In games, the environmental crisis is just another bedtime story

'Biomutant,' 'Minute of Islands,' and 'The Eternal Cylinder' use omniscient narrators to tell surprisingly cozy stories of ecological collapse.

Mixtvision Games

Recently, storytellers have begun to reckon with the Anthropocene, our current geological age in which human activity has exerted a dominant influence on the climate.

Some, such as the author Richard Powers, have found hope in the challenge at hand; his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, tells the uplifting story of five trees and the way they shape an ensemble cast of characters’ lives. Others, meanwhile, have dealt in shock and awe, perhaps as a way to galvanize action; writer David Wallace-Wells gives an unflinching account of possible worst case scenarios in The Uninhabitable Earth. Children’s books and literature, building on seminal environmental stories such as Dr. Seuss The Lorax, have also begun to wrestle with the defining issue of their young readers’ future more seriously. What else is there to do if not prepare them?

Now we have a cluster of ecologically-inflected video games that have the tone and feel of bedtime stories, yet can only be experienced with a controller in hand. Biomutant asks players to role-play a kung-fu critter in Earth’s post-apocalypse; Minute of Islands focuses on a young girl who must save her home from deadly fungal spores; and The Eternal Cylinder, arguably the weirdest of the bunch, casts players as a tiny made-up creature called a Trebhum in a world under threat from a gigantic, volcano-sized cylinder. The events of each of these games are relayed using the oldest storytelling trick in the book — the omniscient narrator, who becomes a strangely comforting guide in their tales of environmental collapse. Of course, such eco-narratives aren’t exactly new in video games — one only has to look to Horizon Zero Dawn and Civilization IV: Gathering Storm for differing big budget approaches — but they’ve rarely felt so cozy, so 'just part of life itself.'

Take Biomutant, a relative anomaly in the field of open world adventures; aimed at children rather than adults. It has the bright colors and cuddly protagonists of a Saturday morning cartoon and a mood that oscillates between wistful and exhilarating, but its narrator, played by David Shaw Parker, walks the player through each story beat as if they are turning the page of a vast, digitally rendered picture-book. We never see the moment of environmental disaster that transformed its world into an irradiated, mutated space, but we hear plenty of it via simple illustrated sequences. Toxanol, a name of sledgehammer subtlety befitting the game’s self-consciously zany style, was a corporation back when humans were still around, and it perpetrated all manner of heinous environmental crimes, from irresponsible dumping of nuclear waste to offshore drilling. These actions led to the so-called “big apocalypse.”

We never see the moment of environmental disaster that transformed its world into an irradiated, mutated space.

Yet Biomutant pulls its punches when dealing with cataclysm. There’s certainly a visible residue of this world-altering event — areas engulfed with green plumes of unbreathable air, grey landscapes stripped bare of their resources — but on the whole the game is, as Reid McCarter wrote in an excellent essay for Bullet Points, “a nice place to live.” The game’s “big apocalypse,” which must have presumably been hell to live through, has elsewhere given the lush, vegetative world a toxic, saturated shimmer, almost as if it has coaxed even more life out of it.

How, then, to reconcile disaster with such idyllic scenes? Well, catering to younger players is perhaps part of it in Biomutant’s case, but the beautiful apocalypse isn’t unique to games designed for children. It’s everywhere, from The Last of Us and Nier: Automata to Death Stranding, each one contrasting the death of humanity with the life of nature, as if the latter makes up for the former.

The approach makes me think of the way critic and writer John Berger describes storytelling as a form of refuge. “If I think of someone telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together, and around them a vast space — quite frightening,” he told fellow writer Susan Sontag in 1983. “Maybe they’re huddled around a fire. And somewhere for me, in the very idea of the story, there’s something to do with a shelter.” To an extent, each game that frames disaster as aesthetically appealing, feels like this — a way of shielding oneself from the actual terror of catastrophe. But Biomutant leans into this sensibility; its narrator breaks the bad news about the earth with the warmth of a caring grandparent.

For Berger, the story in its most primal, perhaps even elemental form, is a safe place where scary things might be explored, which is precisely how the heavily narrated tale of platformer adventure game Minute of Islands feels. To an even greater degree than Biomutant, it has the look and sound of a children’s book — but its dark, troubling story is expressly intended for adults, says director Anjin Ahnut over a Zoom call. Mo, the young protagonist who explores a craggy archipelago in her yellow jacket, resembles Greta Thunberg, and like that young climate activist she carries the weight (and seemingly fate) of the world on her shoulders. The existential stakes stem from the polluting fungal spores that are wiping out wildlife and causing the human population, her neighbors and community, to leave before it kills them too.

Its narrator breaks the bad news about the earth with the warmth of a caring grandparent.

Like Biomutant, the omniscient narrator in Minute of Islands, played by Megan Gay, is a conspicuous presence, framing the story throughout. But as time goes on, her tone becomes increasingly slippery, shifting from that of a wizened elder to something akin to no-nonsense therapist. Mo must reckon with her own hang-ups, and perhaps misplaced feelings of responsibility, in a world that’s already on the slide.

Despite Minute of Islands’ clear context of ecological collapse, rendered in beguiling hand-drawn style — psychedelic flora, fleshy decay, and eerie cosmic fog — Ahnut doesn’t see the game as a straightforward environmental work. “Usually, they’re cautionary tales, or hopeful tales about dealing with environmental impact and turning it around,” he says. “Our game is about accepting that some things just are, which isn’t much of an environmental message.” Yet, this might just be the form these kinds of stories increasingly take as various environmental crises intensify (which, it should be stressed, already feels like it’s happening at an increasing rate — wildfires, flooding, heat-related deaths have all arrived in recent weeks).

If Minute of Islands is often a downer — a character study of Mo who becomes as toxic as the landscape she loves — then upcoming The Eternal Cylinder is rooted in hope and an absolute refusal to succumb to an environment that wants you killed. This alien land is particular in its features — creatures that resemble upturned mouths, trees shaped like giant pine cones, a shimmering cosmic skyline — but its threat is decidedly allegorical. The titular cylinder, as wide as the horizon, rolls across the planet like a slo-mo tsunami crushing anything in its path. Director Carlos Bordeu says it’s inspired by the geometric shapes that populate the paintings of surrealist painters such as Salvador Dali. What, he thought, if those objects actually moved — how might that look and feel? The result is both awe-inspiring, terrifying, and kind of hilarious, a metaphor which leaves a trail of splintered and squashed debris in its wake.

Playing as the diminutive Trebhum, you run, and then you run some more, slowly learning how to adapt, evolve, and ultimately survive thanks, in no small part, to the narrator who guides you through the game’s mechanics like David Attenborough hosting an extraterrestrial nature documentary. In fact, original inspirations included the 1978 cartoon version of Richard Adams’ classic novel Watership Down and Jim Henson’s 1982 movie The Dark Crystal — part of an attempt to achieve the feel of a “bedtime story.” Akin to the best children’s stories, there’s a gentle lesson at play, one which emphasizes the diversity of the tiny Trebhums — their ability to mutate and transform — in the face of the cylinder’s giant mechanical threat.

Both Minute of Islands and The Eternal Cylinder present environmental upheaval as a constant, thrumming background noise, a threat that’s inescapably present tense. Of course, this is precisely how many would describe our own ecological crises, but in these games, which Berger might describe as shelters, the narrator offers a further shelter — another narrative cocoon within which we can consider both the story at hand and the outside world.

If we dig further into these two games, they’re both, to some degree, about generational inheritance of crises. Mo is a youngster who perhaps never asked for the job of salvation she feels she must perform, and in The Eternal Cylinder, a key part of the game involves caring for baby trebhums born into its hostile world. Each reminds me of other environmental fiction such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From. In these lithe, poetic novels, the protagonist must care for a child before, ultimately, passing the mantle onto them. Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding is about this too, at least in its relationship between grizzled delivery man Sam Bridges and the baby strapped to his chest

In a way, these video games and the works they’re in dialogue with feel as if they’re burrowing towards the same central question — what does it mean to hand over a world stricken by disaster? In another, they’re rooted in the here and now. Minute of Islands and The Eternal Cylinder certainly aren’t childish, but their narrators speak directly to the child in all of us — the longing for someone to help us figure out this frightening world beyond our computer screen.