Development studio Free Lives doesn't shy away from the fact that its upcoming title, Terra Nil, is a "reverse city builder." While that is an interesting concept for a game to explore, it's the comparisons Lead Designer Sam Alfred made to another zen-like, unconventional city builder that grabbed my attention. Describing it as closer to Dorfromantik as opposed to Cities: Skylines -- the former being a game I played so much I dreamed about it for a solid week -- I can already tell Terra Nil is going to be an obsession for many players such as myself.
However, unlike Dorfromantik, Terra Nil explores the narrative of climate change and how it affects our world. This isn't an uncommon theme in video games, but the way in which Terra Nil portrays the harsh reality our planet faces seems hopeful rather than apocalyptic. Sam Alfred takes us through Terra Nil's gameplay and its intersection with nature and sustainability, so read on to learn more.
Reclaiming the World in Terra Nil
Free Lives is a studio known for developing the bombastic, action-packed Broforce, along with the bloody VR hit Gorn. And of course, who could forget, Genital Jousting and the upcoming Anger Foot. With an eclectic library of titles, Terra Nil is an interesting contrast to the goofy themes Free Lives is known for. Alfred said the small indie studio "cares about giving promising games the chance to shine," no matter how divergent they may be from past titles.
"Terra Nil is different because we wanted to try something different, and, from very early on, it seemed to really resonate with players," said Alfred. "The second part to this is that the team on Terra Nil is actually completely different to the team on say, Anger Foot, or even the team on Broforce or Gorn (although there is some overlap with those two). Because our studio affords individual teams a lot of autonomy (provided their prototypes are promising), we can make some really diverse things!"
Thus, the development of Terra Nil began and soon shaped itself to become something of a "reverse" city builder. Rather than building up a large city with a bustling population of citizens, Terra Nil tasks players with converting a barren wasteland into a lush sanctuary. Starting from scratch isn't so dissimilar from games such as Cities: Skylines or even Rollercoaster Tycoon (if you count a massive theme park as a city!), as blank slates are standard fare for the genre.
"The most obvious inspiration is to do with how you actually play the game," said Alfred. "The physical actions are borne of a long history of city builder and strategy game mechanics. It’s an isometric camera, you’re placing buildings, there’s macro strategy involved."
One could say this is where the largest similarities begin and end. Hearkening back to Dorfromantik, a recent indie hit that includes the cathartic feeling of building beautiful, natural environments, Alfred says you're not going to spend forever optimizing and building nature larger and larger like you would a city. You can be certain it'll be relaxing and less frantic, quite unlike optimizing the roadways in your city or installing a sewage system.
"So in many ways, mechanically, it sits at the intersection of city builders and puzzle games," said Alfred. "There are order of operations considerations, and there is an undo button, so it might not appeal to players who want a strict city building experience. But! We hope that those players would also be interested in trying something new and different, and Terra Nil challenges a whole lot of strategy tropes. The world is finite, your ability to build and earn is finite, and levels end with removing your buildings after their work is done, all of which is wrapped in an incredibly satisfying and cohesive visual narrative that leaves you feeling really proud of your work at the end of a level."
That said, many players seek out builder titles for that satisfaction of building up a giant, operational cities and theme parks -- that is precisely the reason why I had a crippling addiction to Rollercoaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon for many years. Fret not, as players are sure to find gratification in a similar way by seeing nature spring to life during your Terra Nil playthrough.
The expansion of a world, whether it’s the city growing into a metropolis, or even in turning something filthy into something pristine like in PowerWash Simulator, forms a sort of diegetic progress bar.
"Terra Nil similarly first shows progress from a wasteland into greenery," said Alfred, "then from grass planes into more complex biomes of flowers and forests, or coral and kelp. And at the end of it, you know that you did it: you dug that riverbed with an excavator. Those were the bees you introduced with beehives. That large lichen formation was built on rocks that you made by rapidly cooling magma. The map state itself holds a story of your progress."
As you reclaim nature, you'll notice animals return to their natural habitats. Players are, quite literally, bringing new life into a dead world. The inclusion of local fauna was made as a result of the reclaimed maps feeling lifeless without them -- which would sort of contradicts the point of Terra Nil. Playtesters found animals added to the gratifying feeling of Terra Nil, so seeing various animals moving about the trees, rivers, and skies of Terra Nil is something players should look forward to.
"... the presence of animals – especially apex predators – is an important indicator of the health of an ecosystem," said Alfred. "If the underlying flora is not in a healthy, renewable state, with sufficient variety in species and genes to protect against various external threats, animal life diminishes soon afterwards."
It is hard to ignore the elephant in the room: The world as we know may very well face the harsh reality shown within Terra Nil. The destructive path of humanity continues to degrade our environment. The developers at Free Lives are very much aware of this, but choose to portray the crisis in a lighter tone rather than one of doom and gloom.
"It is important to us to show players a world to be hopeful for, and to avoid pushing them further into apathy or resignation," said Alfred.
This is, perhaps, most evident in Terra Nil's gameplay with the City area. Remnants of human life yet remain in Terra Nil's world, with degraded buildings posing as an ominous reminder of what's to come. Acting, as Alfred describes it a "boss level," players are still able to achieve serenity through reclamation of this area. Certainly, the theme of "hope," one for a greener future even in the face of great peril, is prevalent not just in Terra Nil's tone but through gameplay as well.
"While we were researching ideas for levels, one of the most powerful visuals we came upon was that of vines and overgrowth spilling over abandoned buildings," said Alfred. "It’s a striking juxtaposition of life overcoming death and decay, and we really wanted to capture that powerful feeling."
It may seem counterproductive to play a video game while worrying about the climate crises at hand, but true to the theme of Terra Nil, Alfred speaks of hope.
"With Terra Nil," said Alfred, "we hope to inspire some hope in players and their ability to feel like they can make a difference, even if the way we do that is just a video game fantasy."
Free Lives and publisher Devolver Digital are making a generous gesture by donating eight percent of the game's profits from Steam to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a reputable charity based in South Africa that focuses on habitat preservation and more.
Players will be also be able to get their hands on Terra Nil soon. A free demo is available now, and the official release is on March 28, 2023 for PC and Netflix.