• Introduction and overview of the project

We created a first person VR game where the player is a bottlenose dolphin. They are introduced to the importance of the mangrove ecosystem and navigate some of the current environmental challenges that dolphins face today. After the experience, players are given actionable steps that they can take to help support the work being done to combat these issues in the real world.

At the beginning of this semester, we met with our clients, Laurie Heller from CMU’s psychology department and Diane Turnshek from the physics department. They had done extensive research on VR. Specifically, on how having an immersive experience playing as an animal could help players to better understand the climate change challenges they face and to help create more empathy. For this experience they originally wanted to provide the player with two perspectives, one as a dolphin and another as a hawk. They felt that these two perspectives would be fun and engaging because it would really make use of VR where the player would get to experience flying and swimming underwater and really feel like they were embodying the animal.

Along with the dolphin and hawk perspectives the client also wanted us to create an experience where the player encountered climate change issues, but for the game to be fun and give an overall sense of hope. We immediately began brainstorming, but soon realized that we would have to narrow down our scope to just one species and we chose to eliminate the hawk. Moving forward with the dolphin we researched different climate change challenges that dolphins currently face and presented different options to the clients. Pollution, boats, netting, fishing and hooks were all good options, but they really wanted to focus on something that was more directly linked to climate change. Warming waters was climate change related, but the problem was that there was no way for us to really create a hopeful story where that could be changed in a 5 minute game. We finally discovered mangroves as a solution to this. 

Mangroves are a very important ecosystem because they are carbon sinks, filter water, protect against storm surges and most important for our game, they provide habitat for fish and other species. This habitat provides a nursery for many fish to grow before heading out to sea providing food for dolphins. With mangroves we felt like we had found our solution to a direct link to climate change and through the story of destruction and then restoration of mangroves we felt like we finally found a way to provide a hopeful story.

  • What went well (or what went right)

The team’s working environment is excellent. We frequently engage in discussions, collaboratively tackle challenging issues, and everyone is putting in a concerted effort to make this a great game and complete the project on schedule. We also did a good job tracking our progress with Monday so that it was very clear to see what we have done and what we need to do. It is evident that each team member was dedicated and hardworking and cared to make this a really engaging and well done game. 

For the game play, we feel like the overall atmosphere and environmental representation of the scenes were expressed well with what we wanted to convey. We had three phases: a healthy environment, a destroyed environment, and a restoration scene that was followed by real world examples to provide hope. In the first level, we successfully captured the vibrant ecosystem of the mangroves with lots of fish, a bright and sunny environment with caustics and God rays to help convey the feeling of being underwater. In almost all of our feedback, players would say that they wished they could stay in this environment and explore more because they thought it was so beautiful. The second phase effectively portrays the terrifying and destroyed environment where the mangroves are gone and there are less fish. We did this to help create an uneasiness and show this change in habitat affects the dolphins. Here we introduced the red tide that is found in this area and has become more prevalent due to climate change. We also added in a dead fish animation that would be triggered when they were hit by the red tide. A playtester even mentioned that when they saw that happen they knew that it could happen to them too and felt like they wanted to get out of the area. Lastly, the third level illustrates a sense of hope with the mangrove restoration area. After the player spends some time in the restoration area, we then cut pictures provided by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation that show real mangrove restoration in the real world to help the player to understand that it is possible to make change and that there is hope. 

  • What could have been better (or what went wrong)

When designing levels, we did a lot of repetitive work and underwent numerous iterations. Next time, we should start by considering the levels from the player’s perspective. We should focus on what kind of levels would be more suitable for the player, rather than only focusing on visual appeal. We realized it is essential to pay more attention to the gameplay and the overall game flow, and we should consider the map size based on the player experience and the total play time.

In terms of art, since we were a one-artist team, it took a bit longer to get the necessary assets in. It would have been a good idea to put in early versions of the before, so that changes that we found that we needed after putting assets in-game could be adjusted sooner. Along with that, this way we would have known sooner what extra art we needed to add for the experience. 

  • Lessons learned and conclusion

We learned a lot about how to convey the dangers of climate change in a game context. For our second phase, we were designing the environment that has been destroyed by climate change. We added small details such as withered seagrass, dead mangrove roots and the red tide on the sea surface. However, having assets surround you versus affect you are very different. While making this environment, we looked back to our challenge design, and decided to treat the red tide not only as a part of the environment but also as a challenge that the player needs to avoid.

We also learned how to create an emotional interest curve within our game. One of our main challenges was figuring out how to convey a hopeful feeling and also address the serious issue of climate change. To do so, we split our game into three phases: the healthy phase, the destroyed phase, and the restoration phase. We did flow charts for the whole game, as well as each phase, to understand the game progress and the emotion we wanted players to feel more directly. 

For the production of the game, we learned a lot of tools we could use to help us. In terms of art, we learned a bit about taking advantage of AI textures. We used iliad.ai to help with the sand and mangrove leaf textures, and Blockade Labs to create the skyboxes for the environment. In terms of game design, we learned to make game progress flow charts, and also flowcharts for each gameplay to help the programmers better understand how this mechanism works.

We also learned a lot about the importance of designing the map of levels as well and ended up doing a lot of iterations for the levels. Initially, our level was too big, the players were always lost in the levels. So we narrowed down the level, and added more guidance to help the player go to the right place. In the first phase, we even eventually made it a linear progression, so that the player would not have a chance to go anywhere else and get lost.

Overall, as a team we learned a lot about how to collaborate together to develop a transformational game that evokes feelings of hope, while still conveying the seriousness of climate change. We also learned how to navigate the requirements of our client and improved our ability to iterate and problem solve with the many issues and changes we made for this game experience.