Felix Bohatsch wanted to make a cute game inspired by the behavior of the gibbons in the local zoo. However, life in the 2020s has a way of complicating things.
After doing a little research on modern life of monkeys, a delightful game with gibbons swinging rapidly between the trees suddenly felt insincere. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared that gibbons are “one of the most threatened primate families,” with more than 14 species classified as either endangered or critically endangered. This knowledge would feed into the eventual game Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, resulting in a work that, originally developed for Apple’s mobile devices, begins as a soothing jaunt through a Southeast Asian jungle and soon progresses to one filled with real-world threats.
But Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is not an edutainment game. Inspired by fast-paced, action-oriented titles like the snowboard game Alto’s Adventure, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees places an emphasis on gliding, swinging, leaping, and soaring through the landscapes, gradually bringing conservation themes across the various threats to their habitats and livelihoods for gibbons. There’s a serious message to the game, and it’s a call to action of sorts. The game challenges players to think more broadly about our world and who we share it with, rather than beating ourselves over the head with a weighty thesis.
So yes, it’s a game with a lesson, but one that never loses sight of the majesty of an animal in nature. “I was just totally amazed by their elegance,” says Bohatsch von Gibbons, who runs the Viennese games studio Broken Rules. “Especially when they jump from tree to tree. They do these really high jumps into the treetops. That’s where it started. I have three kids so I’ve been to the zoo a few times and gibbons are one of my favorite animals there.”
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is available for Apple Arcade, the mobile giant’s $4.99 monthly subscription service, as well as home computers and the Nintendo Switch. It’s one of the relatively rare mainstream games to deal directly with environmental issues – 2020’s aquatic documentary Beyond Blue also springs to mind – but a part of me is hesitant for fear of ignoring the environmental issues of the planet Upgrading the game will eliminate potential players. When describing the game to friends, I was asked if the game was depressing. I’ve never felt like this while playing.
That’s because Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is a game of forward momentum, albeit one that strives to balance a sense of freewheeling over and through trees with a deeper meaning. “Most games – or the games that interest us – are not about simulation,” says Bohatsch. “They try to focus on a certain feeling. But during our research we found that gibbons are highly endangered and their habit is being actively destroyed by humans. It quickly became clear to us that we couldn’t build a purely escapist thing.”
But that’s not necessarily in the studio’s DNA either. Gibbon: Beyond the Tree is the company’s follow-up to 2017’s Old Man’s Journey, a meditative, puzzle-based adventure that explores life’s memories and its lost loves and poignant regrets. Also weighty issues and why “Gibbon” was originally intended as a light-hearted palate cleanser. With the studio gaining a better understanding of the current reality of the endangered species, Bohatsch and the team at Broken Rules were faced with a challenge: how to keep the game’s mechanics simple, fast, accessible and, well, fun, while still remaining true to the facts of the real world is fair?
“We were afraid that people would shy away when they heard that it was about environmental issues,” says Bohatsch. “We wanted people to get into the game based on looks and then show them the problems. We changed that a bit because we realized that this angle is an important part of the game. We recognized that these issues and deforestation make the game unique, but they are also an integral part of the game. That’s why we now call it an ecological adventure.”
We start in lush forest landscapes and glide between indigenous cultures that want to live in harmony with nature. Soon, however, we’re running and jumping between metal-frame houses as deforestation threatens habitat. Things are getting darker, but our pink, blue and yellow gibbons – taking some creative liberties, of course – never slow down. Playing on an iPhone, my hand rarely left the screen during the roughly 60-minute experience, and directing my gibbon to scroll or slide through the colourful, inviting images was always a pleasure.
Chapter transitions are usually punctuated by one of the gibbons stopping and drawing attention to the surroundings. Maybe a fire in the distance or threatening construction machinery. Things get tense as the game progresses when the gibbons are hunted, such as a sad nod to news reports of young primates being snatched from their families for use as a tourist attraction. Moving fast and staying above ground can often get the gibbons to safety, but expect the later chapters of the game to be challenging as poachers will hunt our heroic beasts in terrain that is mostly treeless. Avoiding the paved or dirt roads under our gibbon is far from easy.
To keep the focus on the story, the team wanted to avoid gimmicky trappings like dots or scores. It’s never about improving your previous run through the woods. The game is always about getting gibbons to safety. Here Bohatsch referred to lessons from previous games. While citing Alto’s Adventure, a work that gave snowboarding an elegant makeover, as one of his favorite games, he found the emphasis on scoring and collecting coins or llamas to be an easy distraction from his main interests.
“I wanted to know more about the characters,” says Bohatsch. “I wanted to know what this world is all about. In the end you are chasing high scores. I think that ends up being empty, and I say that while totally adoring “Alto”. But for us, the challenge was how to combine a flow-based movement system to get people in the flow and use a beautiful movement system but narrative like we learned with Old Man’s Journey. Get rid of high scores. That was a design challenge.”
This is not only possible because of its intuitive game mechanics, which work particularly well on a smartphone touchscreen. Tonally, the play goes through several shifts in its relatively breezy running time, using its musical score not to increase tension but to telegraph emptiness. The notes vanish as the trees shrink, evoking a sense that the natural world is becoming ever more hollow. Construction cranes soar like bright red monsters into what would otherwise be a serene, moonlit sky. And poachers come like bubbly fools, oblivious to the natural grace of the gibbons.
To ensure the game stayed as true as possible to the actual afflictions threatening the gibbon population, and as the COVID-19 pandemic meant traveling to Southeast Asia was out of the question, the team consulted a number of non-profit organizations. For example, working with gibbon rehabilitation groups in Thailand changed the story of the game. In particular, “Gibbon: Beyond the Trees” became a rescue mission to rescue a young gibbon, the latter an addition created entirely through the team’s research.
“We changed things,” says Bohatsch. “In the beginning, Gibbon was about two gibbon friends. We didn’t want to focus on family after Old Man’s Journey. But we have learned that gibbons live in close family groups. More importantly, we have learned that when they are poached, they are poached for the baby. Sometimes they get shot by illegal loggers for their meat, but more often they get shot for cute baby gibbons. This is a new phenomenon. That’s because tourists like to take photos with cute baby gibbons, which is awful. It’s absurd. That touched us because it showed us that this is an international, global thing.”
These heartbreaking realities also convinced the team that they were on the right track, that their initial game idea of gibbons flying between trees could become a weighted game for the studio to rally behind. Bohatsch says the interactivity of games makes them a means of communicating with their audience, and to that end one better have something of value to say.
“I think that every game is political,” says Bohatsch. “They all take a stand. Through design choices, every game developer places value on the world and human conditions. Even if some developers try to be apolitical, this is not possible. Knowing this, let’s try to design games about things that matter. Also, games are complicated to make and hard work and take a lot of time, effort and money. So let’s use it for something worthwhile. Escapism is okay sometimes, but even in games that are about escapism, you make choices that affect the way players see the world.”
Bohatsch says the studio is also aware of the fact that games require a learning curve, not only for the development team but also for the players, who must learn how a new game thinks and behaves in order to complete it. They require more engagement than more passive entertainment.
“I have three children and I am very aware of the time and effort of our audience. I know how hard it is for me to find time and energy to play games. I rarely have the time and energy so I want to make games for people like me. We want to give you food for thought. We try to make games that stick in the minds of our players.”