Happy April! Despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I have once again declined to make our roundtable theme “frogs” despite the arguable seasonal appropriateness. The only thing we love more than Wario and Waluigi here at Sidequest is frogs. But April is the month of Earth Day, April 22—so let’s talk about the Earth, ecology, and associated themes this month.

Are there any games you feel do particularly well by the earth? Interpret this question however you like.

Melissa Brinks: There are a lot of games about tending to the earth in some way, but I think they’re generally about mastering the earth—I love a farming sim, but farming is not the same as caring for the earth. Despite having some misgivings with how bee conservation is framed, the fact that Apico is about conservation at all does make it a sight better than many similar games for me. It acknowledges that bees are an important part of our world, which we all sort of know but many of us don’t have the space or resources to deal with on our own. I don’t think Apico really gives us those tools—most people cannot just go off and become a beekeeper—but awareness is good, too. Awareness gives you the ability to speak confidently on the importance of an issue. It gives you the language to contact government officials and demand change. Of course, that action is in your hands; you don’t have to take real-world action as part of the game. But even so, I think awareness is good, and Apico‘s specificity to bees lets it emphasize the importance of a single issue rather than getting drowned out by other mechanics.

Cress: For a nostalgic take, I really enjoy Final Fantasy VII for a very direct critique on sapping resources of the planet for the sake of the political and economic power of a private company—in the case of the game, Shinra. Even without the direct pain the Shinra Electric Power Company has caused your party members, the game shouts out about the damage to the environment. Plants aren’t growing and the air quality is abysmal. Once you reach Cosmo Canyon (a location in FFVII with deep connections to the planet), an NPC spells out to you how the planet recycles the energy of all living things and cycles it throughout the world for new life. And this is where you hear the “screams of the planet.” I personally appreciate the holistic idea of the planet as an entire living organism as opposed to life just happens to exist on it.

Kathryn Hemmann: I completely agree with you, Cress! I wrote an essay about this last year. It’s called “The End of the Line for the Shinra Corporation,” and it’s about how Final Fantasy VII reflects real-world grassroots environmental activism in Japan. The longer I spend on this planet, the more I appreciate where Barret Wallace was coming from and what he was trying to do.

The city of Midgar and its eight Mako reactors.

Final Fantasy VII, Square, Square Enix, 1997

Are there any games that do especially well from an ecological perspective? What makes them unique?

Melissa: This has got to go to ECO, right? It’s been years since I played the game, but I still have fond memories of trying to balance progress (toward building a means of surviving an impending meteor) with preserving a livable planet. I don’t think there’s a perfect simulation of real-world processes out there, but ECO‘s interlocking systems of harvesting, planting, building, and disposing force players to weigh their decisions. And as we wrote about in the ECO Diaries, the language of games (and our real world) also encourages us to gather resources for the sake of having them—something that really doesn’t work out in a scenario as full of impending doom as an asteroid on the way. Again, the action is always going to come down to the player, but the fact that ECO allows you to play in a destructive fashion and see the consequences of a lack of collaboration through not only the asteroid, but also land poisoned by chemicals, ravaged by overharvesting, and so on, puts it a cut above the rest for me.

Cress: While not perfect, I am a fan of the farm/life sims like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley. Harvest Moon ties your stewardship of the land directly to improving the entire area, and aiding the spirits or gods that live there. The games don’t necessarily speak on what plants would be helpful or protected species (these would be good additions). That being said, the games fulfill the idea that humans aren’t separate from nature, but are a vital part of it.

In some sims, you can even marry some of the gods that are the living incarnations of nature’s will. We’re out here really loving the land, so to speak.

Kathryn: I’m completely onboard with Melissa’s earlier observation that mastering the environment isn’t necessarily the same thing as doing well by the earth, and I also appreciate games that use engaging play mechanics to advocate for good stewardship. This is one of the many reasons I love the short (and gorgeous!) point-and-click adventure game Botanicula, which is about observing the natural world while passing through it peacefully. You play as a little seed navigating a giant tree, and nothing you meet along the way speaks in human language. You therefore have to pay careful attention to the needs and behaviors of the various roots, leaves, fungi, and insects you encounter. Botanicula is a fun and silly adventure that isn’t necessarily about environmentalism, but it encourages the player to cultivate an awareness of the minute details of the natural world. This game got me into urban gardening, true story.

Simulation games like city builders or terraforming games often include ecological elements. Do you think they’re good at exploring themes of environmental protection? Why or why not?

Melissa: Painting with a really broad brush here, I’d say no. Terraforming games are often coming at city building from a colonial perspective—you are settling a foreign place, typically a planet, to make it function like earth not just in terms of the natural environment, but also in terms of how it would run. There are some games that play with this concept, such as the recently released Terra Nil and the upcoming Among Ripples: Shallow Waters, but even those are not without their problems (such as the potentially satirical “eco tycoon” branding of the latter). Even the idea that rebuilding and terraforming are solely the response to disaster is a little frustrating—we can (and should!) clean up our act and shift our relationship with the natural world at any time, not just in response to losing everything.

When it comes to city builders, which I love, ecological concerns are usually less about building a sustainable future and more about like… not having trash everywhere. Which is reasonable! It’s just also the bare minimum as far as ecological concerns go. Tropico isn’t especially good at this, but I do appreciate that Environmentalists are one of the groups whose whims you’re subject to, and if you do enough to piss them off, they’ll make your life difficult, too. Though Cities: Skylines gives you a lot of freedom to design cities that are less wasteful and toxic than their real-world counterparts, the game is still largely hampered by what currently exists in our world. “Environmental protection” and “not filling the streets with corpses and garbage” are not enough in the warming world we inhabit—we need to be more radical than that, and most games of this kind simply don’t get us there.

Cress: I’ve been meaning to check out Terra Nil, an environmental strategy game in which you revitalize wastelands. Many resource management games involve you stripping the land of anything and everything useful without much thought beyond that. This game allows you to carefully rebuild the ecosystem in a balanced way. My hope is that future titles of sim or farming life will incorporate and ethical mindset, much like Terra Nil.