Impact Games Saving World

EcoQuest vs. Alba: eco games from different millennia

First, Sierra releases EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. 30 years later, Ustwo comes out with Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. Will these digital strolls in the nature bring forth a cleaner future in real life?

The simplest way to make the world better place with games is to use them to teach good things. The target audience can be kids, youngsters or the part of the adult population who have not yet found the meaning of life to be resisting all change.

The old-school hype term “edutainment” meant what it said on the label – the combination of entertainment and education. It’s an alluring idea. Studying is useful-but-boring, playing games is fun-but-purposeless. Combining them sounds like an absolute win – if you’re not like me and create mostly boring-but-purposeless things.

Another challenge of edutaining people is the unclear division between subtle nudging, direct teaching, annoying preaching and shady propaganda. Because the willingness and capacity to listen depends on the age of the listener, their indentity, party allegiance, and generally the fluctuating availability of mental bandwidth, there can be no rock-solid guidelines. Balancing the no-nonsense with the funny business is an art form – a part of the magic of game design. (Or the curse of.)

There are, though, topics that are less likely to create strong knee-jerk resistance. Not a lot of even the most battle-hardened Twitter Don Quixotes will go against literacy or math, for example. Or the idea of nature. Fighting against forests, lakes, cute animals or fresh air is not a enduring pastime.

Because nature is all around, impacts all of us, and is often something you can touch and feel, nature conservation and protection hits closest to the “safest edutainment topics” zone. When you add a innocent, smart, resilient and a brave kid as the protagonist, the reason to be angry about the protagonist is also minimized – because hey, it’s just a kid.

Following these parameters, let’s compare two interesting games, with similar theming, separated by 30 years of us going around the sun. Will we be edutained?

EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus

Sierra On-Line, 1991

The grandmother Earth of eco games

Happened in the 1990s: Sierra, one of the two giants of the golden age of point & click adventures, became interested in the embetterment of the people, and produced a dozen educational games.

One of the first in the series was EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, the first high-profile ecologically themed video game. (It was also the very first gig of Jane Jensen, who later become the creator of the very popular Gabriel Knight series of adventure games.)

EcoQuest is similar to the games Sierra is most famous for: it’s a visual, story-based adventure. You point and click to explore and solve puzzles with the main goal of completing the linear story of the game.

The early Sierra game design was a bit brutal, because even though adventure games are calm by nature, you could still die and even worse: miss something important only to become totally stuck later in the game, with no way to go back.

Luckily, EcoQuest is from the era where Sierra had learnt their lessons, and you can’t make permanent mistakes anymore. The stress-free experience of EcoQuest is emphasized by the friendly difficulty level – the game is mainly aimed at youngsters, but it does work for open-minded old geezers too.

Emulated with DosBox, the game runs nicely, and at least with my rosy retro classes, it’s still very playable. The worst effects from the decades of digital erosion is the UI: clunky by modern standards, but does the job.

As of this writing, the game is sadly not officially available anywhere other than eBay, where the price ranges from some tens of bucks to a couple of hundred, based on the condition and the rarity of the edition.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure

Ustwo Games, 2020-2021
iOS, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X

Environmental action for a modern audience

Ustwo, famous for award-winning, high-quality and artsy games like Monument Valley, released their biggest game in 2020.

Produced by Apple, and available on almost all the platforms, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is kinda like a family-friendly, 50-times shrunken Grand Theft Auto. Well, crime, cars and guns have been replaced with friendliness, walking around and environmental action, but we’re still talking about open-world style here.

Situated on a tiny Mediterranean island, you get to experience a week-long vacation of an enthusiastic kid Alba, who is a big fan of the nature. Alba runs around the island, completes tasks and missions such as picking up trash, fixing up a rundown park and helping seagulls stuck in crude oil.

The overall goals are to take photos of all the flora and the fauna on the island, and to stop a luxury hotel operation from destroying the island paradise.

The game is beautiful, calm, and radiates positivity and friendliness. Completing missions is quite easy and relaxing.

I personally completed Alba on an iPhone 12, and it took took me maybe 4-5 hours. The game offers customized touch screen controls, but if you have a physical controller on hand, the experience is a lot smoother.

Two siblings from different millennia

EcoQuest and Alba represent slightly different sub-genres, but the content is very similar. In both games you have a tween hero, taking responsibility, caring for the environment, and trying to stop the environmental destruction and animal suffering caused by the “adult world”, i.e. the modern industrial societies.

Adam, the hero of EcoQuest, can converse with sea creatures, whereas in Alba the link between the innocent and animals creatures is more magical; Alba experiences mysterious mental connection with lynxes, but does not talk with them. There’s less talking in general, and the game does not have an narrator explaining the more complex links between the game events and real world like EcoQuest does.

The style and tone of both is super positive and family friendly, and the difficulty levels are suitable for anyone who can read English. Both of the eco adventures last only a few hours, keeping them tight, compact experiences.

Times, they are not a-changing

Because the main bulk of the EcoQuest story happens under the sea, the game world does not feel dated. With only a few tweaks here and there, it could pass as the modern day. And that, my dear current-day reader, is sad.

In both games, the kids are solving the same problems: animals choking on plastic waste, dolphins stuck in fishing nets, a nature collapsing under the quest for hedonistic consumerism.

During my play-through of EcoQuest, I bumped into a cruise liner dumping their waste waters into the ocean. I thought to myself that such absurd behavior surely has ended during the three decades passed after the game’s release, but to my dismay, a quick google search proved me wrong. Cruise ships can still dump their crap directly into the oceans, as long as they do it a bit further away from the shorelines. What the hell, humanity? Were the 30 years not enough to fix this?

The only area where Alba’s content clearly comes off as more modern is the better representation of diversity, from genders to age and skin color. Alba handles this side effortlessly.

A side-note about the march of technology: in Alba you scan and recognize animals with a mobile app, which is something you can actually do with current day tech.

A similar scanning feature can be found in the EcoQuest sequel from 1993 – but back then, such scanning technology was pure science fiction. Nothing can make one feel older than life overtaking what was sci-fi just a moment ago.

Here we are now, entertain us

Back in the 90s, you went ahead and got EcoQuest, because point & click adventure games were THE genre. Anything Sierra or LucasArts released, you just had to have. Alba, on the other hand, you now want to get, because it’s high-quality, award-winning, and a relaxing experience, a calm island in the boiling sea of design-by-numbers games.

For educational games, good production quality and nice audiovisuals is important, because in the end, an average person usually plays games to be entertained. It takes mental effort to grab a game that signals it wants to teach you something, because it most likely won’t be exactly as fun as a product that optimized solely for good times and escapism.

You know, the age-old tasty hamburger vs. healthy salad dilemma. Or, a blockbuster vs. a documentary dilemma: a documentary will never get as many eyeballs as a mega-budget movie with shooting, punching and destroying cities. (It could be argued that if you lower the bar to the levels of Tiger King, a large audience is possible – but did that docuseries actually say anything worthwhile about anything?)

There’s a more hoops an educational game – or any game with an edifying theme – has to jump through, but when that happens, insights, facts, nuggets of information and all that good stuff will be injected into the cerebral cortex.

And naturally, that is where the impact of any educational game as an impact game stems from.

Impact transfer from imaginary worlds to ours

Because I was an impressionable wee lad when EcoQuest was released, it did change things in my head. Thanks to EcoQuest, I have always felt that releasing balloons into the air is a bad idea – when they reach their peak, they will eventually deflate, and an unsuspecting animal will try to swallow them for snack.

This cause and effect of littering with balloons is presented in EcoQuest in a way that is easy to grasp. In an early part of the game, the protagonists try to warn a kid about the gusts of wind and balloons, but are too late: the balloons escape to the skies. Later in the game, you have to deal with a turtle choking on the bits of the balloons.

The problem and how to avoid it stick better when you see the cause and effect, and are additionally moved by an emotional reaction, i.e. in this case, the empathy toward an innocent animal suffering.

In this sense EcoQuest comes off as the winner, because Alba struggles to explain the causality of the events. For example, it’s pretty strange that the island is littered with trash, has seagulls stuck in oil, but the game does not deal with the reason for these problems at all. Happy adult townsfolk live on the island, and logic would dictate these peoples’ behavior is to blame, but the game does not go there at all. By brushing aside the the reasons for the enviro-mess creates an accidental message of “treat the symptoms, ignore the disease”.

The resolutions to the issues in EcoQuest are generally more realistic concerning what needs to be done, and how arduous it can be. Alba assumes there’s no need to explain anything. Cleaning up a seagull in EcoQuest is a multi-step process that takes time, but in Alba it’s just a one-click instant fun activity.

Deep in the lands of alternative fact is the element in Alba where squirrels sickened by green goo are healed with a medkit. Sure, it still represents empathetic attitude, but such wacky activity in the game does undermine the potential for someone to take action in the real world. The garbled message about goo, squirrels and medkits eliminates the possibility of deducing the link in the chain where you personally could have a positive impact.

When creating EcoQuest, Sierra worked with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, and the game generally strikes me as being on a sturdier scientific ground than Alba, which occasionally feels a bit like an oversimplification of nature preservation. As positive an experience as Alba otherwise is, it bums me out that the factual side has the occasional gaps. It would’ve been possible, with some more iteration in the design, to have stronger factual foundations without having to give up any of the fun side.

Positive impact externalities

Back in the day, EcoQuest inspired people to take local action for the environment. Smaller waves of that activity traveled all the way over the Atlantic, to the faraway land of Finland. Here, a youngster wrote Sierra about cleaning up the shores of a local Finnish lake, which impressed Sierra – they remembered the event in the game box materials of EcoQuest 2 and in their InterAction magazine.

In addition to being directly informational and empowering for players, impact games often have external positive effects too. These materialize from spending time on background investigation for the game, adding to the developer’s own insight, and leading to concrete positive side action.

When Sierra was working on EcoQuest, the ideas for the game pushed the employees to be more mindful about the environment, which lead to using more recycled office supplies and sustainable game boxes – not a given in the 90s. Also, when the players heard about the co-operation with the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, the center received multiple propositions for co-operation and volunteer work.

In the past years, Ustwo has planted more than one million trees, one for each Alba installation, through a tree-planting service called Ecologi. One more thing to inspire you to get Alba and one more thing Ustwo is doing for the planet.

Sooo… nature. It’s ok now, right? Right?

Even with all the positive action, vibes and increased insight, the state of the nature has unfortunately not yet taken a big enough leap that would be cause for joy. You’d definitely think that 30 years would be enough for more. The situation in the air, seas and the ground is not good.

Conscientious people are pushing for better legislation, promoting sensibility in consuming, doing what they can. There have been plenty of larger and smaller victories where plastic has been replaced with biodegradable solutions, we have startups coming up with imaginative ways to collect plastic sludge from the oceans, some are electrifying water travel to minimize the minimize the noise that disturbs sea life, and minimizes innocent sea creatures from being mauled by unprotected propellers.

Maybe some of these entrepreneurs have gotten the original spark to take action from EcoQuest. I find it plausible, since as proven by this post, I am still thinking about what the game tried to tell us and I am still in the fight for the planet. Maybe a new generation will remember how much Alba fought for the island and want to do the same.

Nevertheless, nature is still taking a brutal beating, the planet is heating up, and biodiversity is nearing a closing in on total collapse. Even facing low odds, the heroes of these games, Adam and Alba, did not get paralyzed, did not give up, did not try to blame things on the imaginary others – they personally took action for the common good, in the shape and form that was manageable for them.

That is exactly what each and everyone of us can and should do, and for impact games that is a worthwhile message to broadcast again and again.

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