I’ve been playing a lot of Just Cause 3 lately on my PS4. It’s not exactly a new game (it came out in late 2015), but it’s my first time playing it. Having been lured in by outrageous YouTube clips of hero Rico Rodriguez flying around a beautiful, Mediterranean-looking island in a wingsuit, blowing up cars, tanks, helicopters, fuel depots, giant aerials, and a whole host of other extremely blow-uppable vehicles and bits of infrastructure, I took the plunge, hungering for some divine madness. At first I was skeptical that Just Cause 3 would be as much fun to play as the carefully curated YouTube videos of its gonzo, operatic carnage made it look. But you know what? So far, it’s mostly living up to the hype. Surfing the waves of fire and chaos sowed by Rico is certainly providing me with one hell of a dopamine hit, and a welcome distraction from everyday stresses. Sometimes, you need that kind of release. A slow, deliberate, thoughtful story is a wonderful thing. But sometimes, well, sometimes you just need to be the lord of destruction.
The beauty of video games these days is that there are ample opportunities to live both types of experiences. Just Cause 3 scratches a very particular itch, and it does so with aplomb. It’s funny, then, that the other game I’ve played a lot recently is a little title called Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. Aside from its similarly idyllic island settings, Just Cause 3 and Alba really couldn’t be more distinct from each other. Whereas in one you play a character who may as well be a superhero, and you are tasked with nothing less than overthrowing a corrupt dictator by maximising the amount of chaos and destruction, in the other you play as a young nature-loving girl who visits her grandparents on a small Mediterranean island and who runs around cleaning up beaches and enlisting friendly locals to help rescue stranded dolphins. Alba is, in the words of its creators, “Honestly, a feel-good game about running around and doing good deeds.”
And you know what? Bless Alba’s heart for daring to be exactly that. Games that, like Just Cause 3, embrace their mad side and go all-in on crazy fun are always welcome, but titles like Alba are truly unique and special creations. They make this fantastic hobby of ours into something much greater than it would otherwise be if every developer just followed whatever trends happened to be marketable in this fiscal quarter. Where still so many games put you in the shoes of some tough, male (often white) hero, sprinting his way across a hostile grey-brown battlefield, dealing violence wherever he goes, Alba asks you to skip (quite literally, and the animation of the movement is delightful) across a gorgeously rendered, sun-kissed beach with the bouncy energy of a little girl, pausing to pick up trash and to snap a picture of a sea bird perched in a moment of respite on the end of a nearby pier.
A confession here: Alba is a game quite uniquely designed to appeal to me. I’m hugely passionate about the environment, and Miyazaki-esque stories about plucky kids who, with great strength of spirit, do battle against corporate greed and human indifference in order to heal nature–and that are shot through with a surprisingly wry sense of humour–are right up my alley. Alba ticks these boxes comprehensively. As such, any thoughts I have on the game may well not be as objective as I would usually try to make sure they are.
Developed by UK-based indie company Ustwo games, Alba evokes the easygoing vibe of similarly colourful, cute games like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. Except whereas in the latest Animal Crossing, your goal is essentially to develop an island from an untamed wilderness into a perfectly manicured, five-star rated resort paradise with plentiful facilities (slightly reductive, I know, but let’s go with it), in Alba you find yourself stood in direct opposition to the property developers. You are nature’s friend, and you aim to keep it wild and in balance with humanity.
For most of the year, little Alba lives in England. Her grandparents, however, still reside in Spain, on the fictional island of Pinar del Mar (inspired heavily by the eastern Spanish city of Valencia). Alba used to visit them all the time when she was small. Her memories with her abuelo and abuela are some of her most treasured possessions. These trips encouraged her love of nature, with one magical incident involving her grandfather accidentally taking a picture of a rare lynx proving an inciting moment for the passion she has for the living creatures that we share our world with.
The game begins with Alba arriving on Pinar del Mar for a short summer break. Her reunion with her grandparents is a heartwarming sight to see, and her love for the island and its environment and people is palpable. It’s an echo of the the love the creators of this game so clearly have for Valencia and the natural world, which is evident throughout, with Pinar del Mar rendered in a beautiful, colourful art style that runs well on the Switch (the game has already been out for some time on PC but was only just released on Nintendo’s console, which is how I played it). Not all is well on Pinar del Mar, however, as Alba soon finds that its nature reserve has fallen into disrepair, there is litter everywhere, the animals are in various states of distress, and on top of all that the local mayor is colluding with an obviously predatory, corrupt property developer who wants to demolish what remains of the reserve in order to build a luxury resort to ‘revitalise’ the area. The locals’ reaction to the plans are mixed. Some are ambivalent, some angry, others resigned. Little Alba sees things clearly, and she practically shakes with a righteous indignation that someone would dare to gentrify and brutalise this little oasis. Implacable, she immediately resolves that this cannot stand, and she sets out to stop the development of the hotel and to clean up Pinar del Mar.
Nature may be the main theme of Alba, but its other clear focus is childhood. The sweetness of it, the golden hued warmth that suffuses our memories of it. Alba constantly conjures up this feeling with a power that belies its cute presentation. The developers clearly paid special attention to the music of the game and the way that it could bolster this current of nostalgia. Your adventures on the island are accompanied by a bright and mellifluous soundtrack that taps straight into the joyful vibe, echoing the sunny atmosphere of Pinar del Mar and Alba’s sprightly and unflappable energy. I’ve found myself putting on songs from the soundtrack even when not playing the game. With eyes closed, the compositions seem to trigger my mind into recalling my own memories of childhood summers and the long hazy days therein with what felt like boundless freedom. Alba follows a day/night cycle, with the setting of the sun gently nudging you home to your grandparents for dinner. When you find yourself skipping back home, from the beach, through the town square and the woods, Alba rounding a corner and seeing her grandparents waiting for her in the driveway to their house while the sun slowly sinks below the horizon, bathing everything in a scarlet glow, well–it’s just damn powerful stuff, and I can’t think of many games that manage to convey the feeling of childhood like Alba does.
As with any game that doesn’t sit easily within the few genres that make up the bulk of modern releases, when describing the game to others you are often asked the blunt question: “But what do you do, exactly? Yes, I’m sure it’s gorgeous and heartwarming and makes very relevant points about this and that. But how do you actually play the game?” The easiest way to describe Alba in standard video game language is that it is an open-world photography game. At the start of the story, Alba’s grandfather gives her a phone. That phone has a camera app on it with an inbuilt species identification function. In order to help the island’s conservation efforts, Alba is to photograph and document every species of animal that calls the place home. There is a charming and genuinely funny plot to play through in Alba, with a number of island and nature restoration activities built in–rescuing animals, fixing wildlife signs, picking up litter–but species documentation, reminiscent of something like Pokémon Snap, is the spine of the gameplay here.
It’s great, then, that Pinar del Mar is such a joy to explore, and the animals on it inherently fun to document. The island is varied and incredibly pleasing to the eyes and ears, and the wildlife bustle around on it organically. Alba too, as a character, feels good to control, animated with an effervescent bounce entirely appropriate to her character. The script is well written, pitched at a level that will be appreciated by children and adults, and the message behind the game is one that couldn’t be more important or urgent. Ustwo games seem to have a genuine interest in conservation, and what they have done with Alba is something that I would applaud even if the actual game wasn’t very good. But it is. The tasks feel rewarding, the story is well done, and it all very neatly ties into Alba’s larger themes. Which, frankly, makes me very happy. As much as I love blasting my way through games like Just Cause 3, the kind of story being told in Alba is exactly what we need to see more of these days. As the natural world tips over into catastrophe thanks to human industry and toxic individualism runs rampant, we all need to be reminded that we should see ourselves as custodians of the wondrous, unique natural world that surrounds us. To live in harmony with that world, to walk gently through it and know and love the creatures that share it with us, to fight back against the forces that would destroy it–what better goal could there be? We should all look to Alba, the game, and Alba, the little girl, and take inspiration.