This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 356 in May 2021. Every month we run exclusive features exploring the world of PC gaming—from behind-the-scenes previews, to incredible community stories, to fascinating interviews, and more.
"Everybody understands trees," says Maria Sayans, CEO of Ustwo games. It's maybe not the kind of pitch we're used to hearing from developers, but that sentiment does get to the roots of Ustwo's mission. In just two months this indie developer has helped plant more than half a million trees with its 2020 release Alba: A Wildlife Adventure.
The game follows a young girl visiting her grandparents on a Mediterranean island, lush with gorgeous nature and wildlife. The idea initially came from art director David Fernández Huerta's love of bird watching. "You're spotting the animals and you're like 'Oh my God, it flew away,'" says lead programmer Manesh Mistry. "'OK, well, maybe I'll just wait for it to fly back and take another picture'. And so [Huerta's] like 'This feels like a game, why don't we try making a game out of it?'"
In order to capture the beauty of nature in the most accurate way possible, the team would go out on bird-watching trips together—something that Mistry had never been interested in before. "I think we did two or three over the course of the project... it was incredible, because it was transformative for all of us."
That chilled-out joy of discovery really comes through in Alba. Playing it is a truly tranquil experience, peacefully skipping around and soaking in the lush Spanish landscape. But what initially presents itself as a game that's just about snapping pictures of birds becomes a bigger narrative shaped around the environment and our treatment of it.
"You spend your time cataloguing the wildlife, taking pictures of animals and enjoying nature," explains Mistry. "But as you do that, you kind of realise there's more stuff going on on the island. Some stuff is in disrepair, and you start learning about the effect of humans on nature and back and forth. And eventually, you realise the whole island is in jeopardy."
So how does all this lead into planting trees in the real world? Studio head Sayans says that initially Ustwo games was looking for a way to offset its carbon footprint. The studio is already a B-corp, a for-profit business that meets the highest standards of environmental accountability. Sayans says they wanted to use their position to make a bigger impact, and began talking with organisations including Count Us In and the United Nations.
These conversations eventually lead Ustwo games to Ecologi, an organisation dedicated to reducing the planet's carbon footprint and fighting climate change through reforestation projects.
"As we started to look at Ecologi, we realised we could do more than just offset," says Sayans. After spending more than two years developing Alba, it seemed only natural to turn the game's conservation message into something physically tangible.
"I think it would be very difficult, maybe even impossible, to try and make a game about nature today and not think about 'What's the impact that humans have on nature?'" Sayans says. "We just feel like you'd have to be completely out of touch to not be pondering these themes and not to try to have a positive impact on these themes."
The studio decided that for every copy of the game sold or downloaded (Alba is also available on Apple Arcade, a mobile subscription service) they would plant a tree. "We tried to make it really simple," says Sayans. "One copy of the game, one tree."
Alba has become the mascot for the tree-planting project and Ustwo's goal for a more environmentally kind world. Her face is the logo on Ustwo's Ecologi page, which also happens to be named Alba's Forest. Her in-game conservation group, AIWRL, is used to promote initiatives that Ustwo games work with.
Bringing Alba's world to life has also put her creators more in touch with our own. "Even down to things like people being able to recognise species of birds that they would have never had any chance of recognising before," Mistry says. "I'd say specifically the animators and artists now are like 'Yep, that is definitely a wood pigeon. I can tell by the specific colours', and it's like 'Wow, that's good!'"
Sayans feels like the combination of a game like Alba: A Wildlife Adventure and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given people a chance to think again about their relationship with nature. "Suddenly things that maybe you weren't paying attention to, whether it's making bread or the birds in my garden, or the flowers on a walk. You're paying more attention to them because your world has become so much smaller... and I think that in my case, Alba definitely inspired me to pay attention to those things."
Despite this, both Mistry and Sayans say that the objective isn't explicitly to educate. Alba was designed as an accessible experience that crosses over with our world in a meaningful way.
"We were very careful not to describe it as educational... because that kind of puts you in a little corner where we didn't want to be," Sayans says. "But the truth is with our games, we try to do more than entertain."
The ultimate goal for Ustwo games is to plant one million trees, a milestone they're already halfway to hitting. But beyond that? Well, Sayans says they'll just keep going. "I can't imagine us stopping once we reach one million trees, right? That would feel unnecessary. Our commitment is to use our power, our position of influence as a force for good. And so I think we'll continue to use that as an inspiration on the games that we make in the future."