In Floodland, an upcoming city-building strategy game, the big boss isn’t a monster, sorcerer or rogue state, but something just as foreboding: climate change.
It all started when developers Kacper Kwiatkowski and Grzegorz Mazur of the Poland-based indie studio Vile Monarch decided they wanted to create a post-apocalyptic city-builder with a realistic catastrophe as the catalyst. Climate change wasn’t originally central to the game’s narrative — when Kwiatkowski and Mazur pitched video-game publisher Ravenscourt, it was just a minor point buried in the presentation slide deck. But Ravenscourt’s team “realized there was a climate change angle,” said Kwiatkowski, and encouraged the pair to run with it.
Four years later, Floodland is slated for a Nov. 15 release on Steam. As its name implies, the game tasks players with rebuilding society after melting polar ice caps have ravaged civilization, reducing land masses to war-torn islands. A thick layer of fog shrouds the waterlogged landscape, yet vestiges of the world’s industrial past remain: half-submerged ocean vessels, rusted water towers and crumbling skyscrapers. Electricity is a memory of a bygone era, and all that remains are bands of nomadic survivors and scant resources.
It’s a surreal art-imitates-life moment at a time when the world has been swept up by a series of deadly floods that have demolished homes, inundated farmlands and wreaked economic devastation. In Pakistan alone, torrential rains this summer killed more than 1,000 people and drove half a million into relief camps. Officials estimate the damage at more than $10 billion, and the country faces a food crisis as a result.
“There’s very few games based on climate change,” said Kwiatkowski. “It’s a real issue.”
But video games are increasingly dealing with climate change themes, though with varying degrees of accuracy and effectiveness. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, the 2011 strategy game Fate of the World has players balance the threat of global warming with free-market economics such as cap-and-trade policies. In contrast, Battlefield 2042 — set in a not-so-distant future ravaged by climate change — players hurl their characters from helicopters into tornados that transport them across the land. The 2020 factory simulation game Factorio punishes players for their pollution-causing constructions with alien attacks — a more meaningful, if outlandish, portrayal of the consequences of mass industrialization.
Floodland isn’t the first to envision a dystopian planet inundated by sea level rise. The premise of rising tides can be found in adventure-action games like Highwater, Submerged and the critically derided classic Waterworld (based on the 1995 Kevin Costner flop of the same name.) Meanwhile, Endling and Frostpunk spotlight other environmental dangers such as wildlife extinction and coal consumption.
But explicit depictions of sea-level rise are still few and far between among city-builders — a fact that’s surprising, given that so much of the genre is about constructing and managing infrastructure that invariably pollutes the natural world, while at the same time exploiting resources from it.
To realistically integrate climate change into city-builder sims, the environment needs to be more than just a backdrop, says Konstantinos Dimopoulos, a game designer with a doctorate in urban planning. As an example, he suggests “punishing players for over-relying on coal and oil with flooding that drowns your characters.” In contrast, players could be rewarded for implementing green technologies or adopting sustainable practices.
Floodland isn’t that game, but it’s less naive than others that have come before — without eschewing hope. Like the issue of climate change itself, Floodland forces players to deal with trade-offs that exist in real-world decision-making. For example, as players forage for resources, such as remnants of old-world technologies, they encounter other survivors. Players not only need to manage the population influx but also appease a diverse array of ideologies, some of which may clash with their leadership decisions. That can lead to dissent, uprisings or even death. Players also need to create laws for this new society, which can affect everything from water consumption to recycling.
One reason climate change hasn’t been a bigger theme in city-builders could be that the topic is considered too “mundane” for players used to fighting dragons and zombies, said Dimopoulos. Another stumbling block is that climate change “generally doesn’t have a happy ending,” he added.
But the likeliest reason is probably that the gaming industry generally steers clear of overtly political messaging.
“If a game relies too much on current events or social problems, they [video-game players] tend to become defensive, like, ‘This is meant to be entertainment. I don’t want politics in my game,’” said Kwiatkowski.
Last year, Battlefield 2042’s design director, Daniel Berlin, said the dystopic setting was only implemented “for gameplay reasons.” Dennis Shirk, the lead developer for Sid Meier’s Civilization VI: Gathering Storm, which has players reckon with sea level rise from greenhouse-gas emissions, also denied any political motivations, saying, “We just like to have our gameplay reflect current science.”
Recent data, however, suggests that mentality could change. A recent report found that most video game players in the US are concerned about climate change, and believe that the gaming industry has a responsibility to act on global warming, including by reducing its own carbon emissions.
Floodland is largely a work of fiction, but oceanographer John Englander, a sea level-rise expert who has supported the game — the Floodland team is distributing his book Moving to Higher Ground to schools — believes the medium is uniquely suited to raise awareness about climate change.
“Video games can be a better vehicle for education because you’re interacting with it more, as opposed to watching a movie, which is more of a passive experience,” said Englander. “That makes them incredibly persuasive.”
To contact the author of this story:
Allison Smith in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.