or a sumptuous landscape to admire, a background”reminds the Monde Alenda Chang, associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California and author of Playing Nature : Ecology in Video Games (2019, untranslated).

By proposing to restore the climate, fauna and flora of a territory, Terra Nil reverses the canons of the genre, where we are more often invited to cheerfully concretize the map (SimCity by Will Wright, precursor in 1989 of a genre in its own right, the “city builder” – or city builder) or to colonize virgin spaces, as in the founding turn-based strategy game Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991).

Reverse perspectives

So many successful games that appeared when climate and environmental crises weren’t top issues. “Computers are calculating machines. It is very easy to use their computational power to design systems where the progression of a city is simulated according to variations in production”estimate Petter Vilberg, game designer Terra Nilwho previously worked for the Swedish studio Paradox, renowned for its management and strategy games (Stellaris, Crusaders Kings III).

Halfway between management and a puzzle game, Terra Nil takes the opposite view because it involves building ecosystems by combining different machines generating different resources: humidity, temperature, vegetation, etc.

“I loved reversing the perspectives. We tried some original things, drawing inspiration from the real world and moving away from the principle of pure exploitation of resources and digital growth that we find everywhere”, explains the Swedish-Norwegian game designer. Finally, the player must remove all his installations to leave blank landscapes. A principle that earned him the nickname of “reverse city builder”.

A fruitful inspiration

Since the end of the 2010s, the breakthrough of ecological issues in public debate has inspired new types of city builders, including Terra Nil is the heir. Lichenia (2019) proposes “to make a city grow like a garden” and confronts us with human waste, straws or garbage bags, still springing from the ground after the end of the world.

In the melancholy Cloud Gardens (2020), we must cover post-apocalyptic settings with plants. But the games of growing vegetation are not new, notes its creator, Thomas van den Berg, alias Noio, also creator of the hit series Kingdom : he remembers having tried games of this type created with the Adobe Flash Player software, about fifteen years ago. For him, the attraction for these creations is above all aesthetic. “The algorithms used to create video games are perfect for creating lush landscapes and growing plants with different shapes”, confides the Dutchman living in Berlin. “Zen” games, which provoke a meditative state in the player.

To the management of the flora is added that of the fauna in Among Ripples : Shallow Waterswhich will be released this year. “Nature is made up of interdependent links between species. If it works in the wild, it will work in-game”, analyzes Martin Greip, creative director of the Swedish studio Eat Create Sleep. His team relied on the expertise of ecologists from Uppsala University to simulate lake and river ecosystems without overwhelming the player with complexity: “Entertainment involves an element of abstraction, an art of minimalism. As long as we don’t distort things too much, the simplification will drive the player into that area.”he considers.

Destructive behaviors

At the same time, in recent years, city builders or other empire management games for the general public have taken up environmental themes that have become essential. Sustainable development has become part of City Skylines with the “Green Cities” expansion, released in 2017. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI integrated climate change with the “Gathering Storm” extension in 2019. The increase in CO emissions2 leads to natural disasters, in particular the rise in sea level which threatens to eventually engulf coastal cities.

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Despite their anthropocentrism and their appeal to exploit environmental resources, these games are thought-provoking, says Alenda Cheng:

“It would be cliché to recommend that people only educate themselves with nice plant simulations. I learned a lot from being a bad manager in SimCity and creating dysfunctional cities there. It’s very instructive to have destructive forms of play − as long as you are aware of it. »

A green god does not exist

There are, however, two major limits to a realistic treatment of environmental issues in management games, considers Joost Vervoort, associate professor in the department of sustainable development at the University of Utrecht. “Most of the titles cited only implement technological and engineering solutions to deal with ecological and climatic crises. This is a big limitation because they have other facets,” details the Dutchman who teaches game design under the prism of ecology.

The most pessimistic management games put us prey to inevitable ecological disasters.  An ice age in “Frostpunk” (2018) or the sudden rise in sea level in “Flooded” (2023). The most pessimistic management games put us prey to inevitable ecological disasters.  An ice age in “Frostpunk” (2018) or the sudden rise in sea level in “Flooded” (2023).

Then, the green paint recently affixed to management and strategy games comes up against their fundamentals: “Responding to these crises is not just a matter of planning from above and initiated by a single person. I would recommend incorporating intense political discussions, conflicts, and different characters who show strong and conflicting emotions on the subject. » More realism and depth would ultimately imply curbing what makes the major interest of management games: the status close to the all-powerful divinity granted to the player.

It is moreover in this position that Will Wright himself, a year after the traffic jams and the pollution of the SimCity who made him famous, put the player in his unknown successor, SimEarth. As early as 1990, he challenged him to make life on Earth prosper by playing with a simple click with various very complex variables, such as the composition of the atmosphere or the temperature.