Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, a new adventure game focused on environmental awareness, joined Apple Arcade’s catalog of over 235 titles on Friday.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees tells the story of a lost gibbon trying to find its way home amid growing dangers in the world like hunters, deforestation and the climate crisis. The game developers use music, color and the game’s play mechanics to convey a poignant message about protecting the Earth and about the constant barrage of dangers that wildlife have to navigate just to survive.
The colorful, atmospheric, endless runner-style game was developed by award-winning indie studio Broken Rules, the makers of Eloh and Old Man’s Journey. I spoke to Broken Rules CEO Felix Bohatsch, who said that the project was sparked by learning about brachiation, or the ape’s natural ability to swing through the forest. With simple taps on the screen, you’ll traverse the jungle’s trees and gain momentum to somersault across deep valleys and rivers in the game.
Once you get the hang of them, the game mechanics – reminiscent of titles like Alto’s Odyssey – induce almost a meditative state when combined with the gorgeous colors, jungle sounds and gentle music. The trees rustle, the gibbons call to each other with songlike sounds, and birds burst from the trees.
After learning more about gibbons’ endangerment and the risks to their habitats, Bohatsch told me, leaving the game as a casual endless runner felt like a disservice to the animals. The developers began doing more research and contacting nongovernmental organizations working on protecting the gibbons.
“We wanted to talk about the struggle gibbons face [and] I think games are a really great medium to put yourself, as a player, into the shoes of another person or being,” Bohatsch told me over video chat ahead of the game’s release.
Seeing the world through a gibbon’s eyes
As you continue in the game, the beautiful, peaceful scenery begins to change – plumes of smoke can be seen in the background, construction sites begin appearing, and fires get closer and closer. It becomes more difficult to swing from tree to tree because they’ve been cut down or burned. The in-game gibbon can run on the ground, but this becomes more dangerous as the fires spread. The game quickly turns into a fight for survival.
“It was a conscious decision to take away what you’ve enjoyed earlier in the jungle,” Bohatsch said of the game’s environmental changes. “It works because it emotionally does something to you as a player, but it also really hammers in on what it means to gibbons and other animals.”
Bohatsch hopes that playing from a gibbon’s perspective will create an link between the player and character, creating space for larger, important conversations. Intimidating and complex topics like the climate crisis, deforestation and protecting the planet can become more accessible and understandable to more people through gameplay. Prior to Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, Broken Rules tackled environmental issues in its 2014 game Secrets of Raetikon, where the game’s ecosystem is influenced by your actions.
According to Bohatsch, integrating these weighty topics without potentially burying players in sadness and guilt was a challenging aspect during the development of Secrets of Raetikon and Gibbon: Beyond the Trees.
When the credits roll on the game, the developers include the names of several organizations working to help the gibbons and at-risk environments. The organizations are also listed on the game’s website. Anyone can donate to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, Gibbon Conservation Society, Rainforest Rescue or Bruno Manser Fonds, which fights for the rights of indigenous Borneo communities.
Ultimately, Bohatsch said he wants to leave the decision to take action – whether shopping more consciously, volunteering, donating or some other means – in the hands of players.
“We think our responsibility is to talk about the topics and to get people to think about it,” Bohatsch said. “And then it’s the player’s responsibility to actually act on it, because that’s an individual choice.”
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