Exploring Climate Change through Video Games and Science Fiction: The Cascadia Project

One thing that makes discussing climate change with people difficult is the perception that the worst effects of climate change will happen sometime in the future, possibly after their lifetime. This makes it challenging to promote a sense of urgency to act on climate issues. It can be hard to accept some level of discomfort in our own lives in order to protect the interests of future generations. Narrative fiction can be used to develop a sense of empathy towards people other than ourselves, and as an avid reader and writer of science fiction and fantasy, I wanted to use science fiction to create a story that would allow people to empathize with characters living in a post-climate change world.

Elisa Bonnin
The first episode of Cascadia features art by L. Isabel Bonnin, a Materials Science and Engineering senior at the University of Washington. The game was created in Twine, an engine for interactive storytelling.

I created this story through a partnership with EarthGames, a group that uses games to communicate climate and environmental issues, led by Dargan Frierson at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. With EarthGames, I created Cascadia, a three-part interactive story, where players read a passage of a story and then make decisions on how to move forward. Cascadia is made up of three ‘episodes’, which tell the story of a young woman taking the Oregon Trail from New York in a post-climate change America. The game is intended to reference the old Oregon Trail games, with multiple opportunities for disaster along the way. Although only the first episode was completed as part of this capstone project, all three episodes are available for play, so that players can finish the entire story.

Because I wanted this story to be interactive, each episode features branching paths, with the player’s decisions ultimately shaping the narrative of the game. The first episode has 28,000 words of story, 183 scenes, and four unique endings, each driven by the number of non-player-characters (NPCs, or side characters) that the player can convince to join them by the end of each episode. Dialogue choices, while they may not drastically influence the next scene, add or subtract ‘relationship values’ from each character depending on what the main character chooses to say. At certain pivotal scenes, there are check points where the characters’ actions are based on whether the player has a good relationship or a bad relationship with them. Relationships carry over from episode to episode, and drive pivotal scenes in later episodes, so maintaining good relationships with favorite party members is important. There are a few scenes where a split-second decision can change the course of the entire story, for example—do you choose to defend your mentally unstable childhood friend when she has almost certainly committed a crime, or do you call her out with potentially disastrous consequences? Several options in the first episode result in a Game Over, although later episode are more forgiving.

Designing characters was an interesting challenge. Because I was focusing on the human side of climate change, I wanted to create unique and engaging party members experiencing interpersonal conflicts, so the player would feel conflicted relating to them. I created my characters by first defining their archetype and their role in the story. Cascadia is a post-apocalyptic science fiction game, so I began by thinking of character tropes that I would like to include—the raider, the researcher, the mercenary, the storyteller—and also characters that would have an impact based on their relationship with the main character, such as the friend from her hometown. From there, I expanded each character’s personality and voice in order to ensure that each character wasn’t simply an archetype or a role.

The impact of the first episode was assessed through a survey, and the game was tested by students in the EarthGames course and attendees of the Pacific Science Center’s Curiosity Days. From those responses, we gathered that the first episode of the game had a mixed effect on players and participants, with some people saying that the story drew them in and made them concerned about climate change, and others saying that they couldn’t understand the link between the story and climate change at all.

Storytelling is subjective by nature. I still think there is potential for science fiction to be used to teach climate change issues, particularly to those who might not otherwise seek out climate information. However, there are some things that I would do differently if I were doing this project again. For example, someone suggested that in a future version of the game, climate knowledge could be used as a mechanism for progressing through the story, so that characters have to collect, process, and understand climate change information before moving forward. I might also set the game somewhere where the characters come across unmistakable evidence of climate change. I would also have liked to include more game elements into the project, creating a better balance between reading and decision-making. However, I feel like I learned a lot about fiction, game design, and science communication by working on this project, and I would recommend that people, particularly those with some interest in storytelling or games, consider EarthGames when planning their capstones.

Background art from the first episode of Cascadia, depicting a raider base built around an abandoned coal mine.

If you decide to do an EarthGames Capstone, here is some advice. Be sure that you understand the scope of your project before you start. Video games take up a surprising amount of time, and the smallest projects can end up taking much longer than you might think. Establish at the beginning of the project whether you will be working alone, or whether you will be working with a team. I worked alone for most of Cascadia, and quickly found myself having to scale down the project from the sprawling, multi-branched story I had in mind. The original outline of the game had over ten unique endings in the first episode, with the main character possibly traveling with each major character individually, in different combinations together, or even alone. However, I realized that I would not be able to write that many branching paths in the time available, so I settled on the four endings. I also wanted to include more new characters in the second chapter, but had to settle on two new characters to ensure that I could give each character the appropriate depth. Even then, to complete all three episodes, I went over the recommended 100 hours for the capstone project.

It also helps to understand the game’s engine that you choose. I used Twine for Cascadia. If you are unfamiliar with your engine at the start, be sure to budget time for learning how to use it.

Cascadia contains an appendix with information about the science of climate change, so that curious readers can access more information, and further reading.

If you are using a pre-/post- survey to assess your game, I highly recommend setting up an event with local schools or any group of people that make up your game’s target audience, and have them play the game and complete the survey at the event. An online survey, like the type used for Cascadia, resulted in people playing the game but not filling out the survey, or playing the game for a short amount of time and filling out the survey without reaching the ending. Even with an incentive (a $25 Amazon gift card given to a random respondent), only nine people filled out the Cascadia survey after several months of attempting to gain responses. If you are going to try to contact local schools, be sure to plan to do so early in the school year, to give teachers time to incorporate you into their plans. The Pacific Science Center is also a great resource for having people test games. Consider participating during the UW-sponsored Curiosity Days held each year in March.

The kind of game that you create will determine how much narrative you need to include. Cascadia is an extreme example of a game that requires a lot of writing. If you do decide to create a game that requires narrative, remember that a narrative-based game is just another form of storytelling. There are many resources available, both online and through science communication organizations like EarthGames, the Pacific Science Center, and Engage, to learn how to tell good stories. An understanding of story structure and the elements of a basic narrative arc (exposition, complicating action, development, climax and resolution) will be important in order to tell a cohesive story. Think about the stories that you love, the works of fiction that you enjoy, and ask yourself what elements in these works draw you to them. Try to include those in your narrative as well. Above all, do not worry if the game you create does not look like the game you planned. Take the successes and failures, all the difficulties inherent in the medium, and have fun. EarthGames offers an opportunity to make a unique Capstone project, and it would be a shame to go through all that work and not enjoy yourself along the way.

Elisa Bonnin is a PhD Candidate in the UW School of Oceanography, studying paleoclimate proxies in planktic foraminifera. She has served on the board of directors of Engage for two years, and is a Pacific Science Center Science Communication Fellow. Elisa continues to write speculative fiction while working on her science communication skills. She can be found on Twitter at @eabonnin (Science) or @eabwrites (Fiction). Her PhD defense is scheduled for July 12, 2019, at 12:30 PM in OCN 425.