Review: Spring Falls. Natural awareness in an abstract puzzle game?

I discovered the indie game Spring Falls thanks to the « Bundle for Social Justice and Equality » (which I discussed here). The game has been created by Eric Billingsley, @SparseGameDev.

Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls
Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls

Spring Falls is not about natural heritage, but about nature more broadly. Here I will try to describe the game, without too many spoilers, and analyzing whether it could raise nature awareness or educate about nature. Please note, that I am not aware whether or not it was one of the purposes of the game author.

In terms of gameplay, this is a puzzle game: at each level, you have to find a specific configuration to reach the next level. During these puzzles, the player’s objective is to make flowers blooms.

Cropped screenshot blooming flower in Spring Falls
Cropped screenshot blooming flower in Spring Falls

The game is organized around hexagons, which figure the ground. The player can lower these when they are wet: close to water. As a consequence, the player’s control over the scene is similar to terraforming.

Screenshot of an hexagone tile in Spring Falls (wet ground hexagon at the center)
Screenshot of an hexagone tile in Spring Falls (wet ground hexagon at the center)

For a flower to bloom you need adjacent water and fertile ground on the same level. Lowering the ground allows the player to control the water flow. The player can create ponds or rivers. It is also possible to expand fertile ground if there is water and an appropriate ground tile nearby. As such, the theme of the game is well embedded in its gameplay.

The game is built very elegantly around the concept of the waterfall. The first level is at the top and, with each level, you go down the waterfall. The difficulty increases as you go down, as more game mechanics are added: some ground pops up, and you get to also monitor closely the level of water.

The overall atmosphere of the game is relaxing, thanks to the visuals, sounds of water, and music, as well as the intuitive and rewarding gameplay. It reminded me of playing Monument Valley, with less narrative and a different theme.

The game can become frustrating as difficulty increases, and the plants keep dying. As I progressed through it, the game felt less relaxing but more compelling to me, but it will of course vary a lot depending on the players and their play context.

A player can always reload a level or go back to its previous actions, but it might still be hard to find the solution as there are multiple combinations. In case you are stuck on a level, please note that you can jump one level and still continue playing.

While the game is not about gardening, it requires the player to be extremely cautious about the vicinity and mutual interactions of plants, fertile ground, and water, which is an important activity in gardening and in permaculture.

The game also discusses water, an element present in almost any game where the player is supposed to grow plants. However, unlike most commercial agricultural games, the player has to deal sometimes with the scarcity of water (See « Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game » by Alenda Chang https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5dc9/bb6ff9b6bce9861f456fd9950aca12731dfb.pdf?_ga=2.256099083.1687778027.1597254755-361296542.1597254755, a paper that I discussed briefly in this previous article). These points make me think the game could be interesting for increasing nature awareness.

Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls, where all tiles are underwater, preventing the fertile ground to expand and the plants to grow.
Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls, where all tiles are underwater, preventing the fertile ground to expand and the plants to grow.

There are no humans or animals, so nothing to distract the player from the vegetal and the mineral world. Beyond its mineral and vegetal quality, the world is fictional: the location and the flowers seemed unknown and undefined to me. They could have been inspired by actual flowers or place, but nothing is named or clearly indicated.

As in Vestigia-Songe, the reward and objective is a full-bloomed flower (sometimes several bloomed flowers simultaneously). It can be both a good and a bad thing for nature awareness. Flowers are from the vegetal realm, but they also increase the idea that precious and beautiful plants only must be taken care of. This is reinforced by the fact that, in some levels, all the fertile ground must dry for a flower to bloom. It is an obvious thing to do for a developer as people are used to be rewarded with beautiful flowers, not weeds, but in terms of nature education, it might not be ideal to reinforce the current hierarchization of vegetal elements.

Modifying the ground is the main mechanics. It would be rather frowned upon in permaculture, which generally considers the ground should be touched as few as possible (see especially « No-till farming »). This questions the game’s use for education about nature, but as the game is not really about farming, I wouldn’t consider it a huge issue. Moreover, terraforming is not unlimited in the game.

Finishing the game took me 3-4 hours. It was a very pleasant experience! I recommend it either if you are into puzzle games or games about nature.

Please let me know if you try it! I would be interested in getting other players’ feedbacks.

Edit: After sharing this article on Twitter (https://twitter.com/edwigelel/status/1293916569748168707), I got some additional informations from the author of the game, Eric Billingsley:

« the hexagonal tiles are meant to evoke columnar basalt formations. »

« Some of the water sounds were recorded at Latourell Falls in Oregon (pictured here), which has those rock formations. Other sounds were recorded in the Gatineau Hills in Québec. »

Picture of Larourell Falls, a location that inspired the game Spring Falls, by Eric Billingsley (shared with the author’s authorisation)

« Though the flowers are unnamed in the game, most were modeled after botanical drawings of flowers from the Canadian Rockies from the book « Rocky Mountain Wildflowers » by A.E. Porsild and Dagny Tande Lid. The drawings are quite beautiful! »

We can consider that the tiles and the sounds of the game indicate a strong nature awareness of the author, at least. Its perception of natural elements are mediated to the player through the game.

On the other hand, the flowers are based on a book mediating nature. As such, we can consider they are a second degree mediation (minimum, if the book has been drawn from direct observation by Dagny Tande Lid).

The game is actually much more grounded in real-world nature than I felt when I played it and analysed afterwards. It is probably due to the absence of names for the plants and places, or of any references.

In term of game study methodology, it shows once again how informative the creation process of an art piece can be.

Games about plants in the « Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality »

A bundle of independent games (video games and tabletop roleplaying games) has been released to support the fight against racial injustice, inequality, and police brutality targeted at black people. https://itch.io/b/520/bundle-for-racial-justice-and-equality

I have bought the bundle as I think it is a great initiative, but, of course, I don’t plan on playing the 740 games 😉

As I am into gardening games at the moment (for research 😉 ), here is a list of games about growing and taking care of plants from this bundle. I will edit this article if I find more, and after playing them to give a small review!

Video games:

https://overfull.itch.io/plantdaddy

https://twinbeard.itch.io/glittermitten-grove

https://sparsegamedev.itch.io/spring-falls

https://nunodonato.itch.io/autumn

https://edermunizz.itch.io/pixel-art-forest

https://colleenadia.itch.io/lily-seed

https://lparkermg.itch.io/best-garden

https://soapod.itch.io/bonsai-calendar?fbclid=IwAR1liZ7–ynGUOCq5_bqhNRD649DcfC6xp1m159CgwqrpAoZMf8yknwVr3c

Tabletop roleplaying games (all from the same creator):

https://diwatamnl.itch.io/succulentsorcerers

https://diwatamnl.itch.io/petalpaladins

https://diwatamnl.itch.io/bonsai-brawlers

https://diwatamnl.itch.io/mossy-mechanics

Other games:

https://adnroy.itch.io/moss-creeps-stone-crumbles

Other activities:

https://cavesrd.itch.io/newzealand

Vestigia: games for the natural and cultural heritage at Port-Royal des Champs

In addition to Tevi, I have been working on a project called Vestigia for a while now. The purpose of this game is to explore how a set of video games could help valorise the natural heritage of a historical site, in relation to cultural heritage, notably architectural.

It all started in 2015 when I met Sylvain Hilaire. He is a historian of landscapes and was finishing his PhD at that time while working as archivist and librarian at a French National Museum called Port-Royal des Champs.

Comparison between a drawing of Philippe de Champaigne representing Port-Royal-des-Champs in 16541 and a picture I made of the same place today

I discovered the place on this occasion. Port-Royal is not extremely well-known for a National Museum, except for historians, area hikers and « fans » of Blaise Pascal. The place is actually quite amazing and rare: contrarily to most French monuments, here it is the nature and the landscape that bear the most value, on the material level. The abbaye that once stood there was indeed destroyed by Louis XIV (even if the museum is very interesting as well). But the landscape and nature remained, even if it evolved. This is also a place with great value for the study of science history, theology, philosophy, and architecture (Luez, 2017; Hilaire, 2011; Sedgwick, 1977).

As a « maîtresse de conférences » (tenured associate professor in France), I don’t have as much time as I would like for my research: administrative and teaching duties are very time-consuming during the term. In addition, I had a hard time getting funding for a team to work with me on this project (it was weirdly easier on previous projects not focusing on nature but architecture). As a result, I never had a lot of time to work on this project. While applying for funding, I designed a whole set of games and a big research project, still in the limbo.

Fortunately, I had the chance to be contacted by Yasser Guenifi. He is an architecture PhD student specialising in 3D reconstruction from the Université Badji Mokhtar (Annaba, Algeria). Yasser wanted to do an internship with me and was funded by his University for this. He stayed for two weeks only, so we only had 7 days to work together on this. We developed the game with Sylvain Hilaire, Port-Royal curators and especially Philippe Luez, volunteers working there, and colleagues of the UVSQ.

Picture of the final meeting, where we presented the prototype at Port-Royal to museum’s workers and volunteers of the association « Société des Amis de Port-Royal », 2017

We created a small prototype called Vestigia-Songe to begin exploring the research questions of Vestigia. You can still play it, it’s free, but only in French, and obviously this a small and simple game. I intend to discuss this prototype a bit more on this blog 😉

Screenshot for the video game Vestigia-Songe (Lelièvre, Guenifi, Luez, Hilaire, 2017)

Once it was over, Sylvain, Yasser and I analysed the results and that led us to do a conference in Chambery, France « Corpus de paysages » leading to a book chapter (Guenifi, Hilaire et Lelièvre, to be published)! This prototype creation and its analysis greatly influenced my research. I still have a lot of questions that will require further research. Maybe I will get funding someday to create the complete Vestigia. It feeds me anyway.

References:

  • Guenifi, Y., S. Hilaire et E. Lelievre. To be published. « Vestigia-Songe, enseignements d’un jeu vidéo portant sur le patrimoine paysager de Port-Royal des Champs » Dans : Représenter les paysages hier et aujourd’hui. Presses Universitaires Savoie Mont Blanc.
  • Hilaire, S. 2017. [Thesis]. Port-Royal des Champs, haut lieu de mémoire : étude des jardins et des paysages culturels. Guyancourt : Université Paris 13 et Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
  • Luez, P. 2017. Port-Royal et le jansénisme: des religieuses face à l’absolutisme. Paris, France : Belin.
  • Sedgwick, A. 1977. Jansenism in seventeenth-century France: voices from the wilderness. Charlottesville, USA : University press of Virginia.

Tevi: a mobile game for natural awareness

I was detached from my job at the Université of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines from July 2018 to April 2019. During that period, I was working at Falmouth University (United Kingdom) at the MetaMakers Institute, an EraNet Chair research project (EU funded). I was given a lot of freedom, so I launched a research project called Tevi.

One of the outputs of the project was a prototype of a mobile game also called Tevi, presented in the video below:

Tevi is a mobile video game designed to increase nature awareness.
Nature awareness can be defined as a person’s ecological knowledge and their awareness of the form and features of their local environment.  Tevi has been created in partnership with the Eden Project (full credits in the video description). It uses interactive evolutionary computation to simulate a garden.

We were seeking to raise awareness of young adults on nature, botanical and conservational issues. The aim was to create a game matching 18-25 years old interests, especially those with low interest towards nature.

We were focusing on the following research goals:

  • Explore the possibilities of increasing nature awareness through video games, with a focus on how people relate to nature.
  • Develop new gameplay mechanics to create meaningful interactions with the environment.
  • Experiment procedural content generation (PCG) for the creation and representation of natural elements and their evolution in real-time 3D video games.
  • Measuring the impact of a video game in the development of a target audience in a cultural and educational site.

We wanted to know whether a gardening mobile game could effectively promote nature awareness. 

Playtest of Tevi during EGX Rezzed in London, Leftfield Collection ( 4th to 6th of April 2019) , picture by Giovanni Rubino

This prototype is playable here: https://apps.apple.com/gb/app/tevi/id1451988673

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.MMInstitute.Tevi

At the moment, I feel that there are many things I would like to change about the game, even though we had positive feedback from the players. These changes are the result of the distance from the creation process that time gives, from reading interesting papers, from the playtests we conducted, and from analyzing this prototype for a research paper I wrote with Dr. Rory Summerley, Giovanni Rubino, and Tim Phillips (not released yet 😉 ).

I am especially questioning the narrative (Mars conquest) and the choice of exotic plants as being colonialistic and not as benefic as could be a domestic setting. More on that soon!

Literature review on nature and video games

I haven’t found many scholarly papers on video games and natural heritage, so my references are mostly from non-specific game studies, natural heritage, and environment education papers.

However, there are a few interesting papers and books that look at the intersection between nature and video games/digital media!

Here is my favorite list (so far), with some comments:

  • Chang, A. Y. 2012. « Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game ». Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. Vol. 19, n°2, p. 237‑252.

Great paper and a must-read! It is a critical analysis of agricultural representations in Farmville, considered capitalistic and dangerous for ecological awareness. This paper questions realism and authenticity in terms of simulation than can be compared to historical games. One criticism: very American-centric.

  • Smith, Bradon. 2017. « Resources, Scenarios, Agency: Environmental Computer Games ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 103‑120.

The paper defend that « god games » (Sim City, Civilization) support the American myth of second creation with wild abundant world to be colonized, and thus are anti-ecological. Minecraft has a similar issue (everything is a resource), but the game can still be subverted for environmental thinking. Environmental games that like Fate of the World are disempowering because they are top down and their challenges are too big in term of scale and complexity. World without Oil (an alternate reality game) is more successful. It is also American-centric.

It seems that positive impact on player’s environmental thinking is, in the case studied by the paper, done by an anxiety-provoking context, except for Minecraft, but the transfer to the real world behaviour is not clear.

Great blog post, from a talk. The author discusses the fact that gardens are colonialistic by essence (I don’t fully agree, but very good points there) and that video games function like gardens, and, as such, are colonialistic. This point has been defended by other scholars, but never using that angle (for what I know). Very inspiring, a must-read as well.

  • Ahn, Sun Joo (Grace), Jeremy N. Bailenson, et Dooyeon Park. 2014. « Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behavior ». Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 39, p. 235‑245.

This paper is not about video games, but virtual reality. It is a pilot study, on using virtual reality for environmental education. It is compared to watching a video or reading about the same topic. The effect of the studied media on users is studied through an experience of napkin consumption: weird but clever. The use of « locus of control » notion was very inspiring to me.

  • Longan, Michael W. 2008. « Playing With Landscape, Social Process and Spatial Form in Video Games ». Aether: The Journal of Media Geography. Vol. 2, p. 23‑40.

This is a paper about the landscape from the point of view of geography and labor. It is particularly interesting because it raises the question of landscape production (by whom, when, how), for which video games could be the perfect medium, but they hide the labor of game developers.

  • Woolbright, Lauren. 2017. « Game Design as Climate Change Activism ». Ecozon@. Vol. 8, p. 88‑102.

Climate change activism (CCA) in games is questioned is this paper around two interesting indie games « The Flame in the Flood » and « Little Inferno ». I would have liked interviews of the developpers as it bothers me that their intentions were never questionned (probably the biais of being a poïetic scholar myself). The CCA in this game is indeed seen only through the eyes of the researcher-player. It includes interesting reflections on game design for CCA.

In addition, if you are interested in the topic, I suggest you to follow Alenda Chang (@gamegrower) on twitter, as she should be shortly releasing her book « Playing Nature » (December 2020)! She was one of the editors of Ecozon@ edition on Green Computer and Video Games, that I recommend very highly as well.

Please feel free to suggest your own recommendations!

Current research projects on video games and natural heritage

Screenshot of the videogame Tevi

I am currently working on three research projects:

  • Tevi: a mobile video game for nature awareness,
  • Vestigia: a set of video games around the natural and cultural heritage of Port-Royal des Champs,
  • Biosys: a videogame focusing on the relationship between humans and nature.

Tevi and Vestigia are projects I develop in a team with research-creation and user-research methods. It means I am both designing, developing games on these projects, and analyzing their reception on players.

Biosys is very different as I didn’t participate in the game creation. It was a commercial game released in 1999. I am studying it from an external perspective, using a method called « poïetics ». The principle of this method is to focus on the creation process of an art piece, rather than analysing the result only.

In this blog, I will discuss these projects and their evolution, as well as the underlying theory and the literature review associated with the topic of video games and natural heritage.

Introduction: Video games and natural heritage

Gardening and farming are relatively common themes for videogames. From farming and life simulators to survival games to management games, a large variety of games about nature are available to players. Nevertheless, it is extremely rare that video games take an approach that is beneficial for environmental education.
Natural heritage sites, on the other hand, have a strong focus on environmental education. Video games have become a popular tool for educational mediation in heritage sites. This leads one to wonder whether or not these tools could also be integrated into natural heritage sites.

In this blog, I intend to explore this question through research notes of my past and current research projects on this topic, as well as with conference and literature reports and recommended readings.

I lead these projects as a part of my work at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, at the laboratory CHCSC (Centre d’Histoire Culturelle des Sociétés Contemporaines) where I am an associate professor and at the LLSETI of the Université Savoie Mont Blanc (France).