Look beneath your feet and you will see the Anthropocene. It is made of the deep concrete that paves our cities, the abundant plastics that constitute our waste and the metal pipes that funnel our water and oil. Look up and the chances are you will see it, too. Vapour trails linger in the air after an aeroplane has shot through a clear, blue sky, their chemical residue spraying delicately over the earth below.
“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life”
In 2000, the Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, and biologist, Eugene F. Stoermer, advanced a theory suggesting we are no longer living in the geological epoch known as the Holocene. Following the Paleolithic Ice Age, the Holocene provided us with stable, mild climates for approximately 12,000 years. Weather patterns were relatively predictable while land, animals, plant and tree life carved out a flourishing existence amidst its warm, pleasant temperatures. Citing the measurable effect greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane were exacting on the atmosphere, Crutzen proposed the Anthropocene, “the age of man”, the delineation of a time defined by human action on the environment. While the term has not yet gained official designation, there are increasing efforts to scientifically prove its existence. Global warming, plastic pollution, nuclear waste and many other human-driven phenomenon leave an unmistakable trace in geological records, the data of which is being used to evidence the Anthropocene.
Despite the bleak hubris and narcissism underpinning the term, these scientific efforts are facilitating a broader dawning ecological awareness. Eschewing the apocalyptic fatalism of its many contemporaries, Future Unfolding asks not what the world looks like after the deluge but before it. The game pulls off the temporal trick of transporting both player and setting back in time, adopting an almost childlike gaze of its seemingly edenic world. Inspired by designers Mattias Ljungström and Marek Plichta’s own experiences growing up in the Swedish and Polish countryside, dense forests of coniferous trees grow unchecked and its woodland floor is often carpeted with delicate red and yellow flowers. With such a shift in perspective—a reversion back to an earlier self—Future Unfolding asks us to assume a state of naivety and rediscover a sense of openness. With it, we might relearn our relationship with nature, unpick our assumptions and dissolve the hubris of our Anthropocene.
Things don’t function as you might expect in Future Unfolding. A tree is often a tree but at other times it is a portal, capable of transcending time and space. Sometimes these portals appear in its fauna like the idly grazing sheep who possess the ability to teleport. Elsewhere, amidst the ferns and luminescent lichen, pines appear to make patterns, simple shapes that when strung together, produce an entity capable of dissolving obstacles such as the impassable boulders strewn across the land. I remember playing in the ancient woodlands of Snowdonia as a child, forging many of the same connections and exploring the same potential of the environment that Future Unfolding depicts. That landscape hummed with the vibrancy of life, from the insects that consumed the pungent, rotting leaves on the ground to the thick, green moss that covered each rock. It offered me a window into another world that, as a child, echoed in my consciousness.
John Muir, writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was aware of the transportive potential of the natural world. Tucked in the back of his collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson prose works is an annotation, hidden amongst many other scribbles, notes and fragments. Jotting his thoughts down with a blunt pencil, Muir wrote: “Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” Muir might have been writing about his adopted home of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California but the specificity, here, is applicable to the collective. You can swap the Californian pines for British oak or Japanese maple and shimmering worlds will continue to present themselves.
The landscape splutters, flakes and decays, exuding an unmistakeable sickness
For a crisis as enveloping as the Anthropocene, there is a value in this type of universalism. Specific problems abound that require specific solutions, of course, but Future Unfolding, along with other video games, literature, art and music are beginning to craft a new vernacular capable of conveying this shift in expression. Bjork’s work has long since channelled some sort of symbiosis with nature. Speaking about utopia in a recent interview with Dazed, she said: “There’s this old argument that civilisation treats nature the same as man treats women—you have to oppress it and dominate in order to progress. I just don’t agree with that. There is another way.” Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith crafts what might be considered the sonic equivalent to Future Unfolding’s pristine wilderness, her dense latticework synths sparkling with the same primordial urgency as the game. Track titles like “Existence in the Unfurling” speak to a similar biological enmeshing that Future Unfolding works towards. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus explores similar terrain, that game’s fizzing soundtrack determined by your place in the environment. Trees, hillocks and beaches all carry specific sounds, the effect of which jostles you into paying closer attention to its procedurally generated landscape.
Future Unfolding does, though, gleam with the irradiation of the Anthropocene. There is an unnaturalness to its saturated, high contrast colours. Iridescent purples, greens and pinks unspool from its earth like toxic graffiti, a sticky residue left by the real world. Hyper Light Drifter’s queasy, psychedelic colour-palette speaks to a similar environmental mutation. At the beginning of that game, the player is shown a series of images outlining the monumental catastrophe that enveloped the game world, an event that, if not nuclear disaster, gets mightily close. The landscape splutters, flakes and decays, exuding an unmistakeable sickness, an inability to adapt to its new conditions. Future Unfolding, meanwhile, asks us to embrace our new state of ecology amidst its fluorescent glow.
Transformations abound, too, in the Area X of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Those books, inspired by VanderMeer’s time exploring the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, chronicle a government cover-up and weird monstrous occurrences within an ever expanding, shifting zone. But they also detail a woman known simply as the Biologist experiencing a shift in perception, some might say transcendence, following an infection. She begins to feel the environment, to appreciate its peculiarities and intricacies. The Biologist notes the pines, the black water and the gray moss. She examines the “dull, algae-choked lakes” pausing on the “shimmering gold-brown of the reeds.” Finally, she reflects on the wholeness of the entire habitat before being brought “halfway to a kind of ecstasy.”
Throughout both Future Unfolding and the Southern Reach Trilogy, the gap between “us” and “them”—between humans and other life—is broken down. Sleeping mammals with long, white hair populate the game’s glowing landscape, each one keen to dispense knowledge. “Things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote,” one said to me. “The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean.” Their words emphasise wholeness and co-existence at times while also asking the player to unknow. “Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything,” said another. “Not till we are lost. In other words, not till we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves.” This might sound like the garbling of a new-age hippie but these messages signal to a wider picture while the moments of discovery and interaction enable us to peek at the minutiae of blooming flowers and bobbling rocks.
We are prone to flailing in the murky darkness of the forest
Adopting this shift in perspective allows us to understand the scope of the Anthropocene as well as a way out of it. In his 2016 book, Dark Ecology, the philosopher Timothy Morton, wrote that “ecological awareness forces us to think and feel at multiple scales, scales that disorient normative concepts such as ‘present’, ‘life’, ‘human’, ‘nature’, ‘thing’, ‘thought,’ and ‘logic.’” But in traversing and reconciling these eerie phenomena we might reach a state of intimacy with nonhumans. “Coexisting with these nonhumans is ecological thought, art, ethics and politics.” For Morton, such a coexistence doesn’t entail a deferral to primitivism but an embracing of technologies amidst a transforming viewpoint. Play is crucial to the process and Future Unfolding gives us a space where we might test out these ideas for size to see how they fit, feel and taste.
Future Unfolding’s childlike gaze gently encourages a flexibility of thinking within us. It asks us to forget old cognitive pathways and instead forge new routes of thought. It is sometimes a sticky, unsettling process and, eschewing formal instructions or direction, the game reflects our current state of unknowing. We are prone to flailing in the murky darkness of the forest. But as we reformulate our relationship with nonhumans, Future Unfolding asks us to push through the uncomfortable anxiety of dawning ecological intimacy. Only then might we reach the ecstasy the Biologist experiences in Area X.
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