Creators around the world are using Unity to bring their imaginations to life and make the world a better place. The Changemakers Showcase is a place for us to share their stories. We spoke with Felix Bohatsch, Game Director of Gibbon: Beyond the Trees to learn more about how he came up with the idea for this Apple Design Award-winning game, and his motivation for raising awareness of gibbon poaching and rainforest destruction.
Felix Bohatsch is CEO of Broken Rules. Indie at heart, he co‐founded Broken Rules right after finishing his studies in 2009. He loves to create games that touch people all around the world and linger in the minds of the players, long after the device has been put down. Lately he was game director on Gibbon: Beyond the Trees and Old Man's Journey, which both won an Apple Design Award.
What sparked your interest in real-time 3D?
Developing games. The great thing about games is that they are so multidisciplinary. Their mix of visual, interaction, narrative and audio design means you work with a very diverse group of people and have to deal with variations of challenges. It never gets boring, and the real beauty is when it all comes together and the game experience is more impactful than the sum of its parts.
How did you network, find communities, and make the connections needed to succeed? Did you run into challenges along the way?
Our first game And Yet It Moves came out of a student project and was selected for the Student Showcase at IGF 2007. We were invited to show it at GDC 2007 and that introduced us to the amazing community of independent game developers. This community is friendly, helpful and full of interesting people. Ever since, we regularly visit conferences and showcases and meet both old and new fellow indie devs. Hanging out with them is always great!
What made you want to change the world?
I think that every game teaches players something and through every design decision, we the developers, communicate with our players.
"I also know that games are really hard to make and take a lot of time and energy to produce. So, I'd rather use this time wisely and focus on topics that I think are worthwhile for the audience of my games to think about."
Please tell us more about Gibbon: Beyond the Trees.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is a hopeful game about the beauty of wilderness and the destructive force of human civilization. It takes the viewpoint of the gibbon and you play this gibbon through a procedurally generated jungle inspired by Southeast Asian jungles. It’s all about exploring this beautiful world with the movesets that the gibbons have.
At its core it’s really about ‘how cool would it be to swing through the jungle like a gibbon?’. And because we were so interested and amazed by gibbons and their habitat – the beautiful jungles – we wanted to show people that this habitat is being actively destroyed and that there are less and less gibbons out there in the world. Of course while our game is really about gibbons and how sad it is that their habitat is being destroyed, they’re kind of a placeholder for all of the other wonderful creatures out there that are losing their habitat and are being driven out of this world into extinction.
"It’s really about putting our players into the shoes of a gibbon and make them feel what it means to lose your habitat and your fellow creatures."
How did you come up with the idea for this game?
I get inspired by nature, by animals more specifically, and their movement. I’ve always liked gibbons, they were always my favorite animals in the zoo. I started looking at videos and documentaries about gibbons and really fell in love with their agility and elegance. They jump through the trees, they swing, they brachiate (swing from branch to branch using their arms), and they are really fast. So I really thought ‘this would be cool in a game, can we make a game that gives you the feeling of moving through the jungle like a gibbon?’
That was the first spark, and when Clemens Scott (Creative Director of Gibbon: Beyond the Trees) and I started to seriously think about creating Gibbon we started researching and soon found out that they’re an endangered species and their habitat is being actively destroyed. So we thought ‘well we really can’t just do this exotic escapism game where you happily fling through these beautiful landscapes and exotic jungles and everything is lush and nice, while we know that out there, in truth, this part of the world is being destroyed’. It soon became clear to us that we have to make this part of the game.
“We also liked it as a design challenge, to create a game that is really about flow-based movement system and getting players into this flow, the beauty and elegance of these movement systems.”
And on the other hand, tell a story about the destruction of the gibbons habitats, and make players feel how it could feel to lose your habitat and have those work together.
What were your biggest challenges along the way?
I think what we really struggled with was portraying the world that gibbons live in – and the humans that live in and around their habitat – in a respectful and truthful manner. Until now we have made games that are inspired by settings that we really know very well, or that were close by. Now we wanted to make a game inspired by Southeast Asia, especially by Borneo – a place we’ve never been to. Of course first we wanted to travel there, but our development budget and schedule was quite tight so it would’ve been challenging, and then COVID hit.
“We decided to talk to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) – to people who’ve worked on-site, in the field, with gibbons, or with the destruction of the rainforest there and learn as much as we can.”
First we contacted them with the vision of our game, and just listened to their stories. We talked to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project from Thailand, which focuses on rehabilitating gibbons. We learned why they’re being poached, how it works, how slim the chances are for getting them back into the forest, and also how gibbons live in their natural habitat. We talked with Rainforest Rescue, and from them learned a lot about why rainforests are being destroyed – all over the world, but specifically in Borneo – and that nowadays it’s really not so much about logging but mostly about burning forests for farmland, mostly palm oil farms, and mining.
And we talked to the Bruno Manser Fonds, a Swiss NGO that focuses on empowering indigenous people and helping them fight for their land rights and they have a focus on the Penan, who are indigenous people in Borneo. So the first people you meet in Gibbon are actually inspired by the Penan and they’re living in harmony with the jungle.
After a year or two we got in contact with the NGOs again and showed them our progress because one of our biggest fears was that we, as Westerners, as Europeans or North Americans playing this game, could be thinking ‘these people in Southeast Asia are destroying the forests’ and that’s really not what we wanted to talk about – we really did not want to blame the destruction of the forests on Southeast Asian people. So there’s a few things we tried to circumvent this, one is that we tried to have all agents of destruction in our game to have all skin colors and different clothing styles so they really looked like they could be from all over the world, and to have all these machines, and farms, and refineries to be really big and huge so you feel like this cannot be done by a local company – this is all globalized industry that is destroying the forests and it’s a global interconnected problem not a local one. Without the help of the NGOs we wouldn’t have been able to do that and at the end of the project we even consulted a culturalization expert to make sure we’re portraying the people and culture of Southeast Asia in a respectful way.
What are you most excited about for the future?
That more people from outside of the traditional gaming bubble will start to create more diverse, deep, experimental and ultimately more interesting games.
What is your proudest achievement?
Having a 10" vinyl record produced for the soundtrack of Old Man's Journey.
What advice do you have for future Social Impact creators?
“The power of games is that you can show your players the world, and its problems, from a different viewpoint.”
Through the empathy they feel for the characters they play, and the game world they experience, you can make them feel the problem rather than just being told about it.
We believe that the world is a better place with more creators in it, and we’re always excited to hear about the inspiring work they’re doing to make the world more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable for all. Want to join them?
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