By Makeda Byfield
At first, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees was like a virtual vacation in a relaxing forest. Players swing through a crowd of tall, beautiful trees alongside another yellow Gibbon. There is no goal, no rush, no stress – just swinging and gliding through the air with ease. I enjoyed playing Gibbon in between work meetings; the calming nature of the games coupled with smooth, soothing music and sounds of nature served as a nice break on a busy day.
And then everything changed. Forest fires, human-inflicted deforestation, and hunters soon make every move a dangerous chance of death. It becomes more difficult to avoid the threats to the forest (or what’s left of it, anyway). At times, I thought that it would be impossible to progress. Yet the pink Gibbon keeps moving.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees was released on Apple Arcade on Earth Day. The themes of human impact on the environment made this game a perfect way to continue a discussion about the ways we can reduce the amount of harm inflicted on wildlife and the forests they call home. Yet I wouldn’t call this a game. This is a bit absurd, I know. It’s been released on a mobile gaming platform, has levels, graphics, and a storyline like a game. So how could I not consider it one?
At first, I would have said that it isn’t a game because there are no incentives or goals. I originally tried to collect fruit in the trees in hopes they could be used as coins. Yet nothing happened as I swung by branches with fruit on it. There was no time challenge that motivated me to rush through the game. Sure, the player would “die” if they didn’t successfully complete a long jump over open spaces or fires. There was also the risk of being killed by a hunter. Unlike other games, there are no lives in Gibbon. The player will simply restart at a checkpoint and have another chance to get past whatever obstacle they failed to overcome before. As I look back at all these incidents, I wonder what made me keep coming back to the game in the first place.
My perspective on Gibbon changed when I realized that there was indeed a goal: surviving and persevering. Gibbon highlighted this message by completely removing the glitz and glam of a typical game. Had there been an option to customize our monkey or go back to replay levels, for example, we might have missed the intent behind this “game.” By re-evaluating my expectations for Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, I was able to truly absorb the depth within the narrative. Life does not stop just because hardships come up. Our pink Gibbon has witnessed the deterioration of his home, separation from his family, and near death experiences that would make anybody (or any monkey) hopeless.
At one point as the player, I fell from the trees and got hurt. The scene was straight out of any sad movie: pouring rain, all consuming darkness, and a sad tune had me thinking I’ve reached the end. Yet pink Gibbon got up again. I believe that the creators behind Gibbon wanted us to see that if our wildlife is fighting, then we must fight alongside them. Furthermore, this gaming experience is a reminder to keep fighting through our own battles. This is an incredibly important reminder given recent political, legal (Supreme Court’s EPA decision), and personal events.
If I had to give one critique to this game, it would have been the glitch towards the end of chapter seven. I began to get a little suspicious after passing through the exact same waterfall town several times. No big deal, I thought. It probably reflects how nothing really stands out anymore when everyday is a struggle. Unfortunately, it was not that deep – the game was just stuck in a loop for some reason.
Luckily, the issue resolved on its own after a few days of leaving the game unopened. I was able to play through the last three chapters and watch our pink Gibbon complete the storyline. At times, I felt lonely for our player; navigating cities, waterfalls, and forests all on his own after being separated. There was also a storyline surrounding our Gibbon and a trapped baby gibbon that we failed to free. I fully expected the game to end on a somber note to remind players that there will be no happy ending if we don’t act (but maybe that’s just me automatically jumping to the worst case scenario). Without spoiling, I can say that the final animations at the end of the story made me smile; pink Gibbon kept moving, and while they may not have been able to recover what they’ve lost, they were able to find something familiar that they could hang on to in the game’s rapidly-changing world.
I enjoyed playing Gibbon a lot more than I thought I would. As I step away from the iPad and out into the actual world, I will carry the heartbreaking experiences shown throughout this game. The fight for environmental justice cannot and will not stop with this game. After the final credits roll, players are given the option to complete “liberation mode.” A new gibbon, who has been freed from hunters, now goes on to help free birds. Cheesy as it may sound, I liked the message that those impacted by an issue should try to uplift others in similar situations (if they are able to, of course!). It reminds me of a saying my mom used to utter whenever she took us somewhere: you leave this place better than you found it. For a seemingly simple game, I sure took a lot of valuable lessons from Gibbon: Beyond the Trees.
Makeda Byfield is a senior intern and contributing writer at the New York Videogame Critics Circle, part of our ongoing partnership with Bronxworks.