It’s one of the biggest threats the world faces, but can video gaming make fighting climate change exciting? Inspired by Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Liam Maguren plays A New Beginning on Steam.
A decade ago, climate change prevention didn’t get ears perking at EA, Activision or any of the other AAA gaming companies searching for a new hit (unless they were inspired to make Waterworld: The Videogame a reality, which was quite possible). But as more of the world started to realise that “oh shit, climate change is actually real and frightening and maybe I should lay off the steaks before the cows fart us to death,” the more interested big game companies were in turning that public panic into playable entertainment
Now climate change is a part of the latest Call of Duty, so you know it’s reached mainstream consciousness.
But CoD isn’t the first game to grapple with global warming. In 2010, German company Daedalic Entertainment released an adventure game aimed directly at raising climate change awareness. With an appealing graphic-novel aesthetic, an intriguing time travel plot and a focus on dual characters from different timelines, A New Beginning can’t be faulted for originality. But it can be faulted for having a questionable English-language dub track that deflates the story and, at least once, the game play.
We’re first introduced to Bent, a disgraced scientist whose research into algae energy hasn’t shown sufficient results for decades. Out of nowhere, he is approached by Fay, who claims she’s travelled from a sucky future where the aggravated climate has claimed most of the human race. And it’s totally our fault. According to Fay, Bent’s research needs to be completed in order to prevent a series of exploding nuclear plants, causing said suckiness.
I can’t recall the last time I played as a middle-aged man in a career crisis (or, for that matter, a woman who travelled through time – Coco Bandicoot maybe?). It’s refreshing at first; point-n-click adventures live and breathe through their characters, story, art and writing. But although Bent and Fay are novel characters, they’re not exactly memorable, and I suspect a large part of it has to do with the translation from German to English.
For the most part, the English-language voice actors are the vocal equivalent of plywood – very thin and completely wooden but still enough to hold everything together. Not much is done to flesh out our leads beyond the occasional “Bah humbug” from Bent and a half-committed “Yay…!” from Fay. Sometimes a line reading sounds as if the actor has just been handed the page for the first time, with weird inflections and peculiar pronunciations all over the place. (At one point, Fay literally says “Ummm” as if she’s reiterating the word for a spelling bee.)
Bent and Fay are not exactly emotionless; they’re simply too matter-of-fact about everything for the player to invest in them as human beings. Even when caught in an emergency, the characters can never let rip with an actual scream or cry for help. The script doesn’t try much harder to spice up the dialogue with some wit either. In the corner of your mind, you’re going to be begging for one of them to crack a good joke. It never comes.
The translation problems even bleed into the gameplay. A specific puzzle asks you to use protesters to distract a bald bouncer, so you get them to chant about stopping the “clear cutting” of trees. The bouncer gets mightily pissed at the “clear cutting” line – to this day, I’m still not entirely sure why (or how the holy hell I was meant to figure that out). Either I’m out of tune with the insensitive slurs the bald community faces on a day-to-day basis, or something got lost in translation.
If it were any other video game, these setbacks would have been enough to give up on it entirely. But the game’s climate change message is so damn noble that I couldn’t stop playing – even if it expresses that message with all the subtlety of a clapping toddler with pans and pots for hands.
It also helps that the art remains constantly, eye-lickingly gorgeous throughout.
It’s kind of like seeing a wounded soldier on the battlefield, dragging his crushed legs and crawling with one arm while holding up a world peace flag in the other. It’s a broken, sometimes painful journey to witness, and you fear they won’t make it all the way. But when that soldier plants his flag up high on the hill, you can’t help but salute.
And when A New Beginning reached its conclusion, after 11 hours of tremendously forgettable pointing and clicking, I saluted. Well done, brave game. Well done.
This post, like all our gaming content, is brought to you by the noble warriors at Bigpipe. Sign up for unlimited, uncapped naked broadband.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.