(Not) E3 2022: Indies paint straight line from today's inaction to tomorrow's apocalyptic adventure
My favorite kinds of video games are the ones that are beautiful, kind, and compelling enough that you’d want to escape into their worlds. We saw plenty of these types during (Not) E3 2022 — particularly during Day 3 shows like the Wholesome Direct, Guerrilla Collective 3, and more.
But this year has also seen a different pattern emerge: One that’s less escape and more… following a bleak trajectory to its natural end.
That trajectory? Our own.
Games like Retreat to Enen, Highwater, The Cub, The Entropy Centre, The Last Worker, and Coral Island brought some similar themes to the table during this summer’s gaming events. Each, in its own way, holds a mirror to the world we live in and examines the social problems that just may lead to its downfall.
Our world is ripe with state-sanctioned and interpersonal violence, mass political negligence during a pandemic, corporate greed, and a snowballing climate crisis. And while the aforementioned video games are exploring these problems that weigh heavy on the mind, they also explore the hope of alternative paths.
What if a crafting-survival game recognized that connection with nature and meditative moments were critical to our survival — not secondary to it? What if the beloved farming and life sim genre operated more from a place of nurturing and revitalizing the environment than from a place of pursuing individual economic success?
Art has the power to combat the everyday violences of this world. And creative works like video games can be about escapism, yes, but also about confrontation, critical thinking, public influence, and unifying collective demands.
Below, we’re highlighting six games featured this week that demonstrate how developers are grappling with what it means to do worldbuilding that is truthful about where we are today and where we would like to be instead; worldbuilding that is meaningful and vulnerable in its “what ifs.”
Whether it’s an actual uptick in this type of environmentally focused and apocalypse-adjacent art, or just our anxiety-fried minds noticing the pattern for the first time, this year’s (Not) E3 presentations certainly did bring the question of climate change to one of gaming’s biggest stages this summer.
Retreat to Enen
Steam + Epic Games Store Aug. 5, 2022
PS5 + Xbox Series 2023
Showcased at: Freedom Games Showcase
“We were ungrounded and destroyed our world in the name of greed. But now we remember… that we are not in control of nature, but we are part of it. The world is our healer and we are grateful. We are grounded by the air we breathe and seek balance with nature.”
Retreat to Enen’s reveal trailer was backed by a dramatic, swelling track and spoken by an astoundingly earnest disembodied voice, pitching the kind of sentiment that would border on sounding a bit corny if not for the fact that it is a genuine nightmare to wake up each morning wondering how much longer this world can last and how we might cope with the anxiety of it all in the meantime.
Retreat to Enen presents an exciting addition to crafting-survival games. It strives to bring a more Zen experience, seemingly with little violence apart from hunting that is necessary for survival. Additionally, it requires more than collecting resources and crafting to survive: It asks players to meditate to survive as well. This unique mechanic is critical to keeping your spirit level high, altering your ability to do things like light a fire, sprint, hold your breath underwater, and craft items.
The game's premise follows a version of humanity that narrowly escaped extinction, turning away from war and toward peace just before reaching the point of no return. Now, the journey to Enen is a rite of passage that helps humans connect with nature and find their place in the world.
“It’s a hope and a dream that maybe someday the technology that we’re developing can actually help us live closer to nature and not continue removing us further from it,” said Justin Hosford, founder of Retreat to Enen’s Head West Studio, during the Freedom Games presentation.
Steam Dec. 2022
Showcased at: Summer Game Fest
Highwater seems to come from a team with climate catastrophe on the brain. (One of us. One of us!) Or maybe they've just built a world that they're proud to continue developing.
Regardless, Highwater comes to us via developer Demagog Studio, published by Rogue Games, and it's one of three games that takes place in this climate change-ravaged universe, along with Golf Club: Wasteland and The Cub (featured below).
In this universe, amid the Great Climate Catastrophe, the world floods and eventually becomes untenable for sustaining human life. It's war-torn, class-divided, and honestly, a little close to home considering how billionaires are spending their time in our real world these days.
Highwater features the fortified city of Alphaville, where the ultra-rich live behind giant walls. When the earth is doomed, humans set their hope on Mars and make plans to jump ship. In this 3D tactical turn-based strategy game, protagonist Nikos begins a perilous journey to navigate by boat and cross into the walled city with friends, sneaking onto the rockets in time to escape and survive.
Steam, Switch, PS4/5, Xbox Series Release TBA
Showcased at: Tribeca Games Spotlight
Although The Cub is set in the same universe as Highwater, the challenging 2D cinematic platformer looks to offer a vastly different experience. Developed by Demagog Studio and published by Untold Games, it is "inspired by classic SEGA games of the 90s" including The Jungle Book, Aladdin, and The Lion King, but with 21st-century sensibilities.
The post-apocalyptic platformer follows a young child who was left behind when the wealthy fled to settle on Mars. When people begin to return to Earth to do recon (and play golf), they spot the human child, who doesn't need a hazmat suit to survive, and attempt to capture the child to learn about their apparent immunity to the hostile planet. Cat and mouse chase ensues across the hazardous wasteland.
I, for one, am completely fascinated by this game's universe and exploration of what survival looks like for those with options and those without. Amid the chilling premise, the game is layered with more lighthearted elements, like its gorgeous bioluminescent environments, custom soundtrack of chill tunes delivered via Radio Nostalgia From Mars, and a childlike feel that harkens back to Disney classics.
The Entropy Centre
Steam, PS4/5, Xbox Series TBA 2022
Showcased at: PC Gaming Show
After an extinction-level event has set the world ablaze, you appear to be the sole surviving human in the Entropy Centre, a massive space station in orbit of Earth. Both the station and Earth depend on your time-twisting gameplay to rewind objects through time and make your way to the powerful core of the Entropy Centre.
The trailer for this Portal-like first-person puzzle shooter, developed by Stubby Games and published by Playstack, had our minds whirling about where this game's story might end; whether it will, in the end, be possible to return things to the way they were, or if it will even be the right call to do so.
Story aside, this trailer was an absolute standout during the PC Gaming Show, sharing a glimpse at an engaging puzzle-adventure game, that's set to explore "unfortunate truths" accompanied by an AI sidekick who manages to come across as delightfully charming. Count us in.
The Last Worker
Steam, Switch, PS5, Xbox Series, Oculus TBA 2022
Showcased at: IGN Expo
The Last Worker is an upcoming first-person narrative adventure from Oiffy and Wolf & Wood Interactive Ltd. It is centered around the struggle of humanity in an increasingly automated world.
You play as Kurt, the last human worker at a corporation where all other workers have been replaced by robots. As you execute your day-to-day tasks in a fulfillment facility larger than "the sunken city of Manhattan," you'll be contacted by a group of activists who want you to take on the role of corporate espionage from the inside.
The game's dystopian setting, shown in multiple trailers during (Not) E3 events, offers plenty of pointed glances in the direction of real-world corporations run by multibillionaires. But while the trailer hints at a dramatic and bleak world (not unlike our own), it's also packed with comedic writing, star-studded with renowned voice talent, and exhibits a fascinating visual style with handpainted 3D art based on concepts by comics legend Mick McMahon (Judge Dredd).
When the CEO declares, "At Jüngle, nothing can stop progress," it's clear that it's more threat than promise.
Steam Early Access Oct. 11, 2022
Switch, PS4/5, Xbox One TBA
Showcased at: IGN Expo
(DISCLAIMER: I am a Kickstarter backer for Coral Island.)
While Coral Island is not set in an apocalyptic world, its strong focus on environmentalism makes it a more than fitting candidate for today's list.
My first and greatest love in gaming has always been the farming sim. But while many of the greats — like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley — involve abandoning the mundane capitalist grind of the city to live off the land in a smaller, more rural community, the environmental tilt in farming games is much slighter than one might expect.
That's one area where Coral Island differs from its peers. In addition to restoring a farm, customizing your living quarters, and strengthening your community, you'll also be able to clear trash from the ocean to restore the coral reefs; plus, team up with your community members and the island's mystical deities to oppose the villainous corporation du jour, Pufferfish Drilling Corp., as it lobbies to drill near the island.
Coral Island is also special in its more carefully crafted representation of island life. While Stardew Valley has long had issues with a lack of racial diversity, its recent tropical update has been discussed at length as yet another piece of media that plays into colonialist myths that erase and exoticize indigenous island cultures.
Meanwhile, Coral Island, coming from an Indonesian indie development team at Stairway Games, celebrates diversity not only in the racial makeup of its community but in the ecosystem as a whole. This love letter to Southeast Asia incorporates distinct architecture, tropical crops, fish, and barnyard animals like the Luwak, native to Southeast Asia and Africa.
The game centers a much more collective kind of living, in which a surviving, flourishing, and connected community requires playing an active role in the decision-making and restoration of your home.
If any of these games caught your eye, wishlist them on Steam to support the dev teams working on these thought-provoking stories.
Keep your eyes on the VGG blog and Twitch livestreams for more coverage of these titles and more in the months and years ahead.