Natural Heroes: Inevitable Environmentalism in Games

I’ve saved a lot of worlds in over two decades of playing video games. It’s refreshing that modern games are more personal than ever and that they don’t have to lean on something as ostentatious as saving the world to get their point across. Still, I have to confess that I’m fond of saving the world. The bombast and melodrama that goes into the presentation of a game in the Final Fantasy series never gets old for me. The four lines of paragraphs rolling over a royal blue window are poetry. The flamboyantly costumed blobs of pixels and polygons are demi-gods out of myth. It’s not a surprise that games’ most sensible analogue is often to the epic poem (Timothy Streasick, “The First Gaming Epic”, Lusipurr, 14 June 2013). My personal favorite passage of The Aeneid is when Aeneas raises chocobos and pilots a flying steamship — because, really, The Aeneid and Final Fantasy share a capacity for such outrageous whimsy. “All the land shall burn lest we stop this great evil from swallowing us…”, and yet, what better time to fall in love, chase our dreams, forge and test unbreakable bonds of friendship? These worlds are spectacular, dream versions of the real one where people are a necessary and natural organ to keep such worlds pure and proper. Nature and the world are beautiful in these games, and people are there to protect it.

It isn’t just my beloved Final Fantasy series either. In all the memorable and awe-inspiring worlds I’ve saved, the people in them have always been a force driven by the idea of preservation, even while threatened by something alien that kills the ecology’s beauty. Okami’s painted landscapes are corrupted by black ink that the player’s lupine god must re-colour. 2008’s Prince of Persia can read his progress through the amount of nature that he’s restored. Samus in her most acclaimed adventure, Metroid: Prime, combats an evil goo that has mutated the flora and fauna of the majestic Tallon IV. Even Microsoft’s flagship titles, Gears of War and Halo at some point task their space cowboys with undoing an alien plague threatening life on a planet. Game worlds are frequently lush, phantasmagoric landscapes designed to overawe, and the player is in the position of having to protect them.

However, these games take it for granted that the player is not only able to protect the game’s world, it makes it impossible for them to do any damage to that world’s ecology. There isn’t a scenario in which Mario chomps down an endangered breed of green mushroom, nor is it possible for Link to flood a nearby forest by fiddling with the dams and sluices in a water temple. The player only sees the fiery hellscapes around Bowser’s castle or the dusty wasteland of Hyrule under Ganondorf’s rule. The villain is a poison to the land, and the player is the antidote.

We see nature warped and made unnerving by the forces of evil, like the dead sea in Chrono Cross, and the player is unquestionably an antidote to a world held prisoner to a parasite quite literally in i>Crono Trigger (Mark Filipowich, “Plural Protagonism Part 4: Crono Trigger, bigtallwords, 15 May 2013). But it’s never possible to do any lasting damage in the effort to restore the planet. The player is given incredible power over nature with the only possible outcome being to restore it.

Consider the video game monster. Monsters, especially in RPGs, are littered across the world with the express purpose of attacking adventurers. Better games suggests that they are somehow apparently a part of the world. Indeed, it’s fun to speculate on how video game creatures come to exist in their own worlds (Mike Joffe “Ecology of the Mushroom Kingdom”, Video Games of the Oppressed, 2013), but they aren’t animals. Not really. There is a harmless permanence to a video game monster. If the player kills a monster and leaves the area, that same monster will be restored when the player returns. The monster isn’t replaced by its offspring or a new pack of the same breed. That very same monster is grazing the same ground in the same pattern, or they return in a random encounter and are invisible until they’re lined up to be slaughtered. Often the player isn’t given the choice to not fight such creatures. More importantly, there isn’t a consequence if the player does go around depopulating an area. The food chain remains stable because the entire ecosystem will respawn as soon as the player-character leaves.

Granted, it’s more ethically justifiable to kill an animal than a human — even in self-defense — so it makes sense that (presumably) developers would prefer that the player kill monsters that carry out a one person genocide. Killing a virtual lion isn’t the same as killing a virtual person, and it’s better to kill a thousand lions for healing potions and experience points than to kill a thousand people. But players are rarely held accountable for all the wildlife that they slay as they grind for the boss at the other end of a cave. The game gives them a world to save and an endlessly replenishing ecosystem on which to practice killing. The player can do no harm by virtue of their mission to restore nature. The player’s mission can’t help but become prophecy: the heroes seek to save the world and in their righteous power can do naught but.

This attitude is not the best to ingrain into a culture. Regardless of the politics surrounding environmentalism, it’s incredibly arrogant to assume that the power to save a planet’s ecology automatically carries the responsibility to do the same. At the very least, games ought to acknowledge the danger that comes with so grand a mission as to restore the earth. More ideally, however, games could start exploring the possible negative consequences of the typical video game hero’s influence on a world.

One of the interesting things about Shadow of the Colossus that is often left unmentioned is that Wander’s mission does not just cause significant personal harm. As he progresses, he is literally killing the land he is in. Half the game is spent exploring the beautiful vistas of the forbidden land, and the other half is spent destroying it. It’s immediately clear that Wander is unleashing hell on the wilderness — to say nothing of himself — and much of the game is coming to love the world that you’re slowly eroding. The question that the game subtly asks is what right Wander has to enter a new land (forbidden by its very name) and start killing the creatures that live there. The creatures may be enchanted, towering idols, but they sustain their environment and removing them wounds the land. A part of the evil that Wander is committed to is selfishly hurting an ecosystem.

Photorealism and believability be damned. I want my lava worlds bordering my ice mountains, I want deserts at the coast of oceans, and I want a beanstalk that will take me to the moon. And while I’m on the moon, I want to ride eight foot chickens that live off seeds and nuts the size of my head. The more colorful and imaginative the world, the more I want to save it. Not because these are places better than the real world or even because they’re all that unique. I want to save video game worlds because they’re an exaggeration of all the natural beauty in the real world that is so abundant that no one person can see it all in a single lifetime.

But it’s ecologically irresponsible for a game to assume that people have all the power it takes to change a world without presenting the risk of harming it. I like saving the world, and I like the idea that ending evil will keep an enchanted forest enchanted. But no player should be given that kind of influence without at least addressing the possibility that it could just as easily create more problems if doing so is done recklessly. There are a number of problems with making a power fantasy in which mechanically the player is incapable of causing harm, among those problems are the fact that the earth and nature are not always positively affected by human interaction.