by Laura Wenus
I don’t know what normal game designers in the Czech Republic get up to in their free time, but apparently the folks over at Amanita Design have a distinct knack for incidental conservationism.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Machinarium, Amanita’s outrageously adorable twist on point-and-click science fiction games, it was a mildly steampunk robot-centric love story following the design firm’s first big success of Samorost 2 in 2005. While directing Machinarium’s robot avatar in a journey to find his rusty princess, the player is presented with subtle hints against excessive waste. Your machine friend comes back from a garbage heap to wreak havoc on the bullying robot overlords, for example. He (spoilers, you should definitely go play the game if you haven’t yet) wobbles into the fortress by repurposing some traffic cones and paint as a disguise. You have to pedal a bicycle-generator to earn the privilege of playing the next puzzle-game. And so on.
And then, last April, Amanita unveiled Botanicula. As a quick aside, the games cost around $10. I am mystified about how this happens (more about this later), because Machinarium and Botanicula both boast not just elegant design and their own creepily legit soundtracks (available on Spotify), but also seriously gorgeous art. See?
Aside from being attractive, however, the games always manage to come with an undertone of eco justice. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Your job as a group of five little plantlike friends in Botanicula is to cooperate to complete puzzles and wander through the dreamlike world of beautiful biomatter, from your basic bugs and leaves all the way up the food chain to birds and all the way down to strange little protozoic water dwellers. The puzzles and wanderings are all in the name of rescuing your home tree from what appears to be a globular, spider-like parasite.
Let’s step back a moment and think about what that symbolizes, intentionally or not. The enemy is rather abstract and you can’t really tell what it is. Toxin? Spore? Alien? My money’s on it being a proxy for some kind of invasive species. The world you are trying to save is also marvelously complex, underscoring in players’ minds the idea that the adventure takes place in well-balanced ecosystem, rather than in a simple planar setting. Life forms with various levels of intelligence are uniquely anthropomorphized, so you’re never sure which one the designers want you to identify with. Probably with everything. Tasks often involve bringing potential allies some natural resource or other, but rest assured: The resources are always harvested responsibly, growing back as you watch.
There’s even a nod, however stereotypical, to Native American / First Nations culture. And while the little shaman guy in question is plenty eccentric, your team doesn’t skip a beat because everything in this game is grade-A bizarre. And that’s okay, because with all the eccentricities, nearly everything in the game is just so darn loveable.
And so you care about them, which is precisely what the Amanita designers (presumably) want to happen; featured in last year’s Humble Bundle (Steam’s initiative in which purchasers divide their game payments between the developers and charities), Botanicula’s profits were directed towards the England-based World Land Trust. Whether Amanita’s concern for the environment has developed organically or synthetically, they teach players something about ecosystems, or at the very least harbor a subliminally conservationist mindset. For what it’s worth, I/we at Artvironmentalist award them big kudos. When you bring together pretty pictures, clever puzzles, and great sound and manage to slip in a little green thinking, you’ve contributed something to society. Way to go, Eastern European indie design outfit, way to go.
Images from Amanita Design
Laura Wenus is a Contributing Writer.