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Starting Program Arborea..., October 25, 2022
This game is not a mere skip through the forest, I can tell you that.
The subject of Arborea is hard to summarize in a sentence. I have never played a game quite like it. It has the slight sci-fi angle of being in a computer simulation that adds a unique flair without coming off as a sci-fi game. It has a strong history-based component and yet I would hesitate to write it off as a historical game. There are even a feel mythic and spiritual elements thrown in. And then there is the overarching question of what is Program Arborea? But first things first.
Arborea seems to be a rift off the word “arboreal” which refers to the overall nature of trees. The definition, “pertaining to trees” also surfaced when I looked up the word. Both descriptions are spot on because Arborea is all about trees and human’s relationship with them, whether it may be for exploitation of resources, cultural traditions, or everything in between.
The game begins right after you step into a simulation room where a smooth computerized voice informs you that Program Arborea is about to begin. The next thing you know, you are in a vast forest with no exits and nothing but a gourd in your possession. On the gourd are markings that represent trees from different parts of the world. By identifying the trees, you can travel to eight world regions at different point of human history depicted in this game. It is not a time travel game. The player is not going back in time. Instead, they are simply in a simulation that brings the time periods to them.
Direction > Tree > Destination
North > Pine > The Pine Forests of Scandinavia
East > Palm > The Palm Tree Plantations of Indonesia
You are presented with the simple sounding but vague goal of finding a kernel. The game essentially cuts you loose to figure it out on your own. But it also seems like the more you try to make progress on your own, the more guidance you find in the setting and characters. It can be intimidating at first. You learn that you must “solve” each location, but this is not done independently where you solve one before moving on to the next. Instead, everything crisscrosses. Items from one location can be used in another. The puzzles are not always intuitive and given the size of the game it easy to lose track of your progress.
Once you (Spoiler - click to show) complete the content in each area, its corresponding icon on the gourd will crack (such as the frog for the Amazon). Turns out the kernel is inside the gourd. I spent all this time looking around for it, only to realize that I technically had it the entire time. The catch is that it is only retrievable once every icon is cracked. And that is not even the end of the game. Surprise! There is an endgame as well. Even though it took a while, completing the game felt satisfying.
The gameplay (and corresponding walkthrough) is long, and I figured that would never replay it after I was done. Turns out this was a game where I found myself eerily capable of remembering the exact solutions. Many puzzles seemed rather simple in retrospect, although (Spoiler - click to show) I still have lingering surprise over having to haul around a severed head for a chunk of the gameplay (it is less gory than it sounds). I have played games where the puzzles are cryptic and I need the walkthrough, and even after I complete the puzzle step-by-step, I still find myself unable to explain what I just did. Many of the puzzles in Arborea can be done in different order. I kept thinking to myself, "you know...I wonder what would happen if I did this first instead.” I returned to the game and played around with the order in which you can complete things.
There are a few guess the verb puzzles that will probably leave players flipping through the walkthrough. A big roadblock for me was (Spoiler - click to show) crossing the Savannah to get to the carcass. If you try to go south, the PC understandably chickens out. I was not sure what syntax to use. In the walkthrough, there is a subtle clue on what word to use, which assumes that the player is familiar with Star Trek. I am, but even that did not help me make the connection. It is not a standard verb, either. Another guess the verb issue was with (Spoiler - click to show) banishing the demon in the Himalayas. Even though it had a few more small clues, I still needed the walkthrough.
Oddly enough, the some of the most challenging puzzles for me were (Spoiler - click to show) not from the main gameplay, but the endgame. For example, I did not put together the solution of dragging the cross while wearing the white robe and crown to scare off the man in the Scandinavian simulation room. Regardless, I thought that the endgame was a clever way of tying everything together (and the game keeps you guessing about whether the endgame is part of the simulation).
Arborea does make some commentary about real-world issues. The locations for Serengeti, Indonesia, and the Amazon all have subtle mention of current environmental concerns. The time period for these areas is set in more modern times. We see deforestation, poaching, and the production of palm oil for consumer goods (Spoiler - click to show) such as beauty products. Obviously, these issues are far more complex in real life, but the game focuses on identifying key ideas to convey a general message of how we use trees and the ecosystems connected to them.
My ongoing question about this game has to do with “Program Arborea.” I borrowed the title of my review from the first line in the game where the computerized voice activates the simulation. The sci-fi aspect of the game stood out to me since the gameplay is essentially an advanced VR adventure. At the end of the game (Spoiler - click to show) when the Program finally ends, and a door opens so the protagonist can leave, while the voice in the background says, “Please take time to re-orient yourself and observe all normal safety precautions when exiting the building.” A museum. A museum on natural history. That is my guess.
But maybe you are not meant to look too closely.
The characters are engaging and interesting (even likable for some) but also highly generalized to match their setting. I think it steers clears of stereotyping, although that is a fine, fine line to walk. That said, it is quite possible that I either overlooked or were not aware of certain important/contextual details. I would love for players to share their take on it. Character interactions do not have much depth since each character generally has their “scene” in a puzzle, but there are meaningful moments.
Actually, this (Spoiler - click to show) can be a bit awkward when you meet these characters again in the endgame where you discover that they were merely actors participating in the simulation. Unexpected but creative approach to character design.
Arborea is a long but thoughtfully constructive game. Reading this review may give the impression that the game is all about climbing trees and analyzing environmental issues, but that is not entirely accurate. Yes, those things are certainly included (especially the tree part), but the gameplay also has a broader scope in content that may appeal to you more than you would think. It is a long game, I know, but give it a shot and then decide. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
(Arborea strongly reminds me of The Symbolic Engine. It is a one-room game entered in an IF Art Show and involves messing around with a machine that looks at the history of humans and their relationship with the planet. It also casts an eye on what that history could be in the future. The machine uses different voices and icons to tell the story. The gameplay experience is considerably different, but the themes are spot on. Like Arborea, it has a mix of sci-fi and historical elements. Unlike Arborea, it will only take up a sliver of your time.)