We’re coming to the end of a different and difficult year. A year where more and more cultural, societal and environmental issues have taken a prominent place in conversations; and rightfully so. As someone who has been vocal and supported the people driving a resolution to these issues, I was pleasantly surprised by Ustwo Games latest release, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure.
Video games are so often used as an escape from the everyday. Both big-budget experiences and smaller ones can help us to process our own issues, fears, wants and needs. They can also just help us pass some time and be a distraction. This year has seen, at least in my mind a rise in controversial conversations around video games altering their place in entertainment and society. These conversations range from issues people have with relating to characters and gatekeeping the medium through to called out practices around inclusion and how groups are treated. I want more games to address issues rather than cause them. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is one of these games.
It presents itself and is a very sweet game. The graphical style, music, environmental sounds and the well-paced and thought out writing filled me with a good feeling. It’s a wonderful, short experience to break up the larger, darker games that have dominated the year. You play as Alba, a young girl visiting her grandparents on the Mediterranean inspired island of Pinar del Mar. It quickly transpires that a new hotel is to be built on the island to bring more tourism but at the expense of the fire-damaged nature reserve. As Alba, along with your friend Ines you set about charting the wildlife on the island in the hope of changing the decision to build the hotel and save the nature reserve. To chart this wildlife you’ve been given a camera phone and the main crux of the game is taking photos and identifying the animals and birds of the island. Collecting animals opens up conversations and unlocks characters’ responses to allow the island’s human residents to sign the petition against the hotel. The ultimate goal, present the petition at the end of the week and stop the development.
As I’ve mentioned it’s a sweet game and full of the optimism of youth. This is felt both through the writing and the relaxed nature of the game. It is tackling real-world issues in a calm, very enjoyable way. As you traverse the island you are met with different biomes each with a set of animals to identify. These biomes are well crafted and flow together well. It isn’t a sandy beach butting up to a snow-covered mountain. There are incremental and natural changes to the environments. The transitions between beach to woodland to farmland to marshes are not jarring. A slight shift in topography, different plants and a change to the surrounding birdsong help you to understand you are somewhere different but not removed. It’s a lovely world to traverse and one which isn’t overly big. It’s large enough to have differing biomes and small enough that you will understand the flow of the spaces and orient yourself in the world quickly. Within these biomes are plenty of different birds and animals to encounter, log and in some cases stick a picture on a notice board. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure isn’t just happy with you collecting the animals. It wants the player to understand that others, the island’s inhabitants, want to know about the nature on the island too. In a slight change to the photograph and log formula, you can also improve the island by fixing things. Benches, birdhouses and information boards can all be repaired to improve the areas and allow people to understand how important wildlife is. This is key in getting people to sign the petition and to love their little island that much more. This is a simple way to mix up what you’re doing when roaming the island and breaks up swinging the camera phone wildly around trying to capture a bird in flight.
As well as the island itself the animals are very well realised. I often knew what a bird was before I captured and logged it; my wife’s a bit of a twitcher (bird watcher, not streamer) so I have a fairly reasonable knowledge. This knowledge was nice to have when approaching birds to log but is not necessary at all. All of the animals photographed are logged in Alba’s companion book so they are easy to know what you’ve already identified. I found myself guessing a bird when I saw it in the sky like a hawk or knowing a Sparrow from a Great Tit with just a glance. I was already enjoying inhabiting this world and knowing my birds helped to really make me connect with the island.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure does well at highlighting the real-world issues of conservation and development at the expense of nature. The notion that a petition will be able to challenge the wheels of capitalism is something we see more and more of in society. This mimicked in Alba gives a sense that anything is possible with the backing of people, that it is society’s increased understanding of the natural world which can help drive this change. When the hotel is announced some of the characters welcome the development, they think of the slowing economy of the island and the opportunity for more jobs. It isn’t seen as bad by all, which development inherently is not. People can see the change it may bring without understanding the damage it would also do. The play of Alba is to change that and bring more understanding to people. It’s a strong message and is one I instil in my daughter in small ways. She’s only four so I try to help her understand changes in society she notices and how she can affect those. I cannot wait to show her this game when she’s a couple of years older, it is a fantastic learning tool for kids to understand that they could make an impact for good with small interventions.
Alba isn’t afraid to challenge our perceptions. Its message of conservation and how we can impact the world for good is wrapped up in a sweetly presented game. It has a world which you can quite easily lose yourself in for a few hours and a strong story, art style and catchy, relaxing music. There are still a couple of birds I haven’t logged, you don’t need all to finish the story, and I will happily jump back into this world to find them. I’ll do this when I need a little break from work and the stresses of life and be reminded about the central message of the game. It has me thinking whilst I’m relaxed and that is exactly what I want from games these days.
Should you play it? Yes, definitely
Why? It’s a fun and relaxing experience in a charming world which highlights how people can overcome real-world issues. It delivers its message very well in a short experience.
But… Absolutely no buts on this game, play it!
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure was reviewed on PC with a press key provided by Ustwo Games Via Bastion
“To support Alba’s environmentally conscious message, ustwo games will plant one tree for each copy of the game sold or downloaded, with the goal of planting one million trees. This will be achieved in partnership with Ecologi.
The studio has also joined Count Us In as a founding member with the goal of using their platform to help Alba’s players take climate-positive actions.”