So I have this long-standing curiosity about how video games use space. When you’re playing a game, you can walk around an area and poke into all the little corners – it’s just a very different experience of space to what you’d get in a movie, for instance, where the camera and your field of view is tightly controlled by the director. As part of that interest, I keep an eye on what I think of as environmental management games – whether that’s survival games like Don’t Starve, where you have to work the land to keep yourself alive, or farming games like Stardew Valley, where it’s a bit more about creating and developing a day to day routine. I’ve written a few times about this sort of genre – most recently I think regarding Mewnbase, although if you check out the Index you’ll be able to find articles about the others too. Anyway, I’ve found Forager in the bonkers itch.io bundle from a while back, and it has its own little quirk in how it defines the relationship between the player and the land. Let’s talk about it.
Forager is a 2019 game heavily inspired by all our favourite farming sims – the game’s Steam page explicitly references Stardew Valley and Terraria as influences. You start with a little parcel of land, and you can develop out in whatever way you like – you can become a farmer, or a trade magnate, or you can go mining – it’s very similar to Stardew Valley in that it gives you a range of possible directions for play and allows you to mix and match. Because of its similarities, we can in turn repeat some of the basic comments that we might make about Stardew Valley. Forager is a game that revolves around working the land for profit without any concern for the needs of the land. Indeed, the land is portrayed as having no needs, seemingly so that you can exploit it to the full without thinking about any negative repercussions. The game sanitizes a mindset that, in the real world, leads to pollution, environmental destruction, the staggering loss of biodiversity, and the potentially apocalyptic consequences of climate change. However, I think there are also some elements of the game that work against that interpretation – and it’s those elements that we’re concerned with today.
So in Forager, you start off with a relatively small parcel of land. You can harvest everything on your patch, and it’ll just keep popping back up. If there’s a clear patch, something will spawn on it – a tree or a rock or flowers or whatever. And as you gain access to more and more land, the spawning process gets increasingly out of control. You can get an idea of it from the image below – I was down the other end of the island for five minutes, I come back up here, and it’s a fucking war zone. The land is uncontrollable. It’s too quick – it gets ahead of you. That’s kinda interesting. As a player, you don’t get the sense that you’re in control of the land. You can tap into its power, but it’s not tame. It’s wild. It’s bigger than you, and it’s doing its own thing. I’ve previously talked about the idea of non-player processes, where you as a player are not at the center of the world. In Stardew Valley, it’s things like the passage of time, or the turn of the seasons. It doesn’t matter what you do as a player – these are external processes that tick along without reference to your actions. The respawning resources in Forager is similar, but I think in some ways more extreme, just because of how inconvenient it is. Your path can be blocked, such that you can’t get to where you’re going without having to hack and slash your way through the environment. That’s much more antagonistic than anything in Stardew.
In response to this wildness, you end up developing coping strategies, ways of managing your play based on the conditions you’re faced with. This is for me probably the most interesting part. In any game, regardless of what it is, you adapt yourself to the systems you enter into. In a racing game, for instance, there are systems controlling the speed of the car and the way it turns, the conditions of the track – all that sort of thing. As players, we adapt ourselves to those systems in order to play well. We learn how to turn the car properly – we learn how to use the systems that are in front of us. In an environmental game, the game systems that we adapt to are particularly potent, because they reflect the real ecosystems and processes of the real world that we inhabit. So, for instance, one of the rules common to Forager and other games like Don’t Starve or Stardew is the idea of sustainability. You can grow a crop of vegetables, but you need to get seeds from some of those vegetables if you want to create a second harvest. That’s a game mechanic as well as a system that governs how food actually works in the real world. In other words, the games are modelling real-world environmental principles, so that as you play, you’re operating within and maybe learning about some of the systems that govern our actual world. As such, it’s interesting to note how these different games portray and engage with the environmental systems that they model. This was the initial critique of Stardew Valley and Forager – they portray our actions as having no negative effect on the land. There’s no such thing as soil quality or overfarming the earth. Your cows don’t create prodigious amounts of effluent, potentially poisoning waterways or groundwater. It’s consequence-free farming, which, as I said above, sanitizes a mindset that in the real world contributes to the oncoming climate crisis. And it’s not that every game has to be green environmentalist propaganda, right. This isn’t a complaint about political correctness. It’s just noting that when games portray real-world systems relating to the environment, it’s worth reflecting on what those games say about those systems. It’s just basic media literacy, frankly.
Anyway, let’s return to the systems that this game encourages you to adopt. Forager is very happy for you to be inconvenienced by the environment, which creates a sense of scale between you and the natural world. It makes you feel like a tiny, quite marginal presence. The game tells you that you’re not special, and that the world doesn’t have any obligation to make life easy for you. It doesn’t revolve around you – it doesn’t care about what’s convenient. That’s an interesting perspective on our relationship to the real world. It is enormous, and it doesn’t care about what’s convenient for us. In response, you can develop certain techniques that will help you get around. For example, you can see in the screenshot above that there’s a little road in the bottom right, arcing around to the druid. There’s also a more extensive road system below. Things won’t grow if the land is paved over – so you can create these stable pathways through the environment despite its otherwise uncontrolled resource production. In itself, that’s a cool idea. You’re not destroying or undermining the earth’s fundamental function, but you’re carving out a little path for yourself in the midst of it. It’s sort of like a hiking track through a forest – you put down bark or whatever to keep the track clear, to stop things from growing back, but at base there’s still a giant whacking forest doing its thing.
I guess the concern for me at this stage is that I’m not sure about the extent to which you’re able to control the environment. I’m not sure whether the game ultimately portrays the environment as something that you have to live with, or whether it’s something that you’re able to bring in hand – whether you can control it so entirely that its wild, unwieldy nature is neutralized. For example, theoretically you could just pave over everything. You still need the land to produce resources, so it’s not necessarily a feasible option, but you could do it. And there are questions about the extent to which you could get away with that sort of approach. There are artificial alternatives to many of the key resources – for instance, you can create coal and the different ores from farmable products like flowers and wheat. There is an outstanding question here as to how the game positions you with respect to the land. Is it, in the final analysis, a behemoth, a titan that you live on the back of without ever feeling fully in control? Or is it a naughty child that needs to be brought under the whip? When games like this are modelling systems that affect our real world, you better believe the answer matters.