This Video Game Prioritizes Restoring An Ecosystem Over Profits
If you’ve played Rollercoaster Tycoon, Cities: Skylines, the Civilization series—even Animal Crossing—you’re probably familiar with this gameplay pattern: extract some kind of resource from the land, industrialize it into a theme park or a city, and (step three) profit, ad infinitum.
But Terra Nil, a new game from the studio Free Lives, fundamentally challenges this oft-used game loop. Instead of maximizing profit at the expense of the local ecosystem, the player’s focus is to make a healthier, natural landscape instead. You start with a barren wasteland (one that you assume has been completely desolated by human activity, perhaps the aftermath from one of the previously mentioned games), and with the help of advanced eco-tech—like wind turbines, soil purifiers, irrigators, and more—restore it to a thriving, diverse ecosystem. The player’s ultimate goal is to take all the tech they used to restore the land, recycle it into an airship, and fly away, leaving no human presence behind.
SciFri producer D Peterschmidt speaks with Sam Alfred, the lead designer and programmer of Terra Nil, about how Free Lives designed this “reverse city-builder,” how the studio took inspiration from the flora of their local Cape Town, and how he hopes the game challenges players how they think about traditional gameplay systems and their effect on our world.
Sam Alfred is lead designer and programmer for the game Terra Nil, at Free Lives. He’s based in Cape Town, South Africa.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Now, if you follow our video games, you’ll recall we’ve been covering how game developers are responding to climate change in their games. Some are a little dystopian, you could say. Others are a bit more hopeful. Producer D Peterschmidt is here with me to play one that I hear falls into the latter camp, hopefully. Hi, D.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Hey, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Tell me about this game.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. So it’s called Terra Nil. Have you ever played games like Roller Coaster Tycoon or City– Skylines, or Civilization, anything like that?
IRA FLATOW: Yes, where you build stuff up, right? You start with zero and you build a city or something.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Exactly. You kind of have this godlike view of a huge area of land, and maybe we’re growing crops to start a town.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Which leads to chopping down trees to build buildings. Which could lead to building factories or something like that. And eventually, you have this satisfying machine loop running.
IRA FLATOW: I wish I were that good at it. But yes, I know what you mean. Yes.
D PETERSCHMIDT: So Terra Nil is kind of the reverse of that. So you start with a barren wasteland that you assume has been ravaged by climate change. And it’s just dirt and some rocks and polluted stuff. But your whole goal is to restore it to a thriving natural ecosystem.
And then, the other part of your goal is just to straight up leave when you’re done. Remove any trace that you were ever there– no human presence.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. It’s like camping in the forest, right?
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, leave it better than you found it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, exactly.
D PETERSCHMIDT: So you have the game pulled up on your end, right?
IRA FLATOW: I have it up. OK. So I’m going to press the button that says New Restoration.
It’s just a barren land with a tree and one leaf that just blew off. Wow. That’s very sad looking. It’s like the face of Mars here.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, that’s not a good sign.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, it’s now starting. It’s providing me electricity. Tap to select a turbine. And it’s blowing. I see the wind is turning the blades.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yay.
IRA FLATOW: A toxin scrubber. It says it’s cleaning the soil. Wow. I see there are green patches there now.
D PETERSCHMIDT: There we go. So that’s kind of the vibe.
IRA FLATOW: I love it.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. So I talked to the lead designer of Terra Nil– his name is Sam Alfred– to just talk about how the game came together, what sort of scientific research they had to do for it. And I started by asking him how the idea for it came about.
SAM ALFRED: So we wanted to try and make something that was inspired by the genre of building games. But instead of building a city, you were building nature instead. So it’s starting with this barren wasteland and you’re bringing life back to it. That’s where it all began.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. So it’s working within the city builder genre. Can you describe how those games have traditionally been designed and played and maybe what was frustrating to you about those games?
SAM ALFRED: So typically, everything, particularly the natural world in a building game, is important for what value can be extracted from it. Like forests are valuable insofar as you can chop down the trees so you get the lumber so you can build industry. Or rocks are valuable so you can build castles. Or ore is valuable so you can run your factory.
And Terra Nil makes the argument– not overtly, but through its design– that nature and the natural world is intrinsically valuable. That it has its own value rather than value from what you can gain from it. So there’s not a lot of that feeling in the builder genre. It’s very much a numbers go up style of game, where you start with a village and you want to turn it into a town, and then you want to turn it into a city. And in order to do that, the environment is just a tool. It’s just a tool.
And we wanted to instead try and make a game where the environment was not the tool. The environment was at the forefront of the player’s mind when they were playing the game. In the moment-to-moment gameplay, you are constructing wind turbines or toxin scrubbers or irrigators, water pumps. And it’s like just very relaxed, slow-paced, meditative, and restorative.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. What kind of scientific research did you and the team do for the game?
SAM ALFRED: So our studio is based in Cape Town, in South Africa. And I’ve always had a deep love of the environment and of nature. I spent my childhood hiking all over the country. And in Cape Town, there is this incredible biome of wild flowers, called Fynbos, that only grows in the Western Cape, around Cape Town. And it also has this incredible property that require fire to germinate. They need to be burned in order to release their seeds.
And what this does is it means that all the grass and the scrub and the bushes that might have been competing for resources are no longer there, and the seeds can grow in the nutritious ash that’s left behind after the fire. So the first major update we did was taking this inspiration from Fynbos and putting this controlled burn fire mechanic into the game. That was the first real idea that, hey, maybe we can look at the natural world and find some incredible examples of ideas that people don’t usually put in video games.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Actually, when I first used the controlled burn mechanic, I just loved that controlled burn as a mechanic exists at all in a game. But I ended up almost burning my entire plot of land.
SAM ALFRED: That happens more often than you think.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. And I definitely had to hit the Undo button after that. I was like, oh, my God! No!
But when you and the team were trying to think of different methods of restoring the land, were you ever like, oh, we need some way to do X to the land, and actually this real-world method would be like a perfect verb for the player to take?
SAM ALFRED: Yeah. There are a couple of other really good examples from the game. We looked to five broad categories and I think 16 subcategories of biome classification on Earth. And we thought, wouldn’t it be really cool if we could make one level for each of the overarching classifications?
And so the approach to the game development became, OK, we’re going to make our tropical region now. Let’s do some research about what kind of plants grow there, what kind of biomes could you find. And so one of the elements you have to restore in the tropical area is coral reefs. Coral reef destruction and coral bleaching is a real big problem in our oceans today. With sea temperatures rising and shipping, things like that, coral reefs are getting destroyed all over the place.
So we did some research into how coral restoration projects work in the real world, and found some really interesting stuff there. So coral restoration projects often happen on land first, in coral nurseries, where there are these pools of ocean water that have steel frames in them. And coral apparently grows really well on steel.
In the case of a coral nursery, the steel frame is used as a skeleton for a new coral reef. And existing coral is taken and then, through a process called micro-fracturing, is spread out over the frame and adhered to the frame all over the place. And that increased surface area of the coral means that the coral growth is sped up significantly.
And then, once that coral is mature, it can be dropped into the ocean just as is. And over time, the coral will come to completely overgrow the frame and just use it as a backbone. And natural coral reefs do this too with rock. But in this way, we can speed up the process of coral reef growth.
So in Terra Nil, we have a coral laboratory that you construct on the land in the tropical region, and then you use a monorail network that’s an important part of the challenge of that particular level, to move that coral core into the ocean to then grow a reef.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Before I started playing this game, I was kind of like, OK, it’s going to be about climate change in some ways. And I think I was subconsciously preparing myself for it to be like heavy. But instead, the overwhelming emotion I got when I was playing it was like, oh, wow, all of this restoring our ecosystem is focusing on balance, actively making the environment better around you. It didn’t only feel really good, like in the short-term rewarding dopamine hit that strategy builder games are like really good at, but also big picture, feeling optimistic about action we can positively take about our future with climate change.
Like, there is this massive task ahead of us, but this game really gave me a firm sense of, oh, yeah, we can do this. It’s going to be a lot of work, but we can change our perspective about the work that will be involved with combating the climate crisis.
SAM ALFRED: Yeah.
D PETERSCHMIDT: How much of that did you and the team have in mind while you were making the game?
SAM ALFRED: Well, I mean, it’s really nice to hear that. Because this idea of climate positivity to combat climate apathy is very core to what we were trying to do with the game. We’re very much of the belief that the things we consume as a culture– the media, but also the cultural preconceptions and cultural beliefs– are like a self-fulfilling prophecy, where, if every game ever made is just about dystopian futures and cyberpunk cities, then it feels almost inevitable that we’ll end up there.
At one point in the development of the game, we did have many discussions about whether or not we should include what happened to cause us to get to this point. But in the end, we decided to include none of that. Because it’s not a game about browbeating the player with, these are all the things that went wrong. It’s a game about imagining a better future.
So yeah, that’s really nice to hear. That’s exactly what we’re going for.
D PETERSCHMIDT: You talked before about you and the team didn’t want to make Terra Nil be infinitely replayable, which is something a lot of other developers try to do with their games. Can you talk about the impulse behind that?
SAM ALFRED: Yeah. So quite early on in the game’s design, we realized that if this was going to be a game about balance of ecosystems– in the level of Terra Nil, you have to have wetlands and forests and Fynbos all in the same landscape– creating too much of one means that you can’t use that space for another. And so it’s very much part of the game’s identity to be about balance.
Being finite is a natural extension of that idea. If we gave you the option to just, I don’t know, buy more land because you grew too many trees, and now you need some wetlands, it would undercut the philosophical idea we’re going for that more important than growth is balance. It’s a game where, at most, a level will take you two hours or something like that, as opposed to being able to build the same city for 100 hours.
And the fact that you can’t just keep playing it forever, that balance is the ultimate goal. Infinite growth is not the goal. And this is, again, about the environment. But it’s also a little bit of a statement about society and some of the problems inherent in the way we view economic growth and the value we put on, your quarterly returns have got to be bigger this quarter than they were last quarter. Sustainability doesn’t come into it.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. What role do you think games serve in the context of climate change and climate action?
SAM ALFRED: I think games can be this incredible window into what is possible. Games are things people do for fun, generally speaking. They’re a recreational activity. And therefore, they’re a really great vehicle for getting people to think about things differently because they’re relaxing. They’re not being forced to engage with something. They’re choosing to engage with it.
So you can use a video game to let people know that there are things that exist that maybe they hadn’t heard of before and think to themselves, hmm, I’m going to look this up. I’m going to find out more about it. And maybe even go a step further and be inspired to do something else in the real world. And I think games have a unique opportunity in that respect. Because unlike a film, when you’re playing a game, you’re playing the game. You’re not just receiving it. You are taking the actions.
And so if we as game developers can help players take interesting actions that let them think and learn in different ways, it’s a hugely powerful medium.
D PETERSCHMIDT: I think that’s a great place to end it. Thank you for taking the time, Sam. And thanks for the game.
SAM ALFRED: Cool. Thanks so much for having me.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Sam Alfred is the lead designer of Terra Nil, developed by the studio Free Lives. Terra Nil is playable through Steam on PC, and Netflix Games on iOS and Android.
IRA FLATOW: And if you want to check out the trailer for the game, yes, head over to our website, sciencefriday.com/environmentgame.
D Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.