When online environmental discussions turn heated, it’s fairly common for someone to say that there are only a few people that are majorly contributing to climate change. And while recent news implicates CEOs of major corporations funneling money into anti-environmental think tanks and policies, there’s little consideration about our personal contributions to environmental damage. A new video game, though, looks to change our perception on this discussion. According to the game’s director, Aimee Zhang, Plasticity is a “cinematic platformer about a young girl named Noa who explores and shapes the future of her post-oil, plastic-ridden world.”
I played through Plasticity in late June and was immediately drawn into the sweet platformer. Listening to the gentle soundtrack, I meandered through a story about how to use my skills to make what changes I could to a dingy environment where trash piles were the size of skyscrapers. As I made it out to the island that Noa's mother told stories about and helped others clean up the beach, my eyes misted over a little. Despite its heavy message, Plasticity is a feel-good game, in that you feel ready to save the world when you finish the story. After my Plasticity journey ended, I had the opportunity to chat with Game Director Zhang and Lead Designer Michelle Olson to learn more about Plasticity’s development process.
Made for a class project for a University of Southern California Games capstone project in early 2018, Plasticity was created by about 30 students who were inspired by National Geographic papers that tracked how much plastic was dumped in the ocean every year—currently averaging about eight million tons. Using imagery that’s evocative of Wall-E and Ghibli films, Zhang and Olsen led their team to create Plasticity. The team met multiple times a week and worked throughout weekends to finish the game, which was showcased at the IndieCade booth at E3 this year.
Profound, Magical Experiences
During high school, Zhang had the opportunity to work at a game design internship at the University of California, Irvine, where she contributed to two Smithsonian-featured projects that brought awareness to 18th century Ghana, the Akan people and their rich culture, and the Atlantic slave trade. She realized that she loved the collaborative aspect of game development and discovered that video games could have a powerful emotional and social impact. On the other hand, Olson's interest in game development stems from her nostalgia.
“I’ve wanted to be a game developer for as long as I can remember," said Olson. "I grew up playing SNES and N64 with my brother and sister. The profound connection it made me feel with my siblings, in addition to the magic of those virtual spaces, was something I’ve always carried with me.”
I asked Zhang and Olson to talk about political messages in video games. Plasticity demonstrates that no matter how dire the environment appears to be, small changes can join into a wave of widespread transfiguration.
“From the very beginning, we were committed to creating an experience that could inspire players to care about animals and [the player’s] environmental impact,” said Zhang and Olson via email. “Players make choices that help or harm the world in Plasticity. After a certain point in the game, 10 years pass and players see and play through the impact of their choices. The idea that it’s never too late to change was a huge part of the inspiration for our puzzles and the ‘return’ journey. Even if players made unsustainable choices, we give them the opportunity to still make positive changes on their journey home.”
Plasticity doesn’t explicitly say any of this, though. It’s left for the player to learn and interpret; as I played through it, I never felt as though I was sitting through a documentary about harmful waste. The two game developers explained that it was intentional design; they wanted a message that blossomed organically through Plasticity’s gameplay. The team spent much of their time in the development process iterating the narrative beats and emotional progression of the game, working with students from the Environmental Studies Department at USC for playtesting to ensure the story and message meshed together in a positive way.
Make the World a Better Place
It’s difficult to leave Plasticity without hearing its message; you’ll feel at least a little more dedicated to minimizing personal plastic waste. However, recent video game news has re-birthed the conversation about whether games should even be “political.” Zhang and Olson gave me their thoughts on that conversation.
“Games are a great platform to make people aware of problems in the world, without making people feel preached to or alienated, because as the player you learn things for yourself rather than being a passive viewer,” said Zhang. “When developers create innovative games about social issues, such as mental health, environmentalism, or oppression, it can inspire positive changes...It can open up discussions about issues that are not often addressed, push forward new policy, and inspire the unconvinced to change their views and join a movement.”
Zhang continued to explain that it is the responsibility of game creators to create safe spaces for players to learn and grow. Olson agreed, and added, “For social issues especially, it’s incredibly empowering to be able to take control and see how your actions affect the world around you. It’s really hard to see that kind of impact in real life!”
Plasticity had a diverse team of developers, with many women and non-binary people working on the game’s development. While we spoke about political messaging in video games, the conversation turned towards representation, both in and out of any game. Zhang and Olson explain that they’ve faced challenges in the games space and that it stems from the lack of diversity in both game studios and content.
“Often we have to fight harder to have our voices, work, or ideas be seen and heard,” said Olson and Zhang. “Often our perspectives aren’t held to the same degree of respect. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s wonderful to see studios to make an effort to bring more representation and inclusivity to their content and work forces.”
Happy and Humbled
Plasticity’s showcase at E3 helped the game surpass 21,000 downloads on Steam, where it currently has a “very positive” rating. Zhang and Olson’s pride for their wonderful creation spilled through the conversation. Olson talked about how she adored her design team, and that staying up late “bouncing between high-energy whiteboarding and jamming out levels while listening to our favorite songs” was one of the best moments of the entire development process. Zhang spoke about how she was blessed to work with the “most fantastic, hard-working, multi-disciplinary team.” I asked them what was next. Plasticity is a relatively short game (it can be finished in about 30 minutes), and I was interested to see if any expansion was on the horizon.
“Plasticity is in no ways perfect,” said Zhang and Olson. “We call it a ‘vertical slice’ and it’s a comparatively brief portion of a complete game. While we’d have loved to explore making a full retail experience, we were working on a school project with a limited budget. Our team is hoping to work together again in the future and build something even better!”
With many of the developers, including Olson, still in college, time and resources are tight, but the Plasticity developer team’s positivity and energy imply that we’ll be seeing much more from them in the years to come. We wrapped up our conversation with talking about people looking to start game development. Zhang said to start with something small. The best thing is to pick an idea and just make it. Olson advised that it was important to be patient with yourself.
“It’s never easy, but making the damn thing is the best thing you can do for yourself," said Olson.
And as I played Plasticity, pulling a plastic bucket off the head of a fluffy, white dog, I had to agree. The best thing to do was to just do those small things and let them ripple into existence.
If you are interested in playing the puzzle platformer, you can find Plasticity on Steam.