A chill world-builder for questioning our impact on the planet

When Before We Leave begins, there’s a warning about the disaster that wiped out the earlier generations. It’s vague, but clearly a message: “In bygone times, humanity descended into bunkers to escape a galactic disaster. Only centuries later, when the cause of the calamity was forgotten, did humanity emerge. Having lost all but the remnants of their past history and knowledge, they begin once again on a planet born anew.”

The game’s people — called peeps — have lived in an underground bunker for generations. They’ve eaten nothing but potatoes and haven’t seen sunlight in ages. A few small ruins remain, most of which are rusted and old, but which still house iron ore and stone to collect. The world isn’t empty; it’s full of natural life.

We don’t necessarily know what this galactic disaster was, but it’s assumed to be some sort of natural disaster — like climate change. I keep that warning in my mind while playing, recognizing that each of these expansions is creating a very real environmental impact for the re-populated world. And yet, I feel like the game is pushing me to expand (there’s a promise of space whales, but I haven’t seen them yet) without giving me the resources to create a smarter world that isn’t likely to fall to the same mistakes.

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Created by Balancing Monkey Games, Before We Leave is described as a “non-violent city building game set on multiple planets in your own cozy corner of the universe.” But the game begins small, on a single island on a single planet. Peeps begin emerging from the ground, a few at a time, once I start building houses in hexagonal spaces. Visually, the world reminds me of a board game or of the Civilization franchise. The peeps need food and water, too, so I begin building potato fields and harvesting water from newly-built wells, each in their own contained spaces. Like in other civilization-builders, options expand from there. Build a library to do research. Collect natural resources by cutting down trees and mining for iron ore. The goal is expansion — rebuilding civilization — and that requires more resources.

The “non-violence” thing is what separates Before We Leave from other games in the 4X strategy genre. There’s no conquering or battles, unless you count human impact on the natural world — which, certainly, should be counted. Peeps can’t die, even if I manage them poorly. They will, however, be upset and work less productively. But unlike in a game like Civilization 6, Before We Leave doesn’t require players to build up armies or conquer other lands. In fact, it’s just not a thing at all, which definitely contributes to the relaxing vibe.

Before We Leave expands rapidly. The game isn’t explicit with its goals, but the first big one is to fix an old ship. The ship is used to find new islands, places to expand. More and more options open up as new areas and information are found. Quickly, my peeps were making clothes (necessary for living in different climates across the globe) and exporting luxury goods (necessary only in keeping peeps happy). To run all these new operations, my peeps needed more energy sources. I researched wood-generated power, then oil. Though my civilization was becoming more advanced, I was leaving the world a whole lot more polluted, and it was beginning to impact my peeps. I had no choice but to build vegetable fields and houses on polluted lands. No one was happy. And so I expanded again, hoping to find a way to fix the problem, which leveled off for a while before it got way, way worse.

Before the point at which the stress and pollution got worse, I found the game quite calming. With my world a manageable size, I found it soothing to watch the peeps move about the island at 4x speed. I didn’t feel pressured, necessarily, to micromanage anything; after all, the peeps can’t die. I clicked on them occasionally to check in; each peep has some flavor text that describes how they’re hanging in there. But as I expanded past my initial island and onto other land masses — which requires ships and trade lines — I started to get stressed. Panicked, even. Though the peeps in my Before We Leave game can’t die, I’ll know they’re stressed. When the system and peeps are stressed, there’s a bevy of red alerts all over the screen. This building needs resources! Your peeps are hungry! Not enough power!

My expansion was putting stress on the world, its peeps, and me. The bigger Before We Leave got, the more at odds it was with its message — that it’s a chill, non-violent experience. Expansion, so far, has meant less time with each of these little, charming communities that have emerged from the bunkers, which is the part of the game I enjoyed most. I plan on restarting my world in Before We Leave and trying to build again. I had expansion in mind on my first go-around, and I think that hindered my enjoyment of the game. I’ll take in slower next time, creating a world that, itself, works slower — a purposeful community.

Before We Leave was released on May 8. It’s available on the Epic Games Store.

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