Megan Condis

Megan Condis is an assistant professor in Communication Studies at Texas Tech University. Her book, Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2018.

Contact information:
megancondis at

Sorry, Wrong Apocalypse: Horizon Zero Dawn, Heaven’s Vault, and the Ecocritical Videogame

by Megan Condis


Climate change is arguably the most pressing threat the globe has ever faced. And yet despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) its urgency, science communicators have found it quite difficult to convey this threat effectively to the broader public. While Guerrilla Games’s Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) does an excellent job of creating opportunities for players to reflect on ecocritical themes, the disconnect that exists between its plot and its core gameplay loops somewhat blunt its effectiveness as an instrument of activism. In particular, its emphasis on combat diverts attention from what Rob Nixon (2011) calls the “slow violence” of climate change in favor of escapist power fantasies. I suggest that this disconnect between the game’s mechanics and its themes point to the need to invent new modes of interaction more suited to showcasing the unprecedented scale upon which cli-fi stories take place. As one potential model of a relevant mechanic, I would like to nominate inkle’s Heaven’s Vault (2019), an “archeogame” (Reinhard, 2018) in which the impact of events long distant in time and space reverberate into the future and the only way to fight back against a cataclysmic environmental disaster is to understand the entrenched political and ideological institutions that brought it into existence over the course of millennia as well as the place of the individual within those institutions as potential agents of change.

Keywords: Horizon Zero Dawn, Heaven's Vault, ecocriticism, climate change, cli-fi



Climate change is arguably the most pressing threat the globe has ever faced. The compounding effects of man-made global warming threaten to kill or displace billions of people via natural disasters, famine, disease, and war over depleted resources according to a recent policy brief put out by the United Nations (United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, 2017, p. 1). The effects are already being felt (according to Marco Lambertini writing for the World Economic Forum in 2018, “the last five years have been the warmest five-year period on record, the Arctic warmed much faster than predicted and the UN estimates that in the last 10 years, climate-related disasters have caused $1.4 trillion worth of damage worldwide” (2018,n.p.)), and the danger is swiftly growing. Leading experts now say that we have less than a dozen years remaining to us if we want to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5° C above preindustrial averages, “beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people” (Watts, 2018, n.p.).

And yet despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) its urgency, science communicators have found it quite difficult to convey this threat effectively to the broader public. This is due to several factors, from the sheer difficulty of educating the public across the variety of scientific disciplines that is necessary to talk meaningfully about the topic (Maibach, et al., 2008) to the long delays in time and displacements in space that exist between the causes and effects of climate change disasters, which are quite difficult to narrate within the confines of the always-on 24-hour news cycles (Nixon, 2011; Maibach, et al., 2008). These difficulties are then compounded by the presence of climate change deniers (Collomb, 2014) and industrial private interests interjecting misinformation into the public discourse (Thaler and Shiffman, 2015; Dunlap and McCright, 2011).

Some hope that perhaps the emotional and sensational appeals provided by “cli-fi,” a sub-genre of science fiction that functions as a “cultural response to mostly scientific and policy discourses [and] that offers a way of exploring dramatic social change… by way of fictional narrative” (Whiteley, et al., 2016; See also: James, 2015; Trexler, 2015), might help to bridge this gap in understanding and motivation. The creators working in this genre hope that the fictional scenarios they concoct will “motivate change, enlist activism, or instill fear in a skeptical public,” (Whiteley, et al., 2016, p. 31).[1] Some of the more famous entries in the genre include literature such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) and films like The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) and Snowpiercer (Joon-ho, 2013).

Recently, a number of games studies scholars have begun to investigate so-called “green games” (Chang and Parham, 2017, p. 1. See also: Chang, 2019; Kelly and Nardi, 2014; Milburn, 2014; Woolbright, 2017) as yet another avenue for environmental consciousness raising. And yet, as Abraham and Darshana Jayemanne observed in 2017, there is still a dearth of games dealing directly with the issue of climate change: “even a passing familiarity with the cultural output of the mainstream game industry reveals the startling omission of the issue -- with very few games telling stories that engage with climate change and the unfolding ecological crisis.” Those games that do focus on climate change tend to take a distant view of the subject matter, functioning more like simulations where the player can take on the role of a powerful administrator and test out the effects of specific policy positions on the population (take, for example, Red Redemption Ltd’s 2011 turn-based card game Fate of the World, or Gathering Storm, the environmentally-focused 2019 expansion for Firaxis Games’s 2016 title Civilization VI) rather than spinning stories that put players into the shoes of individual people who are experiencing an environmental crisis first hand. While these management simulation games are exceptionally useful for thinking through the intersections between policy, politics, and the environment, they are not particularly good at inducing the kind of empathy and personal connection of which cli-fi stories are capable.

In many ways this feels like a missed opportunity, considering the massive popularity that the videogame industry currently enjoys. Indeed, according to Reuters, “gaming is now the world’s favorite form of entertainment, as the gaming industry generated more revenue last year than TV, movies, and music did” (Oppenheimer Funds, 2018).[2] Furthermore, videogames are uniquely positioned to serve as pedagogical (Gee, 2003; Squire, 2011) or even philosophical (Sicart, 2013) tools, particularly when it comes to modeling complex systems (Bogost, 2010) such as the relationships that exist between human social and economic policies and the environment. For example, according to ecocritical games scholar Alenda Y. Chang, “games offer environments that are not stable, but shifting, that react to player input, and in the case of social worlds, that reflect the actions not of just one person but many, so that the game environment becomes a document of collective yet not necessarily cooperative processes” (2011, p. 78, see also Condis, 2015).

And so it was with great excitement that I first encountered Guerrilla Games’s Horizon Zero Dawn. Released in 2017 for the PlayStation 4 console, this title married an extremely clever, masterfully told cli-fi narrative to a highly-polished AAA action roleplaying experience. It was also exceptionally popular, both commercially and critically, selling over 10 million copies worldwide in just two years (Nunneley, 2019) and winning seven awards from the National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviews (Palumbo, 2018) and two D.I.C.E. awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (Tailby, 2018). However, while HZD does an excellent job of creating opportunities for players to reflect on ecological themes (such as the benefits and dangers of ecomodernist approaches to mitigating the rise of global temperatures and the role of capitalist ideologies in blinding institutions to the long-term consequences of environmental damage in favor of pursuing short-term gains), its heavily action-focused core gameplay loop somewhat blunts its ecocritical potential. In particular, its strong emphasis on combat diverts attention from what Rob Nixon calls the “slow violence” of climate change and towards escapist power fantasies in which positive outcomes are achieved when heroic individuals do battle with evil (2011, p. 6). In other words, when confronted with the existential crisis of environmental collapse, Horizon Zero Dawn substitutes another kind of apocalypse for us to explore, one that is more receptive to violence as a form of intervention. I suggest that this disconnect between the game’s action-oriented mechanics and its themes point to the need to invent new modes of interaction in games that are more suited to showcasing the unprecedented scale upon which cli-fi stories take place. As an example of a game featuring mechanics that are particularly well-suited to this kind work, I nominate Heaven’s Vault (2019), an “archeogame” (Reinhard, 2018) or a game that uses the discovery and interpretation of “artefacts within a game world as the primary mechanism for storytelling” (Livingstone, Louchart, and Jeffrey 2016, n.p.). In Heaven’s Vault, the impact of events long distant in time and space reverberate into the future. The only way to fight back against a cataclysmic environmental disaster is to understand the entrenched political and ideological institutions that brought it into existence over the course of millennia, and to understand the place of the individual within those institutions as potential agents of change.

Horizon Zero Dawn and the Trouble with Technofixes

Horizon Zero Dawn is set 1,000 years into the future, a time when the ruins of our own world are steadily being reclaimed by the earth, mysterious robotic creatures roam the landscape, and humanity only exists in the form of a few scattered enclaves with seemingly no knowledge of how to use the technologies that governed the world that came before them. At the start of the game, the mechanical animals that had previously coexisted alongside humanity without issue have started to behave more aggressively, attacking humans on sight and even laying siege to human settlements in an event called “The Derangement.”

The player sees this strange new world through the eyes of Aloy, an orphan who was discovered as an infant all alone deep inside the mountain her people call home and who has been cast out due to the tribe’s wariness regarding her mysterious lack of parentage. When she reaches maturity, her people are attacked by a group of machine-worshipping cultists who claim that their mechanical god has determined Aloy to be a threat to its existence due to her close resemblance to a long-dead scientist from the ancient world (the world of our near-future) named Dr. Elisabet Sobeck. Our heroine must therefore leave the safety of her homeland so that she can determine exactly why it is that these killers are after her; hoping that perhaps along the way she might uncover the story of her mysterious birth.

As Aloy hunts for clues about this mysterious cult, she uncovers records left behind by the ancient world, and is able to slowly piece together what happened to them. She discovers that her doppleganger, Dr. Sobeck, was famous in her age for developing so-called “green robots” that helped to repair the environmental damage that had been caused by global warming. Though her work was credited with saving the planet from environmental disaster, it was quickly repurposed by her corporate employer, Faro Automated Solutions, and its CEO, Ted Faro, who saw greater profit margins in the development of war machines based on Sobeck’s inventions. Faro’s combat robots were capable of operating semi-autonomously, of converting biomass into fuel,[3] and even of self-replication. According to the documents discovered many centuries later by Aloy, a bug caused Faro’s machines to go haywire in the year 2064, which led them to ignore the inputs of their owners and start fighting back against humanity -- consuming all plant and animal life in their wake. Sobeck realizes that they are impossible to stop and that they will strip the planet bare in matter of months. She argues that the planet’s only hope is to reset itself after the Faro Plague has burned itself out. She gathers a team of expert scientists across a variety of fields to initiate Project Zero Dawn, a system guided by an artificially intelligent system called GAIA that is designed to re-terraform the Earth after the planet’s demise. This reborn world would be worked and maintained by the robotic machines that roam the countryside in Aloy’s age. Aloy discovers that she is a clone of Dr. Sobeck that was created by GAIA in response to the Great Derangement. GAIA knows that only a human being with Dr. Sobeck’s unique DNA signature would be able to access the secure facilities where Project Zero Dawn was born, so that she might gather the information needed to ensure the planet’s continued survival.

The story that Aloy discovers as she wanders what Horizon Zero Dawn’s developers call the “post-post-apocalypse” (L., 2019) is both a celebration of and a cautionary tale about ecomodernism. Ecomodernism is a philosophy that dictates that “humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature” (Asafu-Adjaye, et al., 2015, p. 6) and that best method we have to achieve this goal is “intensifying many human activities -- particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement -- so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world” (Ibid., p. 7). Their goal is the “decoupling [of] human development from environmental impacts,” thereby “allowing more room for non-human species” to flourish (Ibid., p. 11). To accomplish this goal, they suggest researching and implementing a wide variety of possible technological solutions, from the relatively mundane (urbanization, agricultural intensification, carbon capture and storage, expanded use of nuclear power) (Cafaro, 2014) to the seemingly science fictional. For example, in his 2009 book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Stewart Brand discusses schemes like “ionizing carbon dioxide molecules with lasers” to “cause the Earth’s magnetic field to eject the CO2 from the atmosphere” or perhaps simply “putting sunglasses directly on the Sun” (2009, pp. 289-291). In fact, one particularly fascinating ecomodernist idea from James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia theory (2003) after which the omnipotent cyborg in Horizon Zero Dawn is named, seemingly mimics Elisabet Sobeck’s science fictional work. Lovelock argues that artificial intelligences will recognize the long-term threat to their own survival posed by climate change and will work hand-in-hand with humanity to develop new technologies to keep the planet cool (2019, pp. 104-111).

However, skeptics point out that the ecomodernist project is missing a key component: an understanding of how the logics of capitalism and consumerism drive climate change in the first place. According to critics, “the ecomodernists neglect to identify the ultimate ill that plagues us -- to wit, the addiction to growth-based economics, rooted in finite and polluting fossil fuels, and the sprawling industrial society that these energy sources and polices have facilitated over the past two hundred and fifty years” (Caradonna, et al., 2015, p. 16). They argue that any solution that ignores these social and economic forces will be doomed to repeat their mistakes. Philip Cafaro describes this philosophy as akin to “trad[ing] in our old air-conditioned SUVs for new, air-conditioned , air-conditioned hybrid SUVs and roar[ing] into the future with the hope of a Hail Mary techno-pass at the end of the game” (2014, p. 429).

Michael Huesemann calls the solutions proposed by the ecomodernists “techno-fixes” and argues that they are so alluring because they allow policy makers and pundits to “ignore large, intractable problems” such as “problems that are too difficult to solve or whose solutions are controversial” (2014, n.p.). These “large, intractable problems” are often not technical in nature at all. Rather, they are cultural and ideological. For example, if we organize our societies such that every new technological innovation -- even one so crucial as the restoration of the planet -- must inevitably be reworked into an engine for corporate profiteering to truly be considered “valuable,” then by definition it will be impossible for us to invent our way out of the conundrum in which we currently find ourselves. We will simply always find a way to turn our inventions into instruments of destruction. And, indeed, there is research to suggest that improvements to energy efficiency alone will not be enough to turn the tide in our favor; if only because human beings have a tendency to simply increase their consumption whenever more resources become readily available. This tendency, which is called the “Jevon’s paradox,” suggests that “over the very long-term, the rebound effect can dramatically exceed the original gains from energy efficiency,” (McDonald, 2011, n.p.) meaning that even the most well-intentioned of techno-fixes might actually do more harm than good to the environment in the long run.

We see this dynamic play out in Horizon Zero Dawn via the story of how Elisabet Sobeck’s green machines were repurposed into war machines. Although Elisabet’s techno-fix alleviated many of the ecological problems that her civilization was facing -- including pollution, the destruction of natural habitats, and the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere -- these problems were merely the symptoms of a larger disease: the capitalist systems of exploitation that lead to the degradation of the environment in the first place. With this social disease still in place, Horizon Zero Dawn suggests, it was inevitable that her inventions would become infected; transformed into engines of profit at the expense of other values like peace, justice, equality, and the very ecological conditions that make organic life on Earth possible.

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, Please

Horizon Zero Dawn uses the parable of Faro Automated Solutions to level a powerful and salient critique of our own moment. And yet, as philosopher Miguel Sicart points out, ethical gameplay, defined as gameplay that is productive of ethical reflection (2013, p. 6), does not arise out of a game’s narrative alone. It is the product of the combination of “the dual domain of the semiotic and the procedural” -- the fictional world in which the game takes place as well as the mechanical interfaces that the player must engage with to access that world (Sicart, 2013, p. 47). And while Horizon Zero Dawn’s fictional world undoubtedly brings much needed attention and awareness to climate change, it must be noted that the game ultimately relegates these ecological issues to the background. Instead, gameplay primarily consists of a set of combat-oriented mechanics that allow the player to engage with a more exciting, dynamic villain than the slow onslaught of environmental degradation: the ancient combat robots that Aloy must battle on her journey across what was once the American West.

Indeed, at times, the game’s story feels as though it is being lost amidst the combat-heavy gameworld in which it has been buried. I mean this statement literally; both in how the story of what happened to end the world is buried throughout the landscape that the player explores over the course of the game. Indeed, it can be easy to skip over large chunks of the story entirely if the player chooses not to pause to gather stray audio logs and diary entries as they go, Furthermore, even when the player is attempting to engage with the story the combat mechanics can at times overwhelm them -- demanding their immediate attention when they are in the midst of trying to scour the land for clues. I recall several instances during my initial playthrough where I was listening carefully to a scientist from the old world describing their desperation as they worked to preserve life on earth as the robot army crept ever closer to their hidden bunker only to be waylaid by a group of enemies, whose attack drowned out these voices from the past.

The sleight of hand that substitutes killer robots for critiques of capitalism is driven by the game’s open world survival action RPG mechanics, which revolve largely around deep, complex, real-time combat systems (Dale and Green, 2017, pp. 286-7) taking place within a highly destructible environment.[4] Over the course of the game, the primary mode of engagement that the player has with the world through Aloy involves the collection and use of a wide variety of weapons and armor, whose parts she must gather from the mechanical hulks that she brings down along the way. Aloy herself can also be thought of as a kind of customizable weapon deployed on the part of the player. As she gains experience, Aloy ascends a progression tree that allows the player to customize her suite of skills to fit their preferred playstyle, whether it revolve around stealth, ranged combat, or up-close brawling (see Figure 1). In other words, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, open world survival action RPGs require story scenarios that provide a context for action-packed mechanics (see Woolbright, 2018). As such, in order to provide players with the combat mechanics that they expect to see within a game in this genre, the plot must bend to the will of those mechanics, contorting to justify the action-packed set pieces that players will expect. The result is a game in which the creeping, aeon-spanning, planet-wide threat of climate change cannot be adequately represented within play because it cannot be translated into a spectacular mechanic.

Figure 1: Aloy stalks her mechanical prey through the jungles. Promotional Image from the Horizon Zero Dawn Press Kit (Guerrilla Games, 2017)


This is not a problem that is unique to the action RPG or even to the videogame as a medium. It is a problem that has plagued both fiction and non-fiction writers alike since the onset of our current crisis. As critics like Rob Nixon (2011) and Amitav Ghosh (2016) point out, the unique size and scope of a problem like climate change and the complex centuries-long web of both individual and collective decisions that undergird it pose a significant representational challenge to traditional narrative forms. Nixon coined the term “slow violence,” which he defines as environmental damage “that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is disbursed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2011, p. 2). Such violence describes the specific kind of harm that climate change threatens to impose on our planet. According to Nixon, one of the most insidious problems we face in the fight against slow violence is simply figuring out how to describe it in such a way that it will hold people’s attention. He writes:

Politically and emotionally, different kinds of disaster possess unequal heft. Falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads, avalanches, volcanoes, and tsunamis have a visceral, eye-catching and page-turning power that tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, even centuries cannot match. Stories of toxic buildup, massive greenhouse gases, and accelerated species loss due to ravaged habitats are all cataclysmic, but they are scientifically convoluted cataclysms in which casualties are postponed, often for generations. In an age when the media venerate the spectacular, when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world? How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention, these emergencies whose repercussions have given rise to some of the most critical challenges of our time? (2011, p. 3).

When a game with a combat-focused primary gameplay loop designed to provide players with “visceral, eye-catching… spectacular” experiences attempts to envision slow violence, it quickly runs up against the limitations of its scope of player interaction. In Horizon Zero Dawn, we learn about the slow violence of environmental degradation that unfolded in the distant past of Aloy’s world in an abstract way. However, in the game’s present as it is experienced by the player, this slow violence has been superseded by a much more visceral, more exciting foe. Rather than allowing the economic and cultural incentives that caused the world’s downfall to serve as the primary villain, the game substitutes a new opponent, one that is much more fun for players to beat up.

And yet this does not mean that the medium of videogames should be abandoned for communicating with the public about climate change. It simply means that game designers must develop new mechanics, new modes of player interaction, that are more amenable to the representational challenges posed by slow violence. The cli-fi videogame will not be a mere reskin of an existing mode of gameplay that simply uses environmentalist rhetoric as a justification to rehash familiar forms of cathartic violence. It will instead require the creation of “new, hybrid forms” (Ghosh, 2016, p. 84) that will allow developers to “create entirely new sets of relations outside of those based on dominance or manipulation” for players to explore (Chang, 2011, p. 60). To that end, we might look towards what a call “slow technology” or “technology aimed at reflection and moments of mental rest rather than efficiency in performance” (Hallnäs and Redström, 2001, p. 201). Such games might enable a unique opportunity for players to experience stories about slow violence through gameplay mechanics. In such a system, players might be reward them for thinking about the impacts of their actions on a geological timescale, rather than being required to stay rooted “in the moment” in order to survive.

Decoding the Apocalypse in Heaven's Vault

Heaven’s Vault, an indie game released by inkle in 2019, is one example of the kind of “slow tech” that we might use to create effective cli-fi videogames. It is the story of Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist who works for the university on Iox: the hub of power in a far-flung Nebula where moons and small asteroids are connected by interstellar rivers that flow through the void of space. While Aliya considers herself an agnostic, most of the inhabitants of the Nebula venerate something called “The Loop.” Loopers hold that history is a great circle destined to repeat throughout time. Therefore, conveniently, belief in The Loop is used to uphold hierarchical beliefs about who is destined to rule and who is destined to serve. For example, Iox’s military and economic exploitation of some of the poorer, less densely populated moons in the Nebula is thought to be justified because it must be the result of a new iteration of a historical empire whose seat of power was also located there. As such, Loopers reason, people born on Iox must be reincarnated versions of those ancient rulers and are therefore destined to rule. Under this logic, if the past is immutable and unchangeable, and if the future is simply a repetition of the past, then social change is not only unnecessary -- it is impossible as well as perhaps immoral and blasphemous.

Further complicating the political situation is a water shortage that has started to affect the agricultural output of more rural moons (causing increased taxation and even colonialist crackdowns on the part of Iox, who begins demanding larger and larger cuts of each harvest to maintain its rich standard of living). More so, the drought is also threatening to dry up the waterways between moons, throttling trade and cutting off avenues of travel.

The game begins when a roboticist named Janniqi Renba from the university goes rogue and disappears. Aliya is tasked with tracking him down. With the help of a robot named Six, she sails from rock to rock, asking the locals if they knew anything about where he was going or what he was seeking. On her journey, she discovers that Renba had uncovered evidence of a Great Darkness that had once descended upon the Nebula, and is looming once again. Over the course of the her investigation, Aliya pieces together the history of the Nebula, figuring out that this threatened “darkness” is being caused by a massive starship. Many eons ago, the ship crashed into an asteroid belt, creating the conditions that allowed for life in the Nebula in the first place. Over thousands of years, the starship has been slowly reclaiming the water and air from the Nebula to prepare once again for journey across the stars. If nothing is done to stop the ship, it will eventually suck the entire system dry.

While Heaven’s Vault is not explicitly about the problem of climate change as we are currently experiencing it on the planet Earth, it is a story about an ecological threat so vast and so all-encompassing that it is difficult for individual human beings to wrap their heads around. In fact, when asked if climate change was an inspiration for the Great Darkness that Aliya and her people face, Jon Ingold, the Narrative Director for the game, responded “Absolutely yes,” further clarifying that the central question that our heroine faces is the same one that we are facing today: “Do we resign ourselves to the consequences” of the accumulation of decisions that our ancestors made “even though the generation that will face the true cost are finally here? Or do we reject the decisions of the past despite not having a clear alternative for the future?” (Personal interview, 2019). Furthermore, the game makes it clear that resolving this particular threat will require not only technological knowledge but also historical knowledge: knowledge of the social, economic, and cultural history that created the conditions for the problem to arise and that incentivize people to ignore it in the present. The more privileged inhabitants of the Nebula, for example, are relatively insulated from the effects of the system-wide drought due to their economic domination of the other moons. According to Ingold, “one of our core sources for writing the game was an old 1960s book of pop archaeology called Citadels of Mystery, an anthology of shlocky theories and good academic work.” One passage from the conclusion, Ingold said, served as a touchstone as they planned the game: “We have seen that, when a people in peril can save themselves only at the cost of a quick and drastic change in their habits and beliefs, they usually prefer to perish” (Personal interview, 2019).

As such, the true “villain” of Heaven’s Vault is not some science fictional alien menace or evil army. It is complacency itself. It is routine. It is the established order of things, the embrace of willful ignorance in service of the status quo. Aliya’s primary tool in the fight against this villain, therefore, is a deep and reflective understanding of the progression of history, which gives her insight into the choices that are available to her in the present. Or, to put it another way, Heaven’s Vault is not a piece of “survivalist fiction” featuring “rapid collapse occurring on the scale of days or weeks” but rather a story about “a gradually increasing scarcity of resources” taking place on a timetable that stretches back over hundreds if not thousands of years (Kelly and Nardi, 2014, n.p.). The story’s focus on the process of gathering knowledge and on interpreting the historical and cultural precedents that have come to shape the current moment is mirrored in the game’s mechanics.

The primary mode of interaction that the player engages with over the course of Heaven’s Vault is not combat, but rather archaeological investigation (and not the gun-toting, treasure-hunting videogame version of archaeology à laTomb Raider’s Lara Croft (1996) or Uncharted’s Nathan Drake (2007)).[5] Aliya finds artifacts in many ways: exploring dig sites, trading with merchants, and collaborating with colleagues at the university. She uncovers their meaning by translating inscriptions written in the lost language of the ancient empire that once held sway over the Nebula (see Figure 2). In other words, rather than collecting new weapons or ammunition, Aliya collects words that she adds to an ever-expanding dictionary that help her to decode the past. However, the process of translation is never straightforward, and often a successful interpretation will require the player to think poetically, understanding not only the vocabulary but also the grammar and the symbolic order of a past civilization. In fact, it is often the more abstract, metaphorical translations that give Aliya the most insight into the way that her ancestors, and by extension her contemporaries, thought (and therefore, into the social systems and technologies that they created).

Further reinforcing the idea that “the past is always present” is the timeline tool that players use to track their progress (see Figure 3). The timeline is both immense and immensely detailed; stretching from the origins of the formerly great empire to the very minute Aliya currently inhabits. The timeline contains entries for both era-defining moments like a large-scale revolution or the ascension of an Empress, and intensely personal entries like the day that Aliya left her home world for the University or the day she had her first kiss.

Figure 2: Aliya translates a line of ancient text. Promotional Image from the Heaven’s Vault Press Kit (inkle, 2019)


Figure 3: The timeline in Heaven’s Vault stretches from events taking place over 4000 years in the past up to the present moment. Screenshot by the author.


By placing these disparate events into one, giant, continuous flow of time, the game suggests both the relevance of the distant past on events in the present as well as the possibility that one’s own actions -- even those that seem insignificant in the moment -- might be portents of world-altering events to come. As Ghosh writes: “the climate events of this era… are distillations of all of human history: they express the entirety of our being over time” (2016, p. 115). Thus, we can read the timeline, as a tool which fosters a sense of collective responsibility and empathy on a hugely vast scale. It is what allows us to conceive of the long chain of slow violence that has been occurring in this region, and what enables us to discover points of leverage where we might be able to break that chain.


As we have seen, the tremendous size and scope of climate change can be extremely difficult to capture narratively. Cli-fi stories require more than just the window dressing provided by an environmentally conscious theme if they are to capture the enormity of the problem or to inspire the revolutionary changes that will have to be made if we are to have any hope of solving it. Rather, we must invent new storytelling formats that are capable of explicating the radical interrelatedness that exists between human beings, other living creatures, and the Earth itself. Videogames have the potential to serve as one of these new storytelling formats, but only if we are willing to move beyond combat as a core mechanic and explore other ways of relating to the digital worlds we create. For it is through these alternative explorations that we can begin the process of imagining new ways of relating to our planet before it is too late.



[1] In a recent empirical study on the effects of cli-fi on readers, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (2018) discovered that “most readers attested to the value of cli-fi as a tool for enabling the imagination of potential climate futures” and “even for readers who had not previously struggled to imagine climate futures, these works could be memorable and impactful” (Ibid., p. 483) In other words, “climate fiction did not just help some readers picture potential futures but focused their gaze on subjects that had previously been unknown” (Ibid., p. 484). On the other hand, Schneider-Mayerson also cautions that the negative emotional responses that cli-fi narratives tended to create in readers including helplessness, sadness, anger, and guilt, may “present an obstacle to successful persuasion and mobilization” by incentivizing avoidance of the topic (Schneider-Mayerson, p. 489; see also O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). As such, it is important not to view cli-fi in general as an all-purpose panacea but to continue to research what it is about the genre that has the makings of an effective pedagogical tool.

[2] In fact, one group of climate change scientists are trying harness the popularity of videogames to attract attention to their work. According to David Nield:

“the new ClimateFortnite Twitch channel features what many a Twitch channel does: live streams of players fighting their way through rounds of Fortnite. The difference is, the audio commentary deals not just with Fortnite strategies and tips, but also with the consequences of our changing planet.

Credit for the idea goes to climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University, who tweeted about the disparity in viewing figures between her own climate change seminar on YouTube and her 11-year-old son's Fortnite stream on Twitch. Henri Drake, graduate student at MIT, took up the challenge, and ClimateFortnite was born.

‘It builds a community where people can ask the hard questions directly to an expert,’ Drake told Emily Waite at Wired. ‘For a topic like climate change that is steeped in misinformation, direct access to experts is crucial’” (2018, n.p.).

[3] For more on the appeal of “destructibility” in survival games, see Chang, 2019.

[4] As a 2009 press release from Cyclone Power Technologies and Robotic Technology Incorporated attests, military robots that consume biomass as fuel might actually be possible in the near future. Luckily, its developers promise that

“despite the far-reaching reports that this includes ‘human bodies,’ the public can be assured that the engine Cyclone has developed to power the EATR runs on fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings and wood chips -- small, plant-based items for which RTI’s robotic technology is designed to forage” (Wellons and Fruge, 2009, n.p.).

[5] For more on how archaeology is depicted in videogames, see Reinhard, 2018.



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