Activism Through Gaming: A Conversation with Tigertron's James Mielke

By Mark Delaney, 4 months ago
Jupiter & Mars is not your typical video game. Presented both in standard mode and VR when it launches on PlayStation 4, it's the debut title from what may be the world's first "environmentally-focused game developer." Tigertron. As I consider climate change and the future prospects for life on Earth to be of utmost importance, the idea behind building not just a game around these themes but your entire studio moved me to reach out to the young studio for an interview.

The game's creative director, James Mielke, talked about the inspirations behind Jupiter & Mars, Tigertron's real-world commitment to reduce their carbon footprint, and what they hope players take away from the game when it launches later this year. You can read the unabridged interview below, then head over to our sister site and read a related feature on the present and hopeful future of games that go green.

E3 2018 screens

Tigertron was established in 2015 “with the aim of developing games inspired by the real-world challenges of today.” Can you talk specifically about those real-world challenges that drive you?

There isn’t one particular challenge that motivates myself or the team; truly there are too many to number out in the world today. But the ones that drive the game concept, and which first compelled us to form our own team and do something different are things like ocean acidification, plastic pollution, the effects of methane gas, and species extinction number among our main concerns at the moment. All of them are inter-related to each other, and having recently become a father, watching the world suffer at the hands of climate change deniers and anti-science lobbyists is terrifying enough. But to see uninformed people buy into this kind of insidious PR messaging is the real problem. In generations to come, cancer rates and other terrible ways of dying will only increase, and this is not the way I want my children’s lives to end, when I’m no longer around to care for them. So Tigertron is our way of fighting back, in the most entertaining way possible.
Your debut title, Jupiter & Mars, is coming to PS4 and PSVR this year. Can you introduce the game to those who may have missed the announcement? You describe its setting as a “shocking” future world. What do you think people will find shocking about it?

In the future Earth of Jupiter & Mars, we’ve set the game in various coastal cities and island environments so that players will see something familiar, and yet in a totally new light, as these areas are now submerged under water. They’re submerged in a fairly realistic manner, too. London (called ‘Clocktower’ in the game) isn’t buried under hundreds of feet of water—that would be unrealistic, even if all the icecaps were to melt tomorrow—but is submerged enough to give players a ‘Planet Of The Apes’ feeling, like seeing the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand on a beach. By putting familiar locations in a ruined, underwater world, we’re hoping people look at these things and wonder “Could this happen?” If we make anyone curious enough to investigate on their own time, then that’s a win/win situation. We’re hoping to entertain people, but to also present our world in fantastic new interpretations that inspire discussion.
It's launching exclusively on PS4. Will the game come to other platforms later?

Jupiter & Mars is a timed exclusive on PlayStation 4 and PSVR, and it really shines in the VR format, but in the future anything goes. If there’s enough interest in it, whether on Xbox, PC or Switch, we’re free to take it where it’s wanted.
You’ve partnered with SeaLegacy and The Ocean Foundation in building Jupiter & Mars. Can you talk about what those relationships have been like while making the game?

It’s been great to work with these two organizations. Doing something new, like creating an environmentally focused development team, isn’t without its challenges. From a PR perspective it’s really great, and it’s something I’m proud of, but when it comes to getting organizations outside of gaming on board with what we’re doing, since it’s never really been done before there’s nothing to compare it to. Couple that with an outsider’s view of the video game industry and you run into a lot of people who default to assuming your game involves shooting things, blowing things up, etc. We had to do a lot of groundwork (taking video, preparing Powerpoints, explaining the game) in order to make our case in easily digestible terms.

Fortunately for us both SeaLegacy and The Ocean Foundation really “got it” from the outset. We had evangelists at both companies who recognized the potential value of getting their message in front of a whole new, younger, engaged audience like the video game community. So in the case of both organizations, we’re including content relevant to their respective missions, but specifically, with The Ocean Foundation we have a personalized video message from their president Mark J. Spalding. SeaLegacy, who do really amazing work in unconventional ways to raise awareness effectively around the world, took things a step further. We’re also including video content in the game to help share their message, but their co-founder Cristina Mittermeier also provides the narration for the game. She is an amazingly accomplished environmentalist, TEDTalks speaker, National Geographic photographer, and scientist. Having her voice grace the game really lends us the credibility we need to get covered in environmental publications, which helps us show the non-gaming world that there’s a video game developer serious about using the medium as a way to promote environmentalism.
Does your environmentally-focused game-making extend beyond theme and story and into things like studio culture, maybe like biking to work or making the studio more green-friendly?

Absolutely. We do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint on this planet, from using recycled goods, working towards a plastic-free lifestyle (there are stores in Brooklyn that specialize in this!), to even getting our business cards made on recycled paper. It seems trivial, but we do what we can where we can. We can’t exactly play our game on a PlayStation made out of hemp, but for example we’re in discussions with a game publisher about releasing a physical edition of Jupiter & Mars, and one thing we’re asking is how much of it we can produce on recycled material. We are trying to walk the walk wherever it’s possible.
E3 2018 screens

The space for games that go green seems sadly quite sparse. Which other games, if any, have you looked to for inspiration?

In regards to inspirations, there isn’t a lot of environmentally-inspired material to reference, but that’s OK. As for the games we drew inspiration from in general, those are things like Panzer Dragoon Zwei, Sub Rebellion, Super Metroid, and Ico. Of course Jupiter & Mars contains the DNA of games I’ve worked on in the past, like Child of Eden and Lumines Electronic Symphony.
In what ways do you think video games are well or even best equipped to tell a story and convey a message like those in Jupiter & Mars?

The games I like best are the ones that let me experience a world I can’t in real life. Movies often do a good job of this, but movies are also usually very passive experiences, and over in a couple of hours. Video games, especially in VR, can really put you in an unknown environment or setting and really transport you in interactive ways no other medium can. It’s a very powerful and moving art form, in my opinion.
You’ve made it clear Jupiter & Mars is not an educational game in such traditional terms, but no doubt you’re wanting it to make a lasting educational impression on those who play it. Ideally, what sort of tangible impact do you hope it has?

Our experience in gaming, and as parents, has shown us that you can’t force anyone to accept anything, no matter how reasonable the message is. So we want to avoid preaching from our soapbox. What we can do, however, is present a scenario or setting, and package it in the most attractive way possible, and in the process of making what we hope is a fun gaming experience, and let players come to their own conclusions. As I mentioned earlier, if our game world inspires a person to learn a little more about the things happening to our environment, then I feel our efforts have been worth it. If we can achieve more than this, then I’ll be really happy.
A trend I've found in the few games that do focus on the environment is one of reclamation. In similarly-minded games like Fe and ABZÛ as well as Jupiter & Mars, there's a focus on taking back the environment from humans, whether they remain present or they're long gone. Can you talk about what that idea of reclamation for this game?

When we describe the reclamation of the planet, it's of the Earth reclaiming itself that we're talking about. The book 'The World Without Us' and the TV series 'Life After People' were core reference points for us, as they dive deep on simulating how long it would take for the planet to bounce back to 'normal' if humans were to simply disappear. So in Jupiter & Mars we simply fast-forward to an undetermined point in the future, where human ruins still remain, but the Earth is in the process of healing. It's not that humans are inherently evil, but we've become accustomed to a certain way of life, certain creature comforts, and it's hard for us to walk back from that.

I forget who it was, but I think it was a comedian that very articulately mentioned how fragile humans are. We're not built for this planet anymore, because we like to have things always at 74 degrees, dry, but with a cool breeze. This is a very specific set of criteria for us, and we don't like to go outside of our comfort zone if we can help it. The planet, on the other hand, doesn't care about any of that. It's going to throw tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes at us whether we like it or not. It riles me up when I see some anti-science types trying to claim ownership of natural disasters by saying it's "God's punishment" for any number of perceived crimes, past or present. The only crime is how little care we show for the very fragile world we live in, and to not take ownership of it. In this way, humans are evil, because it takes a proactive kind of denial to understand our role in all of this.

For Jupiter & Mars, we simply set our game world 'generations into the future,' where things are bouncing back and stabilizing, but there's clearly still work to do, and it's up to these dolphins to make their mark.
PSX screenshots

What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe human-made climate change exists?

One of the worst things about the way we live our lives right now is the extreme danger of methane emissions, which come from cars, but also from the millions of cows we raise for red meat consumption. Collectively these cows pump hundreds of millions of pounds of methane gas into the atmosphere daily. These gases are absorbed by the oceans, which makes the water more acidic, to the point where barnacles can’t even grow shells fast enough to protect themselves from being dissolved by the rising acid levels. This is the beginning of the death of an ecosystem which we rely on for every other breath we take.

The short version is if you don’t believe whether this is a real problem, then show me by breathing deeply from the tailpipe of a running car for a half hour and let me know how that works out for you. It’s but one of the myriad things that humans do to the planet that we could totally bring down to manageable levels. Why wouldn’t everyone want a solar or wind-powered existence? It’s clean and cheap.
Thanks very much for joining us, James. I want to add that I personally appreciate the message behind Jupiter & Mars and I hope that message hits home with everyone who plays the game. Is there anything else you’d like to add as we wrap this up?

Thanks so much for inviting us to discuss. The only other thing I’d like to say is how much of an inspiration for us that The Oceanic Preservation Society has been on Tigertron. I hope to work with them one day as we do with SeaLegacy and The Ocean Foundation, but their movies The Cove and Racing Extinction are why Tigertron exists in the first place. It compelled us to take action while we still could. Here’s hoping we inspire that same kind of passion in someone who can help turn the tide themselves.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark has been gaming for over two decades and writing for the TrueGaming Network since 2011. He greatly prefers single-player to online modes, but is always taking challengers in Rocket League and Madden. Aside from games, he loves sci-fi, NFL football (go Titans), and biking. He'll be disappointed when The Last of Us 2 is announced.