Telling historical stories through video games: a conversation with an indie developer

Title Screen of The Forest Cathedral, a game inspired by Rachel Carson and her investigation of pesticide use in the U.S. Image courtesy of Brian Wilson, Whitethorn Digital

By Paige Colley
BU News Service

The Forest Cathedral is not the game that Brian Wilson originally set out to create.

“It definitely transformed by the time I got to it and discovered what I actually wanted to make,” he said.

The result is a fictional telling of the events chronicled in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which was published in 1962 and documents the environmental impacts created by the use of pesticides. The book’s impact was one of the contributing factors to the creation of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

“I thought I was just going to be using that as a little bit of inspiration for the next game,” said Wilson, who read the book in an environmental science class. “And when I looked into that entire story, I realized there was so much more and that it needed to be its own game.”

While the short gameplay demo available at PAX East demonstrates the potential of telling historical events in an interactive medium, trying to find a balance between accuracy and entertainment required walking a fine line.

A screenshot from The Forest Cathedral. Image courtesy of Brian Wilson, Whitethorn Digital

“I have to stay true to the actual historical timeline, at least in terms of the events, but I’m definitely fudging some things,” Wilson said.

In the demo, the player controls a fictionalization of Rachel Carson and is tasked with collecting fish from a river. Doing so involves powering a mechanism, which is done so through a 2D mini-game similar in feel to games like the original Super Mario Brothers.

Outside of the mini-game, the player is free to wander through the 3D game map, which includes the player’s home in the woods, a garage and the nearby stream. The forest, being a pivotal element to the story, is beautifully designed.

It does not take much, however, to feel the psychological thriller aspect of the game come into play. The rustle of leaves is most likely the wind, and the crack of nearby twigs is probably just some woodland creature, but the sounds take on a new sense of foreboding as stranger and stranger things begin to occur: the mosquitos are glowing when they’re not supposed to be, and all the fish in the river are dead.

“Because it’s a video game I want it to be fun. But I also want to stay true to the story,” Wilson said.

The idea for The Forest Cathedral came about when Wilson was finishing up his previous game, Where the Bees Make Honey.

Wilson considered making the game about photography where the player would be able to walk around and see the woods and scenery in a 3D world. The camera idea eventually morphed into a scanner, which shows things that aren’t visible in the environment, and combined the 3D world of the forest and the 2D world of the scanner.

It will be a while before the game is released, as Wilson runs the one-man studio developing the game. He is hoping it will be available on both PC and console by early 2021.

“If I can tell this story through my form, which is video games,” Wilson said, “and have people be able to understand and take a little bit of the historical context, then I did my job.”

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