Not many games let you virtually save animals and the environment while actually making an impact in real life, too, but Alba: A Wildlife Adventure from Ustwo Games makes this goal a reality. Released Friday on Apple Arcade and Steam, Alba centers on a child who travels to a Mediterranean island to spend the summer with her grandparents and her friend Ines.
Once Alba starts exploring, she realizes that there’s litter everywhere, and local animals are at risk. With the help of her bird-nerd grandfather and Ines, Alba starts a grassroots campaign to clean up the island. As you play, the more volunteers you gather, the more luck your movement will have, so you must try to convince the islanders to join the cause.
Saving animals and working to combat climate change in Alba: A Wildlife Adventure isn’t limited to the game. Ustwo partnered with environmental conservation organization Ecologi to plant one tree for every download or purchase of the game.
“We thought trees [are] something that everybody will understand,” said Maria Sayans, CEO of Ustwo Games. “And that everybody can understand the impact of one game, one tree.”
Explaining climate change in a way kids can understand
The developers created Alba’s world from their own summer childhood memories. Ustwo’s creative director David Fernandez — who grew up on the Mediterranean coast of Spain — found commonality while working with fellow developer Kristy Keach, who hails from Scotland. Together, Fernandez and Keach were able to encapsulate how the summer holiday experience is a formative part of growing up — no matter where you’re from.
The game starts with young Alba running around taking pictures of animals, as many kids would. But to elevate that mechanic, the team looked to the Ustwo motto: Bring what’s meaningful about games to everyone.
“There isn’t really a way to make a game about nature without talking about the state of the natural world today,” Fernandez said. But the team didn’t want to heap on the doom and gloom, especially in a family-friendly game. “I think it’s a much more valuable message to say, ‘if we all do a little bit, if we all do our part, then we can [make the world a better place].'”
Kids today are bombarded with messages about climate change — so much so that they’re suffering from environmental anxiety, Sayans said. Instead of agitating that feeling, the developers said they wanted to nurture a sense of empowerment and optimism.
Setting a new standard for diversity and inclusion
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure joins Ustwo’s library of games that stand out due to their tone of kindness and gentleness, each carrying a quiet message on the importance of helping others, being a good friend and family member, and harnessing your curiosity.
Ustwo has also been working to change the standard white, cisgender male video game main character. Alba, a person of color, joins the Ustwo’s tradition of featuring female characters in their games.
“There’s enough male characters already in the games industry [and] we can use our platform to show that there’s other ways of doing things,” Fernandez said of the studio’s unwritten rule.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure also tackles issues about what it means to belong. For Fernandez, this issue of national identity hits close to home.
“I live in the UK [and] I have a son, and he’s growing up here [with] Spanish parents. He [also] has family in Spain,” Fernandez said. “And he’s developing his own national identity as he grows up. I found that interesting and heartbreaking at the same time.”
Everyone has a moment in their past where they can remember feeling out of place or like they didn’t belong, and Fernandez said he wanted this to translate into the game.
“[I wanted to] make a character that feels representative that you don’t actually see in games usually,” Fernandez said. “[Alba] doesn’t necessarily feel like she belongs in this place, and her selfish reason to be doing all these things is so that she can feel like she belongs, because she comes back every summer.”
Fernandez said Alba struggles in the beginning of the game, but as she fights for the island, her sense of belonging increases.
“It’s not where you were born, it’s what you do,” Fernandez said.
When the team is developing a new game, the topic of representation is immediately in the forefront, Sayans said. As a studio, Ustwo seeks to deviate from the mainstream — asking questions to find a story that hasn’t been told yet. When it came to telling Alba’s story, Sayans said the team was well-suited for the task.
“We’re very mixed,” Sayans said. “Most of us are foreign [and] living in London [and] that sense of being a foreigner or being displaced is something that’s very common to our own shared experiences.”
Gaming for a better future
With its partnership with Ecologi, Ustwo has set a goal of planting one million trees. Additionally, Sayans said she hopes that the educational and resource aspects of the game will energize the audience to take more positive actions, no matter how simple.
Ustwo is also working with Count Us In, an organization set up by the United Nations and TED, that helps people find practical ways to fight back against climate change. Players can get access to information about cutting back on plastic use, walking and cycling instead of driving, learning to repair their clothes, and more.
“And hopefully, if we get a section of our players to start thinking like this, and doing things like this, then I think we can feel that we didn’t just make a game about the environment,” Sayans said. “We actually touched people and energized people to do something positive.”
You can play Alba: A Wildlife Adventure andon Steam or Apple’s mobile gaming service starting Friday. Ustwo Games also created Assemble with Care, which you can also play on Apple Arcade, and the Monument Valley series.