Roads got so hot in the Pacific Northwest this past summer that the pavement cracked and buckled. Hurricane season grows longer every year. As the polar ice dwindles and wildfires level suburban backyards, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine life as it exists in the game Rewilding—scorched, smoggy, and devoid of life as we know it.
Rewilding, under development by indie studio Heavy Meadow and the recent recipient of a grant from the NYU Game Center, begins in the 2200s, after we’ve snuffed out America’s ecosystems and retreated to resilient megacities.
The main character, Syd, has been tasked with restoring a small parcel of land in Upstate New York, transforming a barren waste into a functional ecosystem. They’re employed by ReGen, a megacorporation that sees restoring the planet not as a moral imperative, but as a juicy opportunity for a tax break. If that wasn’t fraught enough, the rewilding process will take hundreds of years, so Syd manages their little chunk of greenery between extremely long naps in a cryogenic pod.
Syd is rightfully skeptical of ReGen’s intentions. Their questions about the value of the work is offset by the bubbly pronouncements of an AI companion who’s been programmed for blind optimism about the project. Together, they monitor soil conditions and plant seedlings, then check back in as the years fly by to see the results.
Rewilding, with its focus on the degradation of the natural world and the possibility of restoring it, belongs to a long tradition of games that grapple with environmental issues. 1997’s Final Fantasy VII influenced an entire generation of young gamers by casting large corporate polluter Shinra as the villain and a group of scrappy eco-terrorists as heroes. Another PlayStation RPG, 1999’s Chrono Cross, explores humanity’s careless extinction of other species and asks if we deserve to live at all. Games like Okami and Flower let players bring vibrant ecosystems back to life.
It's no surprise that as climate change transitions from disquieting possibility to lived experience, games that incorporate environmental collapse into their themes or mechanics are increasingly common. But many of them offer easy solutions to complex problems. The lone protagonist of 2016’s critically acclaimed Abzû can bring balance to the ocean’s ecosystems in a single afternoon. Okami's celestial paintbrush restores nature with divine power.
Other recent games with environmental themes indulge in naive fantasies about the control of nature, rewarding players for mastery over it. Terra Nil, another game about rewilding promoted as a “reverse city builder,” falls into familiar patterns, exploring nature as a resource to be managed. Its top-down perspective evokes a godlike dominance over the landscape, taking the ruined earth as a blank canvas on which mankind can start fresh.
Rewilding offers a bleaker but more sophisticated portrayal of the end of the world. Its development team set out from the beginning to emphasize the player’s lack of control. In a wide-ranging interview with WIRED, Rewilding's creators stress that they wanted to make something that questioned the extractive calculus of farming simulators and other resource management games.
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“We made a first-person game explicitly to stress that Sydney, the protagonist, is not an RTS commander wielding unlimited resources,” says Spencer Bernstein, one of the developers. “They are an individual attempting to help, to experience some kind of nature, and figure out where they stand.”
“There are a lot of games about planting individual plants and watering them and performing labor to help them grow,” continues Bernstein. “But not any games about the relationships between plants, and how to understand and listen to what an ecosystem actually needs to thrive,” they say, using the example of a nitrogen-fixing plant that enriches the soil.
Inspired by games with complex interacting systems like Factorio but turned off by power fantasies, Rewilding's developers wondered if it would be possible to make a game that dealt with ecosystems in a way that was consistent with their experience of the world. “We spent basically an entire year wrestling with that question—how do we tell a story about climate change when the genre of video games is so much about giving your audience control over their environment?” says Parker Crandell, another Rewilding developer.
Questions that challenge long-held assumptions about player agency in games are becoming more common. Game writer Meghna Jayanth gave a talk at the DiGRA India conference in November of 2021 about moving beyond the colonialist fantasy in games, where everything in the virtual world is an object to dominate or acquire.
One early answer for the Rewilding team was a sort of “post-colonialist Pikmin” that forced players to confront irreversible damage to native fauna. That idea was scrapped, but its plants survived to become the main characters of Rewilding.
A light bulb went off when the game’s developers came up with the core idea of Syd’s cryogenic sleep cycles. That first-person perspective through time means players monitor an ecosystem that has a life of its own. Gameplay elements that nudge players toward systems that thrive and collapse without their input were a stronger thematic fit for addressing the feelings of helplessness many people experience when they think of climate change.
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Players in Rewilding have to be mindful of what plants need to flourish. Rich in nitrogen but starved for moisture, a field of creeping buttercup and Joe-Pye weed might benefit from a water-retaining Dogwood tree. These calculations center plant life, not humanity: Syd’s unlikely to win any gardening awards, since creeping buttercup is caustic to human skin and Joe-Pye weed will run rampant if given its way. Instead of a powerful force reshaping the landscape, Syd’s a bit more relatable, an underpaid gig laborer wrestling with the meaning of it all.
Rewilding could have easily been a game about growing crops or cultivating therapeutic herbs, climbing ReGen’s corporate hierarchy, and making efficient environmental choices. But speedrunning the garden of Eden didn't make much sense to the Rewilding team. In their early twenties, the game's developers grew up in an uncertain world, a place over which they have little control. For them, climate change isn’t a problem to be solved, but a reality they experience.
Sydney doesn't grow more powerful over the course of the game, or end up controlling vast swaths of forest. Rewilding, which is targeted for a full release in 2023, isn’t interested in offering a fantasy of progression or a hero who can remake the world before it’s “too late.”
“We hope that you walk away from this game content with the lack of control you have over the ecosystem by the end of it,” says Bernstein. “You're feeling really anxious. You can sit down with this game and feel like this is a space that understands your anxiety.”
“It’s hard to believe a tree is ever going to grow out here,” says Syd, early in the game’s demo. But they go outside anyway, to at least make a start of it.
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