I picked up Valley recently, and it’s a really good example of how to build theme in games. It does get a little bit confused from time to time, but by and large it’s got some really strong stuff. I don’t think it’s a very well-known game, so I’ll link it here. I picked it up for less than $5 in the Steam sale – $5 NZD, that is – and it’s probably worth more than that.
So the basic themes revolve around the binary between nature and industry. There’s a mystical valley full of magic life energy, and you can collect the life energy and use it to bring things back to life. That’s the central kinda gimmick of the game. The valley’s been discovered by the army during the Second World War, and they want to harness this energy and use it for a bomb – there’s a bit of rivalry between one of the scientists in this facility and the guys on the Manhattan Project. So the army scientists are trying to take the life energy and weaponise it because the army is awful and bad. Those are the moral poles of the game – good nature, bad industry. Think Avatar and you’re basically there.
One of the big dynamics of the game, then, is the difference between giving and taking. Nature is something that gives: it creates the little magic energy balls, and just spawns them all over the place all the time. You can pick the balls up and then use them to bring trees and shit back to life – so nature gives to you, and you give back to nature. And it’s a really productive cycle. By contrast, the forces of industry just take. The magic balls are made by something called the Lifeseed, and the army take it and put it in their generator. They’re extracting everything they can get from it. They also store the life energy in these generators that you can find sitting around the place – so they take energy, and then instead of feeding it back into circulation, into the ecosystem, they just hold onto it. They hoard it, storing it away in their batteries. So nature gives, but the army just take. And there’s concerns that the army are going to drain the valley – they’re going to take too much without giving anything back. The ecosystem will be disrupted and eventually destroyed, because one party isn’t continuing the process of circulation.
This dynamic between giving and taking also informs the structure of combat. This is really fucking cool, by the way. Because all the life energy is being drained, you get swarms of insects that get aggressive and angry because they’re being starved. You calm them by basically shooting life force into them. You’ve got a life-force gun and you just shoot life into them until they’re happy and fed and they calm down. This is super interesting, because mechanically it’s structured just like normal shooting. But instead of shooting bullets, instead of shooting death, you’re actually shooting life into your enemies. The act of combat thus becomes another expression of giving. Nobody’s been giving to the insects, so they get starved and angry, and your job is to give them the life force they need. There are other enemies that pop up throughout the game, and again, you ‘fight’ them by giving them life force. And once the insects are beaten, they transform from an angry swarm into a glowing happy little bug swarm, and they start radiating life force. You can retrieve some of the life force that you put into them – they’re reintroduced into the giving ecosystem, and they start giving back to you.
There’s also a mechanic where, whenever you die, you’re basically brought back to life by the valley. It’s more complicated than that, but basically you come back to life and something else dies instead. In the top-left hand corner of the above image, you can see that three of the green leaves have been grayed out. Basically I died in a scripted segment, and the valley brought me back to life to introduce the mechanic. You might be able to make out the creature lying in center-frame – it’s a deer that died in my place. It gave its own life to keep me alive, and now that I’m alive, I can use some of my life-energy to bring the deer back. Everything gives, and everything stays alive because of it. Of course, if you keep dying, things in the valley will keep dying to bring you back to life, and eventually the whole place will be dead and there will be nothing to bring you back. So if you’re just taking (by dying lots), and failing to give back, the cycle grinds to a halt and it’s game over.
I said that the game’s a little inconsistent, and I think that’s true. You have this special suit (called a LEAF suit), and that’s what lets you collect all this life energy and feed it back into everything. This kinda complicates the metaphor to some extent. Industry is supposedly bad, but you’re only able to engage with the ecosystem because of the suit. Before you put the suit on, you can’t pick up the magic life energy or anything like that. You need the technology in order to engage with nature, which isn’t really helping the metaphor. The suit’s also called a LEAF suit, implying that although it’s technology, it’s closely aligned with nature. That’s how it’s able to interface with the magic life energy. But again, what does this do to the metaphor? Is industry bad, or only some industry? Because this technology seems pretty good. So what makes it good? What separates it from bad industry? We’re kinda sliding away from the nature/industry binary, and towards a sustainable/non-sustainable binary. Either is fine, but it just needs to be clear what you’re trying to say. Either technology is bad, or non-sustainable behaviour is bad. Pick one. Also, ah, the game introduces the LEAF suit with an in-game BioShock-style video introduction, and it’s like ‘With this suit you can run super fast and jump super high and also control life and death or something.’ This might just be me, but they probably should’ve led with the life or death thing, no?