Ah, the great digital outdoors. Step into increasingly rich forests, rest under their densely foliated canopies, and breathe it all in. With the birds singing, a parrot squawking in the distance and the late beams of the afternoon sun penetrating the leaves above your character, you can almost feel the breeze.
Games like Crysis, #Uncharted, #FarCry and Horizon Zero Dawn all place heavy focus on exploring the natural outdoors. Even though you're safely seated at home, on a musty couch made of synthetic fabric, in a city far away from the nearest, tree-filled wilderness. I'd pass up the old elms, oaks, pines and maples of the local national park for the beautiful timberland found at the border to Nilfgaard, or for Uncharted 4's lush Madagascan jungle.
That's how far video games have progressed when it comes to rendering all things green. Trees are a staple in all but the concrete, urban-dystopias of sci-fi shooters. They may be a constant, but boy have they changed over the years, in both surface appearance and the way players have interacted with them.
Trees Are Mostly Just Trees, But Not Always
With trees being a fairly common sight in all but the harshest environments found on Earth, it's only natural that they soon made their transition into the digital world. From the blurry emerald blobs found in the top-down games of the '80s, to the fluffy 3D structures seen in Super Mario 64, trees have been with us gamers all the way.
Sometimes, they have a purpose beyond aesthetics. As in Black and White where your divine avatar is able to pick them up and use them for ungodly purposes, or in today's MOBAs where the fog of war created by trees is an essential part of the mechanics. But mostly, they're just there to create a recognizable and immersive world.
Let's take a closer look at some of the defining trees in the history of games
Indestructible Trees And Their Extinction
Compared to other kinds of organic material, trees tend to be somewhat robust in games. Sure, you can chop them down or blow them up in many newer titles, but it hasn't always been that way. Not unless you were playing an RTS game like Age of Empires 2 where chopping wood was an essential part of your resource gathering.
Until recent years, trees were basically indestructible in most action games. You could fire a tank shell from whatever panzer-wagon you were driving directly into a slim-branched beech and nothing would happen. You could ram a 100mph truck into the same beech and still nothing would happen.
Some games are more notorious for their hardy trees than others. Like the early Call of Duty, Battlefield or Grand Theft Auto games. Who doesn't remember speeding down Ocean Beach in Vice City on a Sanchez motorcycle, only to be brutally thrown off as you came into contact with a tiny branch sticking out of the road-side shrubbery? Or colliding with one of the deadly trunks on the snow-covered slopes of SkiFree? That wood must've been reinforced with adamantium.
Anyway, things have changed, though the plants in Grand Theft Auto can still be deadly when you're speeding. A lot of games today, including modern #Battlefield and #CallofDuty titles, feature some kind of destructible foliage. And thank god for that — not even is it a lot more realistic, it's also makes sure that your six-ton tank won't get wedged between a branch and a bush.
Trees Become Sentient
From Grandmother Willow in Pochahontas to the Fangorn ents in The Lord of the Rings, sentient trees are often portrayed as extremely old and wise creatures. The sentient trees of video games have taken on many, different roles through history. In Final Fantasy 5, the game's terrifying villain Ex Death turned out to be an enormous Yggdrasil-like evil that wanted nothing more than to absorb the life-force from every being in the world. And don't even get us started on Whispy Woods in Kirby's Dreamland, that mean old tree who'd blow your cute protagonist all around the side-to-side platformer.
Fortunately, we've also seen some heroic incarnations of living trees. Mokujin from the Tekken series comes to mind. This old oak's mission was to combat ancient evils like those awakened by the Mishima clan. Too bad he couldn't do much besides copying the moves of everyone else. And good ol' Harold in Fallout, a kind-hearted soul who was exposed to hideous amounts of radiation, which had him going into an unwanted symbiosis with a tree (named Bob) that put his roots down in the Capital Wasteland.
It's not easy being a living tree. Unless you're Sudowoodo, the Pokémon, who's fortunate enough to exist in a child-friendly, innocent video game setting.
Entire Worlds Depend Upon Them
Up until now, we've only covered somewhat normal-sized trees that might or might not have a mind of their own. Those are tiny, insignificant beings compared to these powerful guardians of the overgrowth.
It seems video games have a thing for world-pivotal trees. Trees that are somewhat in touch with the planet which they're planted on, whether it's the Warcraft universe's Azeroth or some unpronounceable region from a JRPG. Trees so big they're an essential part of the entire world's ecosystem.
Tainting or destroying these kinds of trees makes for a pretty effective plot. We saw it in Warcraft 3, when the demon overlord Archimonde sought to corrupt Azeroth's World Tree to doom all life. Or in Secrets of Mana or Tales of Symphonia, where someone tries to control the power of the mana tree, a flora of considerable scale and the source of everything magical.
In Final Fantasy 9, the Iifa Tree a.k,a. the Ancient Tree of Life is the connector between two worlds and plays an important part of the game's story. Like many trees of this size in video games, entire levels or arcs of the story take place either on or inside it.
It's hard to overlook the inspiration for these trees if we look back to ancient times. In Norse mythology, the nine worlds of existence are literally situated on a huge tree called Yggdrasil. In the folklore of Northern Asia and Siberia, a world tree connects different realities — the underworld, this world and the upper world — while the Mayans of South America also believed in a great ceiba tree (the aptly named "yax imix che") that was rooted in the center of the world.
The Best Trees Are Yet To Come
A forest that appears completely life-like is something we've yet to see, even though new games are getting incredibly close. Only the most high-end PCs are able to handle the thousands of moving, shiny parts you find on the hundreds of trees in a breathing forest.
I can't wait to take my first stroll in a perfectly rendered VR forest. Well-made in-game trees can, in my opinion, make or break the immersion of a game, and I hope that developers will keep improving the vegetation experience of video games.
After all, with all the tree-cutting, rainforest destruction and plantation burning going on in the real world, the interactive experience of digital woodlands might soon be the most real thing we have.
Games will function as historical tours, showcasing what a real, wild-growing forest area actually looked like in the old-days, before over-population and the extinction of orangutans.
And sentient, evil or enormous supernatural trees will just be the icing on the foliage cake.