Game Review: Thoreau-ly Tranquil

By Lars Olsen

Walden, a Game undertakes the seemingly impossible task of converting American philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s most popular piece of literature into a video game. Nevertheless, the result is a surprisingly thoughtful experience focused on achieving work-life balance. You would be hard-pressed to find a more peaceful, reflective survival game available.

The game is a first-person simulation of the social experiment that Thoreau captured in his famous book, Walden. Beginning in the summer of 1845, the game loosely follows the timeline of his first year living in the woods at Walden Pond. The player undertakes their own journey of “living deliberately” in these woods near the town of Concord, Massachusetts, in a landscape modeled after reality, right down to the flora and fauna.

On this journey, players are in full control of their actions and the resulting consequences. You can play Walden like a classic survival game – fishing, mending clothes, and chopping wood all day – but lack of rest and reflection will cause your character to lose inspiration, silencing the birds and draining color from the woods. Alternatively, you may play the game like a virtual stroll through the woods – listening to bird calls and identifying plants – but you will soon starve and freeze. The key to success is finding a balance between work and meditation, just as Thoreau did.

We live in a society where “busy” is equated with “successful”, but Walden allows you to rethink what is truly important in life. This gentle pace challenges the player to find satisfaction through introspection and simple pleasures. We have been well trained by survival games to constantly search for the next task and finish as much as possible before sun-down. In Walden, no monsters come in the night, leaving you with plenty of time for a stroll around the pond. This format takes some getting used to, but it is an excellent reminder to slow down in the real world too.

The themes posed by Walden may be more important than ever for a generation of Millennials that have grown up with smartphones in their pockets. The game is also likely a more inviting medium to explore for a younger audience than the novel, so it makes the story more accessible than ever. Along with this accessibility, Walden has strong educational potential for players of all ages. Playing upon Thoreau’s values of environmentalism and self-reliance, the game can revitalize these same ideas that have been discussed in classrooms for over a century.  

Walden brings to life the Walden Woods and makes Thoreau’s story available to everyone. It immerses players in these tranquil woods, and advocates for a slower pace of life. Given Thoreau’s scorn for technological advances speeding up life, I wonder how he would react to his experiment being condensed into a 6-hour video game. Nonetheless, Walden provides an opportunity for everyone to take a trip to the woods and consider the pace of life.

Gameplay/Fun: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Educational: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Scientific Rigor: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Accessibility: Ages 8+
Platform: – Windows and MacOS – $18.45

Game Review: Fate of the World – Tipping Point

By Lars Olsen

The end is near! Earth is facing rapidly increasing global temperatures, human overpopulation, natural disasters, and much more. In Fate of the World (FotW), it is your mission to save the planet from impending doom through a series of strategic decisions. You must guide civilization safely into the future while balancing environmental, social, and political strife. This climate change simulation game provides a convincing and elaborate look at the future of humanity.

In the introduction of FotW at the 2020 Climate Summit, the Global Environmental Organization (GEO) is formed because individual nations can no longer be entrusted with environmental protection. As the president of the GEO, you must make tough decisions in a time of economic uncertainty and civil unrest. The game consists of several missions with various objectives that include limiting global warming, increasing GDP, or simply surviving. Your only tools for fighting the apocalypse are cards, which do things like expand renewable energy, instill a one child policy, or ban the use of coal across a region. You can determine which cards are beneficial to your mission by tracking an extensive web of depressing data. Success will only come to those who persevere, which helps players learn through trial and error.

Fate of the World provides an intensely complex model on the most challenging global issues of the 21st century: climate change, population growth, famine, poverty, politics, etc. This complexity is portrayed through unfiltered data sets on global emissions, population size, fossil fuel production, deforestation, GDP, food production, and everything in between. Such intricate data enables you to delve deep into strategizing for each region, which builds tension as every decision is a compromise and no strategy is perfect. For example, you may be forced to ban fossil fuels to slow climate change, but in exchange for destroying the fragile economy of developing regions. Ethical dilemmas and tough decisions inform players of the nuances of both the threats of and potential solutions for climate change. The emphasis on data and real world technologies demonstrates the benefits of evidence-based science in a changing world.

Despite the game’s wealth of data, FotW lacks simple cause and effect relationships to give the player feedback on their actions. This flaw may detract from the learning experience, but perhaps the developers intended their game to be cryptic in order to demonstrate how complicated these issues are. The sheer amount of numbers to sort through each turn is honestly overwhelming, so it would take a dedicated player to uncover every secret of the simulation. Unfortunately, the emphasis on quantitative analysis could easily be a turnoff for a casual gamer or younger player.

Fate of the World is more simulation than video game. It is cruel and provides a bleak outlook on global issues, yet it has enormous potential for educating about climate change and offers a challenging puzzle for everyone. Perhaps the best takeaway from FotW is its focus on portraying the interconnectedness of human activity around the world. There may not be a perfect solution for climate change, but we can survive with a little bit of compromise and a whole lot of data analysis.

Gameplay/Fun: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Educational: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Scientific Rigor: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Accessibility: Ages 13+
Platform: Steam ($19)


By Lars Olsen

In the year 2971, humans launch a ship into space in the hope of preserving their species. Global climate change has disrupted ecosystems and sea levels are rising. This ship returns to Earth thousands of years in the future to find a planet entirely submerged in water. Humans are extinct, but the aquatic flora and fauna have flourished. As the last human, it is up to you and your trusty submarine to explore the ocean’s depths and unravel the mystery behind the disappearance of humans.

From the moment you hit the water you are immersed in a new world that combines enormous subaquatic life with futuristic human technology. The sea seems peaceful at first, until you are equipped with a harpoon gun and are forced to fight a colossal worm trying to eat you. Designed by YCJY, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (AALH) will challenge your reflexes, ingenuity, and perseverance as you combat unique sea creatures and solve puzzles in the open underwater world.

AALH follows the basic Metroidvania template to create a beautiful, 2-D sidescroller with fantastic atmosphere, electronic music that amps up boss fights, and a dire warning about climate change. The entrancing, sprite-like graphics look hand-drawn and are bursting with personality. This is a brutally difficult game, so you will die frequently, but this makes your victories much more rewarding. AALH also has some graphic content, so I would not recommend it for young audiences.

The entire story is told silently through the scenery and forgotten journal notes called holo-tapes. Holo-tapes provide extra information remaining from the last civilizations, but you must piece together the subtle clues to see what happened. One billboard reads, “Water levels are expected to rise by 200 meters in coming years.” A holo-tape alludes to the relocation of coastal refugees. The environment is teeming with life and algae-covered infrastructure, including marine current turbines and solar panels. SPOILER ALERT: Piecing this together, you discover that humans could not end their oil dependency in time and sea levels rose much higher than expected so they were forced to live underwater while searching for other habitable planets. Only at the end of the game do you discover the true reason for human’s demise – population growth.  

AALH delivers a competitively fun game based on important global issues. However, this game is clearly focused on gameplay rather than climate change communication; the game would be a poor classroom teaching tool. That said, AALH still has value as an introduction of the potential consequences of climate change to a casual gamer with less exposure to the topic. Climate change and sea level rise are very real threats to the future of human existence. AALH allows you to explore a post-apocalyptic world in a somber, yet vicious story where you are forced to shred through leviathans, but for what purpose if humanity is already doomed? Perhaps this is just a commentary on humans creating their own monsters. Personally, I find climate change to be more frightening than monsters. All in all, AALH is a fun game with a cautionary tale about our future.

Gameplay/Fun: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Educational: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Scientific Rigor: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Accessibility: Ages 13+
Platform: Steam ($10)

Game Review: Never Alone’s “Kunuuksaayuka” – A journey through an Iñupiaq folk legend

By Lars Olsen

Never Alone, by Upper One Games, is an incredibly engaging experience that blends ancient storytelling techniques with modern digital media to create an emotional saga that is something special. As a tribute to the Iñupiaq tribespeople of Northern Alaska, this game is a simple puzzle-platformer which features 24 short video documentaries about various aspects of the Iñupiaq culture, which are unlocked throughout the game.  This is much more than a typical video game as it calls upon personal insights into culturally significant folk legends to deliver a powerhouse of a historical fiction story.  

You play as a little girl named Nuna and an Arctic fox (optional co-op mode) who follow the storyline of the Iñupiaq folktale “Kunuuksaayuka” to solve the mystery behind an abnormal blizzard where myths become very real threats. This functional relationship presents a metaphor for the connection between humans and the environment for Native people. Nuna and Fox work creatively together using unique talents and abilities to solve puzzles throughout the game. As you embark on this adventure, you will reclaim fragments of the Iñupiaq culture through evocative videos that elicit powerful emotions through the themes of community, storytelling, and a connection between humans and nature.

The Iñupiaq tribe, like most other Native tribes, greatly value community, respect for nature, and storytelling. All of these aspects of their culture are apparent through the plot and videos in the game. Unfortunately, many tribes face the loss of their culture to American culture and a generational disconnect, so the Iñupiaq tribe resorted to game design to save a lifestyle from melting away along with the ice that they live upon. By sharing environmental issues through a video game, the developers are appealing to the emotions and personal connections of its audience to inspire positive change.


In one of the documentary clips, the tribe shares their concept of Sila. They explain that Sila is everything beyond the Nuna (the Earth); the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the animals we eat. Never Alone demonstrates a crucial connection between people and Sila through the helpful spirits that you can control to help solve puzzles. Native people have great respect and understanding for nature, so climate change has become a very serious threat to them. Citing changes in bird migrations and precipitation regimes, the tribe noticed a changing climate even before scientists fully understood the phenomenon. Some of the videos touch directly on the evidence they have observed for climate change, as well as how it impacts their way of life. This game provides an inspiring platform for learning about climate change through new perspectives.

Never Alone creates a shining example for how games can convey the emotional side of environmental issues by sharing personal stories. It seamlessly ties together the history of Alaska Natives, a poignant folk legend, and the threats of climate change using modern media. It is a beautiful, sad, and hopeful tale about a little girl and a fox that serves as a historical relic. A quote by Baba Dioum comes to mind, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” This game has opened my eyes to a culture that I knew nothing about, and inspired me to fight climate change just as I am sure it will inspire countless others.

Gameplay/Fun: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Educational: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Scientific Rigor: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Accessibility: 1-2 players, Ages 10+
Platform: Steam

Game Review: Drill Baby, Drill! A Review of Oiligarchy

By Lars Olsen

Oiligarchy is a flash game from 2008 delivering a satirical commentary on the influence of the oil industry in the United States. Although it may feel uncomfortable for an environmentalist to role play as the fossil fuel industry, the developers justify this choice by saying, “power structures can be understood more clearly if represented from a privileged position.” By playing as the bad guy, you must alter your morality to be successful. In doing so, the player acquires a better understanding of the flaws in imperialism and capitalism.  

The game begins in 1946 and follows a somewhat historically accurate timeline of oil production and environmentalism in the U.S. as documented by The Petroleum Times. Your goal is to maximize oil production and profitability while navigating through politics, war, and environmental issues. There are five regions, each with a distinct scenario: holding off indigenous peoples’ environmental revolts in Venezuela, dealing with peak oil in Texas, developing on a wildlife refuge in Alaska, corrupting the Nigerian government, and fighting the inevitable war on terror in Iraq. By throwing money at the winning party during election years, you can convince your friends in Washington D.C. to enact policies and perform secret operations that benefit Big Oil. Some of these are borderline conspiracy theories. For example, funding terrorist operations in Iraq to reinvigorate patriotic unity and distract citizens from the oil crisis.

The gameplay is point & click and turn-based – you decide where to place your oil wells and when to move on to the next year. One of the main mechanics of the game is based on M. King Hubbert’s Peak Oil Theory, the idea that oil production in a region slows down exponentially once half of the stores have been depleted. As your domestic reservoirs diminish, production slows and you must depend on foreign oil. This will have dire environmental and humanitarian repercussions, which the oil industry ignores.

Oiligarchy oversimplifies many aspects of government and environmentalism, but it IS just a flash game. Taken with a grain of salt, the dark humor of Oiligarchy presents a brutal critique of money’s influence in politics, our addiction to oil, and the history behind it all. The game has some violence and should certainly not be used as primary political or environmental education, but it could spark intellectual discussions among an older audience (ages 16+). With bright graphics and creative sound along with its commentary, Oiligarchy makes for an enjoyable 2-hour session.

The game does a good job of simplifying supply & demand, oil economy, political lobbying, and imperialism. The topic of environmental harm is touched on lightly, but it is not integral to the gameplay because it is not the focus of the oil industry. The underlying science behind the game mechanics is more complex than it appears. The developers thoroughly explain their decisions in a Postmortem, found here (

You will likely raise your eyebrows frequently while playing Oiligarchy, but don’t dismiss the game altogether for its skepticism. Its over-the-top criticism of the oil industry and U.S. politicians may seem harsh to some, but others may find it well-placed. All controversy aside, perhaps the best aspect of Oiligarchy is its moral disorientation which presents the player with difficult decisions.

Gameplay/Fun: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Educational: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Scientific Rigor: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Accessibility: Ages 16+
Platform: Web browser (Flash)

Game Review: BioHarmonious – A Tale of Two Planets

By Lars Olsen

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Manufactured Planet is inhabited by humans that have overexploited their natural resources. It is a dystopia for environmentalists, filled with industry and choked with smog. The scientists living on this dismal planet discover their mistakes and realize that they are also bringing sickness to their beautiful neighbor, the Natural Planet. Both planets are in grave danger until scientists create the process of “bioharmony” to integrate nature with technology. If you strategically implement this technology, you will become “BioHarmonious” with the Natural Planet.

BioHarmonious was the first electronic game released by Art Works For Change and was also funded by the AT&T Foundation. It was released in 2013 at “Nature’s Toolbox”, an exhibition on biodiversity, art, and invention. While scientific or factual evidence tends to dominate educational games, art provides a unique opportunity to appeal to players’ empathy. In this way, artistic games like BioHarmonious can be a much more compelling way to teach about human impacts on the natural world.  

By focusing on a balance between the manufactured and natural worlds, this game can be a great introduction to the challenges posed by environmental stress.  The mechanics of the game are also quite simple and accessible to young children, only consisting of clicking and dragging objects between the planets in order to balance their health. The goal is to upgrade every manufactured building with a natural item in order to reduce environmental stress. BioHarmonious demonstrates a clear dichotomy between humans and the environment, but shows that the two are not necessarily diametrically opposed. In fact, taking inspiration from nature can provide benefits for both humans and the environment.

This game has good story, themes, music, and art design for an educational game. Moreover, BioHarmonious is ridiculously easy and only delivers 6 minutes of gameplay. We would recommend it as a great way to engage younger children in environmental problems, but not for older students. One major problem with the game is its lack of concern for damage to the Natural Planet; removing specimens has no effect on its health. BioHarmonious’ themes and strategic depth would be bolstered by more thoroughly implemented tradeoffs in gameplay.

BioHarmonious is a simple strategy game that excels as an artistic tool representing the need for balance with nature. The game focuses on the positive aspects of sustainable design and innovation. As a point of caution, it is dangerous to assume that technology can solve every environmental problem. Sometimes only by reducing human impact can we create change. In any case, the game provides players with hope for Earth; that we might learn from nature and innovate ourselves out of disaster while creating a healthy and sustainable world.

Gameplay/Fun: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Educational: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Scientific Rigor: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Accessibility: Ages 6-13
Platform: Web browser (not Google Chrome)

Game Review: Now Entering ElectroCity

By Lars Olsen

Congratulations, you have just been elected the mayor of ElectroCity! The fate of this city’s development is up to you, but “don’t let the power get to your head.”

In this flash-based game, you are tasked with creating a bustling metropolis from a small town in the countryside. You begin the game with few resources and endless possibilities. You can log every forest to make room for coal power plants that create abundant electricity, create campgrounds and amusement parks that attract new citizens, or focus on creating national parks and planting forests to decrease your environmental impact. Continue reading “Game Review: Now Entering ElectroCity”

Game Review: Resource Exploitation is “Rizky” Business

By Lars Olsen

A mysterious seedling has just crash-landed on an alien planet, and it is up to you to grow it to full maturity while holding off hostile indigenous threats. Rizk, a game by the London Science Museum, is an entertaining and educational twist on the classic 2-D tower defense genre, focusing on resource management.
Continue reading “Game Review: Resource Exploitation is “Rizky” Business”