Tridal is a multiplayer, collaborative, browser-based game
that advocates responsible land use. My fixation on land use started when, as a freshman, I learnt that the coastline of India would be unrecognisably different by 2050. The idea of not being able to find my way back home was very nerve-racking for a college-bound 19-year-old. The tremors of this fear settled in me for so long, creeping into all my work, that they eventually transformed into this game.
In the game, players develop strategies to ensure continual food security and habitation while keeping rising tides at bay. The resultant carbon emissions challenge players to adapt and evolve. Every in-game action has multitudinous consequences, illustrating the scale of human damage.
Here, I take a closer look at the design decisions made throughout the building process of the game and whether they supported my initial intent and story, starting with the three core features of the game: multiplayer, collaborative, and browser-based.
As I began to look at precedents, I noticed there were surprisingly few multiplayer climate focussed games (cli-games). Recent research1 shows that across cli-games, social components (multiplayer modes, leaderboards etc) were the rarest attribute. I believe that the climate game space– Games for Change, IGDA Climate sig, Indiecade Climate Jam, and Playing4theplanet– will benefit from more multiplayer games where people can support one another through the complicated realities within these game systems. As I was thinking about multiplayer games, the question of the form of the game became pressing. The game could be shaped as a collaborative or competitive game. Through my early prototypes for the game, I quickly realized that a collaborative game was better aligned with climate action. It allowed players to share their concerns and work through challenges together. A collaborative game is one wherein “all the participants work together as a team, sharing the pay-offs and outcomes”2 and the team wins or loses collectively. Popular collaborative games include Pandemic, Hanabi, CO₂: Second Chance, and The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. And since Tridal was always targeting young adults, it felt like the best method to erode some of the eco-anxiety that many of them feel.3 Tridal’s multiplayer, collaborative structure could engage players in meaningful conversations about climate change and land use.
Even with building the game with a single goal, it was hard to get people to think together. My initial attempts at building collaborative mechanics involved distributing resources– forests, food and urban– between the players. The prototype was built so that each player was in charge of one resource and had to plan before placing that resource. But in the tests of that version, one person always held more influence based on how reliant others were on their resource. I was worried that the imbalance would lead to strife among the players and tried to pivot to a version where players had a more equal footing.
In Tridal, players control one of five islands. Since the players have their own spaces, they cannot intercede in others’ territories. Changes are local to a player. The islands still have variation: they have different sizes, land types and altitude ranges. Because of this combination, I was able to ensure that all players performed the same actions but in isolated, distinct areas. Ultimately, all actions impacted everyone as everything eventually contributed to global carbon emissions. Through this new approach, I was able to create a more balanced gameplay, with players reliant on each other more for long-term goals.
I am not a climate scientist. The world of climate science facts and figures eluded me for a long time. I was stuck in a loop of researching and had to break that, get pen on paper and actually build something. I found a paper on Forest Transition Theory4: a shift from deforestation to afforestation seen in developed countries and was curious. So I took the variables from that paper and built a board game using them.
I playtested it on my roommates and immediately realised that there was way too much maths involved, forcing me to play ‘banker’. Following that, I simplified a lot of the transactional calculations, but this resulted in a flattening of all the data. I was able to observe the game and it made for interesting conversations and gameplay. However, I wanted something that had the complexities of an intertwined system where every action has consequences.
This made it apparent that the game needed to be built online where all the transactions didn’t have to be manually tallied. It also meant that the game could contain a lot more tile space and be determined using real-world data. Tridal could evolve from this one paper to now visualise data from the United Nations FAOSTAT5 statistical database.
The current Tridal game world is built with a few key factors– namely, accuracy, replayability, impact, and collaboration– in mind. All of the early prototyping eventually made its way into or influenced this final version. Some of the features of the game are outlined below.
Since the game map is generated, players will never revisit an old map. This setup ensures that while players can start another attempt, they can never undo or fix a lost game. The game values are calibrated so that it is very difficult to win, but not impossible. By having mutating maps, each game is an isolated one wherein players need to form new strategies.
The world is made up of five pixel-based islands each representing one of the following landmasses: Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Oceania. The surface percentage of these landmasses sourced from FAOSTAT is used to calculate how many pixels of the map should be grouped to form the game islands. The islands are subdivided by type of land using the land cover and land use data from 2020. Each pixel unit on the board could be one of the following land types: farms, meadows, primary forests, planted forests, urban land and barren land. So, the islands are generated with the quantitative data from FAOSTAT databases to form unique, algorithmically-determined islands
Players will quickly learn to familiarise themselves with the strengths and weaknesses of their land. Some land is more mutable: converting barren land results in lesser carbon emissions compared to converting a primary forest. They will have to make decisions that safeguard the natural ecosystems to win the game. Most land transformations in the game will increase carbon emissions, pushing players to plant forests as safeguards. As players understand the affordances of each land type, they’ll start to form priorities and create strategies.
As the players make changes to the land, the carbon emissions rise on a temperature scale. Once the carbon emissions increase average temperatures by 0.5°C, the sea levels rise and flood the lowest-lying land. Once the lowest land submerges, the players have to adapt accordingly. Each island’s altitude range is also determined by real-world data. As a result, flooding has an unequal impact on the islands. While playing the game, switching to the altitude view will show how much land would get submerged next. The flooding in the game is an exaggeration; even in the worst-case scenarios, our continents are not going to be 50% underwater by 2050. However, by taking a few liberties and magnifying the extent of the damage, the visual effect and time pressure are heightened.
As the game board floods, lots of urban spaces get submerged. Players then have to expend energy to relocate the displaced urban land. This relocation of urban spaces mimics the unprecedented refugee crisis that is only expected to increase with climate change. The player can relocate urban spaces within their island or cooperate with their team members and relocate them to another better-suited island. Removing the present socio-political complexity of refugees makes other players less resistant to a migrant populous. Since each player is assigned their island, they’re put in a situation where they need to ensure the survival of their island’s people and the collective goal of the game.
Through all of this, the game creates a space for young adults to come together and work towards a bigger goal. They can learn to collaborate through difficult decisions, look beyond their geographical limitations, and seek support for building climate-resilient solutions. Through this altered presentation of the world, the game is a nudge towards carbon-based, collective decision-making.