Video Games As A Call To Action: How Gibbon Beyond The Trees Became A Lesson In Empathy

Video Games As A Call To Action: How Gibbon Beyond The Trees Became A Lesson In Empathy

We can learn a lot from playing video games.

Not in the sense of academia, I’m not talking about games like Reader Rabbit or Baldi’s Basics. I’m talking about games like PaperbarkGames that make us feel something, and force us to think about the world around us. While video games are one entertainment medium among many, they’re also the perfect medium to elicit emotions from the player. Big, important emotions like empathy.

Broken Rules is a game development studio located in Vienna, Austria. According to their website, the studio considers video games to be ‘important cultural achievements.’ Broken Roads seeks ‘to make every game a new and meaningful experience that lingers in your mind long after you’ve powered down your computer.’ It did exactly this with its award-winning title Old Man’s Journey, a game that touches on loneliness. This same creed can be felt throughout its new title, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees.

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is a physics-based endless runner. What appears on the surface to be about flying through the trees as a gorgeous little gibbon quickly gives way to the grim environmental reality endangering gibbons in the real world. To learn a little more about the game, I had a chat with the game’s director and the CEO of Broken Rules, Felix Bohatsch.

Image: Broken Rules

What inspired the creation of Gibbon: Beyond the Trees?

Gibbons, actually. So the game really started with just finding gibbons really cool. I have three kids and we started going to the zoo again, and one of the animals we always stopped at was the gibbons because they moved so beautifully. And I think that just stuck in my mind somehow. And then I wanted to try to get our players to feel how cool it would be to be a gibbon and how to move through the trees. So the starting point, the spark I’d say, was really the gameplay idea of getting this feeling into a game. And then we started researching gibbons and soon noticed that in reality, gibbons don’t have such a great life and they’re quite endangered. So that’s when it became clear that we wanted to get this whole topic into the game as well into it.

And what’s the development process been like? Have you faced any challenges, has your perspective on what the game was changed over time?

Yeah, it definitely changed over time. So the first prototypes we did, which were really physical simulations of gibbon swinging, were in Summer 2018 or something. And we put that into the drawer because it wasn’t… Well, on one hand, we got stuck with it being a simulation only. And then also, because the colleague I worked with was moving to a different project and didn’t have time to prototype anymore. So that got put into the drawer. And then another opportunity arose, which was Apple Arcade, basically. So Apple got in touch with us about if we have any projects that could be a good fit. And that’s when I took that prototype, or that idea, of moving like a gibbon out of the drawer again and looked at it with fresh eyes, together with Clemens Scott. Clemens Scott was art director for Old Man’s Journey.

Old Man’s Journey is Clemens’ and my baby, I’d say. And we focused all of it a little bit. We took a step back from simulation, abstracted the movement as well in the gameplay to make it more simple and more focused on the flow experience of the whole thing, rather than singular control of gibbons’ hands and grabs, and started to think about the whole world and the setting. And basically, Clemens’ and my work since Old Man’s Journey, or what we started with Old Man’s Journey was trying to get a real clear concept up ahead, upfront, and focus on: What are our goals? What do we want to communicate to our players? What do we want them to feel?

At that time, that was around the beginning of 2019 to Summer 2019, we developed the structure of the game and the narrative of the game. At least the rough structure and rough narrative. And also the focus on gibbons, the habitat loss of the gibbons, and that we want the game to feel good and play well and have this flow focused gameplay inspired by Alto’s Adventure or Canabalt and other endless runners. We wanted to start to tell a story during this endless runner gameplay style, but try to mix it with a narrative and use environmental storytelling to get players to think about the dangers, the habitat loss and the deforestation and destruction, and really put players into the shoes of a gibbon to make them think about these whole problems. I usually talk very, very long. So you can always me or interrupt me [laughs].

Oh my god, I would never. The last thing I want to do is stop someone from talking about what they’re passionate about. It’s the whole reason I wanted to talk to you. But you ended on what my next question is, which is how does your game address issues facing the gibbon population?

One of our goals for our games is to make people think about stuff that we think is worth thinking about, that is interesting for us, but that we also think is good to keep in your mind and ponder. So we want to create games that stay in players’ minds after they stop playing, basically. That’s one of our goals. So there’s always some theme, some message behind our games, and for Gibbon, it soon became clear that we wanted it to be about habitat loss because it felt strange to create just this escapist simulation of a beautiful forest and exotic landscape and jungle and rainforest stuff, which was the starting point. The starting point was trying to get our players to feel how cool would it be to be a gibbon and to jump from tree to tree and to enjoy this wilderness and this beautiful nature.

So that is still in the game, and it’s important that it’s in the game, but it felt wrong to just keep it as this escapism thing while we know that gibbons are threatened outside and that the jungle is getting less and forests are getting smaller. So once we knew we want to get this in, the big question was how do we do it without telling people, ‘You’re so bad, this is wrong, you shouldn’t do this, and you should do this,’ because the truth is we don’t know how to solve these problems. These problems are super complex. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of dependencies, a lot of people depending on stuff, animals depending on stuff. And the whole global capitalistic system behind all of it. We don’t think there’s an easy solution. We also don’t think there’s a solution that works for everyone.

Image: Broken Rules

So we decided on showing the problem and using empathy… I think games are a good tool for empathy or they’re a good creator of empathy. I think players have a natural empathy towards the character they’re playing and towards the world they’re inhabiting, and we already used that in Old Man’s Journey, but we also wanted to use it here to get players to feel empathy for the gibbons, but also for the world. And then I think it’s easier, or it just comes naturally for everyone, to understand that this is a real problem and that it really sucks that these forests are being destroyed without any thought about the animals living in there.

And then I think we get these ideas into people’s minds and into people’s heads, and then everybody has to think for themselves how to deal with it, or how to come up with ways to make the world better. And I think that’s an individual choice. For one maybe it’s donating, for others it’s getting active, for other people it’s shopping more consciously, whatever. Maybe for others, it’s just talking about it with friends and maybe it’s even okay to ignore it. I don’t know if you can. But maybe that’s also a solution. So I think our goal as game developers and game designers is to bring up this topic and to show the problem, but then it’s the responsibility of our audience and of our players to act upon it, and that’s an individual choice.

I know that you guys worked with the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project and the Gibbon Conservation Society and a few others on this game. What was it like working with these various NGOs to properly portray issues like this?

Well, first of all, we really learned a lot of things from them. So while we did have a rough structure of the game and also of the narrative and what we want our players to feel, usually what we start is we have this rough, simple narrative and something we call an ‘emotional progression curve’. It’s basically over the progression of the game, what we want our players to feel. And it’s very simple. It’s just like positive emotions or negative emotions, or maybe some foreshadowing or it’s some kind of threat and stuff like that. And we used that to then get all aspects of the game to raise these emotions in our players, or to raise the chances that our players feel this way, basically.

But we didn’t really have the details of what actually is happening. So we knew that we wanted to start positive and with the really beautiful feeling of being in the jungle and enjoying it, and then we wanted to show the destruction of the deforestation. For example, originally we always thought about logging, like chainsaws and big machines and falling trees and all that stuff. And then we started researching it, because usually, we make games in places that we know ourselves very, very well. That’s an easy choice. Old Man’s Journey is set in the Mediterranean area, like Italy, south of France, stuff like that. We’re not from there, but we know it from vacations. It’s just close to Austria, basically, and we’ve been there a lot. And the game before was even set in the Alps itself, in the wilderness of the Alps, so that’s stuff we really know.

And we always did that because we wanted to know a lot about what we are portraying. So this time, now it’s set in Southeast Asia because that’s the habitat of the gibbon, we needed to really talk to people. And that’s how the NGOs came in. The first goal was really just to talk to people, to get to know that area and the problems more thoroughly. And we talked to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. They’re actually based in Thailand. And we talked to Rainforest Rescue. They’re more focused on the rainforest, not gibbon specifically, but the rainforest and habitat loss. And to the Bruno Manser Fonds, they’re focused on indigenous people in Borneo. It’s not in Gibbon, but I think it’s an important part. And they are really also a great organization.

That was at the start of the process. And they told us a lot of things. From Rainforest Rescue, for example, we learned that it’s not logging that’s actually destroying the forest anymore. It’s not about the wood anymore. It’s about farmland. So most rainforests nowadays get burnt down because that’s the easiest way to then build a farm on the land that used to be a rainforest. So that’s usually for palm oil, but also for other stuff. I think it’s also for paper production or it’s for mining and coal, coal mines and stuff like that. So one, burning down the forest is quick and easy. Number two, it usually can be done illegally, and then it’s already over, so you can use the land. Even if you were not allowed, nobody knows who made that fire, who started it.

So that’s why we shifted a little bit away from the whole logging and more to burning fires and burning forests. And from the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, we learned about what the real threat of gibbons are. One of the facts that I remembered most that stuck in my head, for example, is that they told us that poaching was declining, actually. Let’s say 10-15 years ago it was declining. It wasn’t such a big problem anymore. And then suddenly it started to pick up again. And at first, they didn’t know why, but then soon they learned it’s because of social media, it’s because tourists want cute pictures with gibbon babies to post on their Facebook or Twitter feed. That’s why poaching started again because there was a high demand for gibbon babies, which I find really also interesting because it also means that while it’s a local problem, or while it’s affecting a local region, it’s actually a global problem. We are all connected. It’s not just there.

Image: Broken Rules

That was also important for us always to try to show that this is not about the Indonesians or the Thai people, it’s about all our actions, the actions of all humanity, all over the world, that affect these gibbons. They also told us that gibbons live in small families. At first, it was only about two gibbon friends, because Old Man’s Journey was already so much about family that we didn’t want to do another family-focused game, or we thought our characters, maybe this time, they don’t need to be family. But yeah, then it soon became clear that it’s just a natural thing to have this gibbon family.

And he also told us about the hunting of gibbons. We originally didn’t want to have a real hunt scene in there, but when they told us about the poaching, which is also a tough story. The way we portray it in-game, it’s quite accurate, while it’s not… Usually, they’re not getting hunted in the plantations. In Gibbon, they’re being hunted on a plantation. Usually, they’re being hunted in the forest, but the way it actually really works is that the disadvantage for gibbons is that they sing. They sing in the morning and in the evenings. They do it because it’s a social thing for them. It’s communication, and that’s why they’re easy to spot. So gibbons usually just live in the treetops. They never go down. They hardly ever touch the ground in their lifetime, actually. So they’re hard to spot, but because they sing, they’re easier to spot. So in the morning, you can hear them sing, so you know where they are.

But to get to the baby gibbon, which is usually the goal for poaching, the baby gibbon is always clinging to the mother. So they need to get the mother. And to get the mother, they need to first kill the other adult gibbons that are protecting them. That’s the other male gibbons, but also other older female gibbons. So maybe it’s an older sister, an older aunt. So they first shoot the older gibbons that are part of the family, and then they shoot down the mother to get to the baby. And they have to shoot the older gibbons because otherwise, the older gibbons attack the hunters once they try to start shoot down the mother gibbon.

So they shoot down the mother gibbon to get to the baby gibbon, and sometimes because they fall off from 10 meters, 20 meters down, sometimes the baby gibbon dies on the fall, so they have to shoot another family to get to a baby gibbon. So in short, they have to shoot a lot of gibbons to poach one baby gibbon. And then they use it for a year or maybe two because then it grows too old and it’s not as cute anymore, and then they discard the young gibbon. That’s where the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project comes into play. They find gibbons that are ‘too old to be cute’ anymore and they try to get them ready to be rehabilitated, but that’s usually not that easy. It can take up to 10 years for a gibbon. Sometimes it’s never possible anymore.

They’re apes. They’re very close to us humans, so they take up… We heard of gibbons that started drinking beer or smoking cigarettes because that’s what they saw from their captors, basically, and usually they’re not being kept in a very natural environment from these poachers. They’re just in a house someplace. So they take up bad habits from humans and they have to unlearn those. Sometimes they’re blind from all the flashes from the photos. There’s quite horrible stuff. We haven’t put all that horrible stuff in there, but the stuff we put into the game was really much informed by talking to these NGOs.

We showed them our concepts. We told them what we wanted to do because, at the beginning of the game, we didn’t have much to show. And then they told us about the reality of stuff, and then we iterated that, tried to get it into the game and showed it to them again… We made videos usually because not everybody plays games, and especially games that are half-finished are hard to play, so we usually made videos, showed them, and then got another round of feedback. And that’s how we worked with them, and that’s how they really informed Gibbon, the game itself.

Image: Broken Rules

So what do you think makes this game different to other games that you’ve worked on in the past?

Well, there’s the simple stuff. It’s the biggest game we’ve ever worked on. It had the highest budget, the biggest team, which was stressful and an organisational challenge. We also had a very remote team. So about half the team was based in Vienna. Then we had people in London. Our art director, Catherine Unger, and our main artist Kitt Byrne are both in London, which was good because they were close together. And then we had a programmer in Canada, the main movement and physics programmer, with whom I had a lot of calls in the evening. It was his morning and my evening, basically. And music from Seattle. So that was tough to manage, and it was a challenge, and our producer Josef Wiesner did a really good job of keeping the team sane and connected and up to date on everything.

And then there was COVID, so that made everything even more remote. Even the Viennese team was, for a long time, not in the same office. We always had an office space, but for some time there were really few people there… That was a challenge. That was the simple stuff. The simple stuff in the sense it wasn’t an easy challenge, but it was like the organisational stuff, maybe the boring stuff. Big budget, big team. That was the first challenge for us. 

The other challenge really was using a setting that we don’t know very much ourselves, that we had to get to know first before we can portray it respectfully and accurately. We use tropes a little bit and stereotypes. I think it’s always okay to abstract stuff, simplify stuff, and stylise stuff, but if you do it, I think you have to know a lot about the things you’re portraying so that it’s done respectfully. And that was really great with working with NGOs, but we also had a culturalisation expert checking stuff, making sure we were not offending anyone. That was in that sense stressful that, until launch, there was always a little bit of uneasiness that maybe somebody will afterwards write us, “You can’t do that. A house never looks like this,” in Southeast Asia or something like that. Especially because we have a very naturalistic approach in the sense that we try to portray something that’s heavily inspired by the real world. I’m always inspired mostly by reality and by real stuff, and the hard part is stylising it without losing too much, basically.

And then the technicality of the movement of our gibbons. I think it comes across really simple and easy now, but it was a whole challenge to get it to that aspect. To get it to be controlled nicely, to get this flow feeling, but still have a little bit of depth and complexity in there, and obviously keeping the feeling of gibbons and their movement style. It’s called brachiation, the way they swing through a channel. That was basically a challenge up until the months before launch. We made changes to the movement system and to the onboarding and tutorials up until the months before launch, because we felt there was still… In the beginning phase, a lot of people had a hard time really getting into the flow and it is important for the game, also for the narrative side, to get into the flow. So that was also a really big technical challenge, which was why it was great to work with our programmer in Canada, Eddy Boxerman. He’s an amazing physics and movement programmer, and without him, we could have never done that. That was really a big co-designing session.

I feel like you might have answered this a bit, but I’d love to go a bit more in-depth about it. What have you learned from making Gibbon?

Well, I’ve learned a lot of detail about deforestation and the problems behind it. Something that I haven’t mentioned yet is we’ve also been in touch with a Viennese documentarian called Werner Boote. He made a film called The Green Lie, which touched very much on palm oil production and how big corporations are greenwashing their products. And in palm oil, there is a lot of greenwashing going on.

It was interesting to talk about it with him. How do you deal with difficult topics in entertainment products, because even documentaries, in the end, are entertainment products? And how do you approach that? And also how do you work with NGOs and how do you find out which ones are the ones you need to talk to? Or maybe sometimes there’s also fake stuff going on. Even in NGOs, there’s corruption and stuff like that. And working with that, I found out that it’s actually quite the minefield. In a sense, there are so many things you can do wrong or pick up wrong and all the fact-checking that has to go into it. And I still feel, maybe we’ve done a little bit too little of that whole thing. I know that Werner Boote, for example, does more on that, but he also has one or two people working on really contacting NGOs solely and fact-checking. So I also learned that it’s a lot of work to deal with difficult topics, environmental topics that deal with these complex systems and situations.

Image: Broken Rules

Dealing with these topics is a minefield and there’s a lot to think about. I think we went in quite naively and learned a lot in the process of how to deal with that. And of course, a lot of stuff about gibbons and rainforests, which I already told you about before.

So you guys of course are no strangers to tackling issues like these in your games, with Old Man’s Journey tackling the topic of loneliness and also making me weep like a baby. Do you think you’ll continue making more games like this, that take focus on issues both personal and impersonal and if so, why?

Yeah, I definitely want to keep making personal games. I definitely want to keep making games about topics, themes, or thoughts that interest me and that I find interesting. And for sure, with Old Man’s Journey, we succeeded in our goal of touching people all over the world and getting in contact with total strangers from any culture in the world, and I think that’s really nice. It was really great to also get feedback. You don’t get much feedback, but sometimes you get a tweet, or an email, or a review that tells you that it was really nice to play your game and that it made you think or made you cry or made you laugh, whatever. And that’s really great to hear. And that’s why I make games or why we make games is to touch people and to communicate with them.

Obviously, it’s a one-way communication track usually, but I find it really nice to know that through games I can communicate with a huge audience all over the world. It doesn’t even have to be huge, but a very diverse audience all over the world. And to get into people’s heads and to make them think about the stuff they might have heard about, but overlooked or not thought about much. And I find that really great, and I definitely want to continue that as long as it’s possible. And that’s the hard question. How long can small games find an audience? That’s where the whole platform issues come in. It’s a changing market, platforms are changing, markets are changing. Audiences are changing. Expectations of the audience of games are changing.

What I find the most interesting is short, polished, focused experiences that put players into the shoes of another human or another being like a gibbon, and to give them the chance to look at the world or at a problem from a different viewpoint, or from the viewpoint of a different being, and like I said before, feel empathy for these characters and for the world, and that’s what I want to try to continue to make.

Once you play a character, you feel for this character and I think almost everyone will feel empathy towards that character and towards the world. Of course, then there are the other characters like NPCs, and a lot of games don’t treat them very nicely. That’s where maybe empathy is missing. But I think you can’t help feeling empathy at least for the character you’re playing, and as a game designer, you can use that to address topics and issues and problems that you can’t do in other mediums.

After our conversation, I had the pleasure of playing the game myself. Not only is it visually quite beautiful while also remaining simple in design, but it’s also fucking heartbreaking. For a game to be able to elicit emotion in such a way is incredible. Gameplay-wise, the motion of swinging and jumping takes a hot second to get the hang of but once you’re used to it, it’s a lot of fun.

Gif: Broken Rules

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is an experience unlike any other, and clearly comes from a place of love and care. While short in playtime, it really punches you in the gut and makes you think about the harsh reality of the world. Don’t we all need a grounding fist to the belly every once in a while?

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is available to play now through Apple Arcade and Nintendo Switch, and will be releasing on Steam on May 18th, 2022!

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