In the last few years, “going green” has gone from an activity associated with well-meaning hippies to a full-on mainstream movement. We recycle, we seek out alternative energy sources, and yes, we even play games with eco-friendly messages. Heck, we've even turned the G4 logo at the top of the page green to bring some attention to the issue.
From the kid-activist outreach of 90s mascot games to the latest titles with a message, here are the mainstream video games that have taken the usual trope of “saving the world” and made it a little more literal.
SimEarth (PC/Mac 1990)
Better than just saving the Earth, SimEarth let you command it completely. Giving players direct control over variables such as the atmosphere, the rate of continental drift, etc. with the goal of creating a perfect world for animals to evolve into an advanced civilization, here we have an “ideal planet simulator”. Much like the real world, there were natural disasters and once you had people running around – pollution. It’s so eco-centric that Gaia Hypothesis originator James Lovelock was involved with the game’s design.
Perhaps the “greenest” element of the whole shebang (aside from the obvious theme) is the fact that every action in the world has a cost in energy (“omega units”). Sure, it’s a trope of the resource management/god-game genre, but framing things that way sure looks a lot like the energy-saving devices we have today.
Awesome Possum… Kicks Dr. Machino’s Butt! (Sega Genesis, 1993)
Ah, the 1990s. The time of Ferngully: the Last Rainforest, of American culture’s embracing of large-scale recycling, and the glut of lame character platformers on the 16-bit systems. Awesome Possum is possibly the most heavy-handed with its environmental message of any game on this list, with its rather unsubtle storyline about saving the environment from the evil, polluting Dr. Machino and its edutainment bent (the player is asked questions about wildlife in between traditional 2D platforming stages).
It’s basically a Sonic The Hedgehog rip-off; with eco-tastic trappings: you collect empty bottles strewn about the land instead of rings, and it’s a recycling symbol that denotes your lives. I doubt this game made any 90s kids into hardcore environmentalists, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Eco-Fighters (Arcade 1994)
The ad that Capcom created for this arcade shoot-em-up was pretty instructive for possible proprietors. “They clean up the planet, you clean up on profits!” it declared, in bold, white-on-purple 1990s lettering. Wallet-friendly and environmentally friendly - why, that’s a win-win!
The game itself tasked players with “battling evil eco-criminals in the ultimate challenge: saving the planet and all its life forms from extinction!” and it delivered on that promise with fairly robust co-op action and plenty of cartoonish stages in which you could deliver environmental justice (via bullets or giant swinging laser sword action). There was even an area where you attack bulldozers and other nasty “eco-criminals” that are destroying a peaceful forest. PETA wishes it had that kind of gumption – and arsenal.
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (PlayStation 1, 1997)
While mixed in with the game world’s general anti-slavery/humanist messages, the Oddworld games carried a strong does of environmentalism. Abe’s Oddysee - a beloved PlayStation 1 puzzle-platformer that oozed atmosphere and story – set the tone for the whole series back in 1997.
The game starred Abe – a “Mudokon” janitor at the giant, polluting, RuptureFarms Corporation - which happens to specialize in killing off species for popular products. When he finds out Mudokons are on the menu, he attempts to flee the forbidding factory environments, rescuing his fellow green guys and escape into nature. Then he gets to come back and rain justice on his former overlords.
If that doesn’t sound like an environmentalist's fever dream, I don’t know what is.
Katamari Damacy (Playstation 2, 2004)
On the surface, Katamari seems a little too abstract to be about a real-life issue like the environment. A wacky, creative puzzle-y title where you rolled objects in rainbow hued environments together to make a giant ball of… stuff, it’s all a bit out-there.
But look just a little bit deeper, and the “green” trappings are all over the place. The story itself concerned the king of all cosmos destroying all of the beautiful celestial bodies in the sky after (or during) a night of heavy drinking. It was up to you, as his tiny son, to clean up the mess, build up the world, and restore harmony to the universe.
Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like the common narrative about children inheriting a mess of a planet from the older generations, and needing to clean it up/fix it? I mean, sure, we’re not trying to fix the earth by rolling a giant ball of junk together, but the allegory still stands.
Chibi Robo: Park Patrol (DS, 2007)
Chibi Robo’s cute (and very fun) DS outing proved that robots could be part of a green future. In fact, that was the whole premise of Park Patrol: you played as a tiny robot tasked with beautifying and revitalizing a park, accomplished by planting seeds, picking up trash, and defending your territory against nasty pollution. You were even able to dumpster dive and “reuse” the handy items salvaged from garbage cans.
It’s especially telling that your enemies were called “smoglings” and “smogglobs” – pollution ruins everything, even for robots. This is the kind of game Captain Planet would probably play on his subway commute.
Flower (PlayStation Network 2008)
Perhaps more than any other game on the list, Flower was a conservationist’s dream. Often hailed as a shining example in the “games as art” holy war, it was a semi-experimental game where you played as the wind in a beautiful, natural landscape. The narrative, which was woven through the simple gameplay with far more subtlety than, say, Awesome Possum, tied heavily into green themes of conservation, appreciating and protecting natural beauty, and even the need for alternative energy sources.
It was simple, powerful story, told well – and it’s far more gorgeous than even most full-budget AAA titles.
Endless Ocean/Endless Ocean: Blue World (Wii, 2008-2010)
What better way to show an appreciation of Earth than by exploring its wonders? The Endless Ocean series consisted of two Wii games that are basically scuba-diving simulators populated by real-world sea life (complete with scientific names!) You could cavort with whales and dolphins, learn about aquatic ecosystems and even feed and “pet” fish.
The “message” was very simple and gung-ho: “here’s a beautiful world, let’s learn all about it”. Instead of framing things politically or socially, like most of the games on this list, it was a relaxing, often educational experience that showcased Mother Nature’s inherent worth.
Ecotopia (Facebook, expected April 2011)
It hasn’t come out yet, but the Harrison Ford-backed Ecotopia just had to be on this list. A casual game that will carry a decidedly “green” message and emphasize the core issues of the environmental movement, it will no doubt get much more attention than most other web-based games with similar themes.
Based on developer Talkie’s description, it will be a free-to-play title (with an April 4th launch date) with SimCity-esque gameplay that will have players “greening up” a dirty little town. Basically, it sounds like SimCity and Chibi Robo: Park Patrol had a Facebook baby, and Harrison Ford wants you to play it.
By Danielle Riendeau