A cute game inspired by the behavior of gibbons at the local zoo was what Felix Rich wanted to make. However, life in the 2020s complicates things.
After completing a little research on the modern life of monkeys, the adorable play about gibbons swinging rapidly between trees suddenly seemed insincere to me. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has stated that gibbons are “one of the most endangered families of primates”, with more than 14 species listed as endangered or critically endangered. This knowledge will form the basis for the future game Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, resulting in a work originally developed for Apple mobile devices that starts as a soothing walk through the jungles of Southeast Asia, and soon turns into a jungle full of real threats. .
But Gibbon: Behind the Trees is not a tedious educational game. Inspired by fast-paced, action-oriented games like Alto’s Adventure snowboarding game, Gibbon: Behind the Trees focuses on sliding, swinging, jumping, and hovering through its landscapes, gradually tapping into conservation themes through the various threats gibbons face for their habitat and livelihood. The game has a serious message, and it sounds like a call to action. The game invites players to think more broadly about our world and who we share it with, rather than hitting us over the head with a weighty thesis.
So yes, it’s a game with a lesson, but it never loses sight of the greatness of an animal in nature. “I was very inspired by their elegance,” says Gibbons’ Bohatsch, who heads the Vienna-based game studio Broken Rules. “Especially when they jump from tree to tree. They do these really high jumps into the canopies. That’s where it started. I have three children, so I’ve been to the zoo several times, and gibbons are one of my favorite animals.”
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is available for Apple Arcade, the mobile giant’s $4.99 monthly subscription service, as well as for home computers and Nintendo Switch. It is one of the relatively rare series of popular games where environmental issues are addressed directly. 2020 water documentary game “Beyond Blue” also comes to mind, but there is a part of me that is hesitant to play with save game topics for fear that it will alienate potential players. When I described the game to friends, I met with questions about whether the game is depressing. I have never felt this way while playing.
That’s because Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is a forward-looking game, albeit striving to balance the feeling of free spinning over and through the trees with a deeper meaning. “Most games — or the games we care about — don’t involve simulation,” Bogach says. “They are trying to focus on a certain feeling. But in the course of our research, we found that gibbons are endangered, and their way of life is being actively destroyed by people. So very soon it became clear to us that we couldn’t build pure escapism.”
However, it’s also not necessarily in the studio’s DNA. Gibbon: Behind the Tree is the sequel to 2017’s Old Man’s Journey, a meditative puzzle-driven adventure that explores life’s memories, lost loves, and bitter regrets. Weighty objects are also the reason Gibbon was originally conceived as a more carefree palate cleanser. Once the studio had a better understanding of the current reality facing endangered species, Bohatsh and the Broken Rules team were faced with the challenge of how to keep the game mechanics simple, fast, accessible, and, well, fun, while still doing justice to the real facts. . ?
“We were afraid that people would back off if they heard that it was about environmental environmental issues,” says Bogach. “We wanted people to get into the game for the way it looks and then show them the problems. We changed it a little because we realized that this angle is an important part of the game. We realized that these issues and deforestation make the game unique, but they are also an integral part of it. So now we call it an eco-adventure.”
We start in lush forest landscapes and glide through indigenous cultures that strive to live in harmony with nature. Soon, however, we are running and jumping among metal-framed houses as deforestation threatens the habitat. Things get darker, but our pink, blue and yellow gibbons – with some creative freedom, of course – never slow down. While playing on the iPhone, my hand rarely left the screen for 60 minutes or so, and I always enjoyed directing my gibbon to flip or slide through the colorfully eye-catching images.
Transitions between chapters are usually interrupted by one of the gibbons stopping and drawing attention to the environment. Perhaps a fire in the distance or construction equipment looming. The situation becomes more tense as the game progresses as the gibbons are hunted, such as a sad nod to news reports of young primates torn from their families to be used as a tourist attraction. Traveling fast and staying above ground can often get gibbons to safety, but expect the final chapters of the game to be a challenge as poachers chase our heroic animals through an area almost devoid of trees. Avoiding paved or dirt roads under our gibbon is far from easy.
To keep the focus on the story, the team wanted to avoid in-game trappings such as scores or points. It’s never about improving your previous run through the woods. The game is always about getting the gibbons to safety. Here, Bohatsh has taken lessons learned from previous games. While he’s quoting Alto’s Adventure, work that gave the snowboard a dapper look, as one of his favorite games, he felt that its emphasis on scoring and collecting coins or llamas detracted slightly from his main interests.
“I wanted to learn more about the characters,” Rich says. “I wanted to know what this world really is. After all, you are after high scores. I think it turns out to be empty in the end and I say this even though I totally adore “Alt”. But for us, the problem was how we can combine a flow-based movement system and get people into the flow, and a beautiful movement system, but use storytelling, as we learned in The Old Man’s Journey. Get rid of high scores. It was a design challenge.”
It succeeds, and not only because of the intuitive game mechanics that work especially well on the touch screen of a smartphone. Tonally, the playing undergoes several shifts in its relatively easy running time, using musical accompaniment as a way not to heighten tension but to telegraph emptiness. The notes fade as the trees grow smaller, giving the feeling that the natural world becomes more empty. Construction cranes loom like bright red monsters that pierce through what would otherwise be a serene moonlit sky. And the poachers arrive like funny fools, oblivious to the natural grace of gibbons.
In order for the game to accurately reflect the real ailments that threaten the gibbon population, and since the COVID-19 pandemic meant that a trip to Southeast Asia was not planned, the team consulted with a number of non-profit organizations. Working with gibbon rehabilitation groups in Thailand, for example, changed the history of the game. Most notably, Gibbon: Behind the Trees became a rescue mission to rescue a young gibbon, the latest addition coming solely from the team’s research.
“We have changed a lot,” says Rich. “In the beginning, Gibbon was about two gibbon friends. We didn’t want to focus on family after Old Man’s Journey. But we have learned that gibbons live in close family groups. More importantly, we learned that if they are poached, they are poached for the sake of the child. Sometimes they are shot by illegal loggers for their meat, but more often they are killed for their cute baby gibbons. This is a recent phenomenon. This is because tourists like to be photographed with cute gibbons, which is terrible. This is absurd. It connected us because it showed us that this is an international, global thing.”
These heartbreaking realities also convinced the team that they were on the right track, that their original game idea of gibbons flying through the trees could be a fun game that the studio could rally behind. Bohatsh says that the interactivity of games makes them a tool to communicate with their audience, and so it’s better to have something worthwhile to say.
“I think every game is political,” Rich says. “Everyone takes a certain position. When choosing a design, every game developer pays attention to the world and human conditions. Even if some developers try to be apolitical, this is not possible. Knowing this, we want to try making games about important things. In addition, games are difficult to execute and require a lot of time, effort and money. So let’s use it for something of value. Escapism is good sometimes, but even in games about escapism, you make choices that affect how players view the world.”
Bohatsh says the studio is also aware of the fact that games require learning not only for the development team, but also for the players, who will have to learn how a new game thinks and behaves in order to complete it. They require more commitment than more passive entertainment.
“I have three children and I really appreciate the time and effort of our audience. I know how hard it is for me to find the time and energy to play. I rarely have time and energy, so I want to make games for people like me. We want to give you food for thought. We try to make games that stay in the memory of our players.”