By Quentin H. / April 6th, 2020
Plasticity is a video game developed by the USC Games Program in partnership with the USC Games Advanced Games Project Program and the USC Environmental Studies Department that takes place in the year 2140. You play as Noa, a young girl who lives in a world ruled by excess plastic waste that has turned the environment into a dystopian wasteland.
Plasticity was originally scheduled to be shown at GDC 2020 as part of the INDIE Megabooth. Even though the conference was postponed until later this year, I went ahead and caught up with both Aimee Zhang (game director) and Michelle Olson (lead designer) to talk about Plasticity, the inspiration behind the game, what of themselves they see in the game, and more.
You can also download Plasticity for free on Steam.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Operation Rainfall: Could you please introduce yourself?
Aimee Zhang: My name is Aimee Zhang (they/them) and I was the game director of Plasticity. I recently graduated from the University of Southern California with a BA in Interactive Media and Game Design and a minor in 3D Animation. I currently work as a game designer and artist in LA and love making interactive experiences that make the world a better place.
Michelle Olson: My name is Michelle Olson, and I was the lead designer of Plasticity! I am currently in my final semester at USC in the Interactive Media & Game Design major & Game Programming minor. I am a game designer, and love creating games with an emphasis on nature and the environment!
“Michelle and I created the initial game concept in February 2018 for a class assignment during our sophomore year of college. We were deeply inspired by papers published by National Geographic that tracked the amount of plastic dumped in our oceans: 8 million tons every single year.”
Operation Rainfall: What is Plasticity about?
AZ/MO: Plasticity is a hauntingly beautiful puzzle-platformer about a plastic-ridden world and the choices you make to save it. Play as Noa, a curious young girl who leaves her home in search of a better life. Embark on an emotional journey as your actions dynamically change both gameplay and the story.
Operation Rainfall: Plasticity is a video game that was created in conjunction with thirty students from USC Games Program in partnership with the USC Games Advanced Games Project program and the USC Environmental Studies department over a nine month period. What is the USC Games Program, for those who aren’t familiar with it?
AZ:MO: USC Games is a program in the University of Southern California that features a partnership between the School of Cinematic Arts and the Viterbi School of Engineering. Together, students across the games program combine their creativity and technical skills to make all kinds of different games.
Operation Rainfall: The initial game prototype and concept was created, per the official website, in 2018 to “inspire people to care about animals and their relationship with single-use plastics.” Why choose this particular topic to make a game about? What roles did these students play in the game’s development, and what was the development process like working with these student developers?
AZ: Michelle and I created the initial game concept in February 2018 for a class assignment during our sophomore year of college. We were deeply inspired by papers published by National Geographic that tracked the amount of plastic dumped in our oceans: 8 million tons every single year. At the end of the class, I decided to pitch the game as my thesis in the USC Games Advanced Games Project class. Seven projects were accepted into the thesis class and Plasticity was one of them. I recruited a team of 30 students to work as designers, artists, engineers, usability researchers, sound designers, and producers on the project and we started pre-production the summer before our junior year began. We worked on the project for 9 months while attending school full time. We organized meetings several times a week and worked during weekends to collaborate on our game about single-use plastics. It was an amazing experience to be able to practice these roles in a safe environment such as a class. We ended up learning so much through the process of leading and making a game of this scale.
Operation Rainfall: What role did the USC Environmental Studies department play in creating Plasticity and how was it working with people outside of game development to create a game?
AZ/MO: With our partnership, we were fortunate enough to receive guidance and mentorship from the department chair of the Environmental Studies program to create a more impactful experience. Additionally[,] students from the Environmental Studies program would play and give feedback on Plasticity. Getting the game down in front of players was extremely helpful. Our goal was to inspire others to care about the environment and build more awareness about the single-use plastic problem. Playtesting helped us figure out whether we were succeeding or failing at that goal.
Operation Rainfall: Donald M. Murray once wrote: “All my writing -and yours- is autobiographical.” What of yourself do you see in Plasticity?
AZ/MO: Environmentalism and the single-use plastic problem have been topics extremely important to the both of us for years. Being able to create a game about an issue that we hold so closely to our hearts meant so much to us. It was the first opportunity we had to combine our passions for game development and the environment.
“In Plasticity, we give people that feedback our daily lives unfortunately lack, to show how our choices, no matter how big or small, will collectively affect our future in positive and negative ways.”
Operation Rainfall: Plasticity is a dystopian title that subverts expectations: instead of being a game about wallowing in despair, it is about finding hope. And instead of immediately delivering people into a ‘paradise’ such as Dry Land in 1995’s Waterworld, the player ultimately has to create their own paradise when Avalon Island turns out to be anything but what Noa expected it to be.
Why did you and the rest of the development team choose to subvert these genre tropes to create such a unique game?
AZ: Great question! Since the early stages of the project, our goal has always been to inspire people to care about animals, have awareness for their environmental impact, and feel empowered to change their plastic habits. When we were creating the project we heard so many of our peers say things like, “We’re doomed. It’s already too late to save the environment.”
We wanted to show others that even in the worst possible situation- when the earth is covered in plastic waste and plastic consumption has harmed every walk of life- that with our collective action it’s never too late to make a difference. We have the player determine the game’s ending through gameplay in order to affirm our message that our future and our environment’s future will be shaped by the decisions we as a society make.
MO: While creating the game, it was really important to us to toe the line between hopelessness and hope. In early prototypes of the game, we leaned very hard into hopelessness… but that didn’t give us the emotional response that we wanted! Rather than players feeling self reflective or primed for change, they felt powerless and sad. We realized, quickly, that while we wanted players to feel the weight of the problem, that we needed to ensure that they felt empowered to do something about it! Striking this balance was really difficult – but thankfully, we were able to pull inspiration from media like documentaries to help us achieve a good ratio of sad realities to actionables and hope!
Operation Rainfall: Very early on, Noa’s mother dies and we then see the character at her mom’s grave. Noa then decides to go live on the paradise at Avalon Island, which is the place where her mother grew up on. At the beginning of the game’s credits, the game is “dedicated to all our moms”.
Where did the idea of using Noa’s mother as an anchor point for so much of the game’s narrative and motivation driver come from?
AZ/MO: We wanted to use the mother as an anchor for a number of reasons- the biggest being that Joy, Noa’s mother, is meant to be a symbol of Mother Earth. Though it’s not explicitly stated in the game, Noa’s mother dies from microplastic consumption. Her death is ultimately the driving force in Noa’s journey and emotional growth. Avalon doesn’t end up being the safe haven her mother remembers it as- Avalon too has been damaged in the same way her home has. But both Noa and the player learn through their journey that instead of running away to a new place, they must heal and nurture what they already have.
Operation Rainfall: Throughout the game, there are optional opportunities to do small bits of kindness for the world around you: removing a bucket from a dog’s head, setting a bird loose from green netting that is trapping it on the ground, and throwing plastic bottles into a nearby recycle bin. How were these small ‘acts of kindness’ conceived of, and why did you choose to let them have such a ripple effect upon the world after the major time jump?
[Also], as I mentioned a moment ago, the game ultimately jumps ten years into the future to show Avalon Island that is cleared of plastic waste, and the player can then go back to see how the prior areas on the mainland look if the player took the time to clean up the environment while doing light puzzle solving. Why include that time jump and give the player a complete conclusion, versus a more unresolved ending?
AZ: It takes years to see the effect our collective actions have on the environment, and when people make sustainable or unsustainable choices in their daily life they rarely get positive or negative reinforcement for their actions. When you use a plastic bottle and decide to not recycle it, you never see it go into a landfill where it will sit for hundreds of years. And similarly, when you don’t use a plastic bottle, you never get to see what kind of positive impact that choice has on the environment. In Plasticity, we give people that feedback our daily lives unfortunately lack, to show how our choices, no matter how big or small, will collectively affect our future in positive and negative ways. Depending on the choices the player makes in Plasticity– whether to clean a river or ignore it, save an animal or leave it, stop a polluting pipe or pass it by- the player will either see a beautiful, sustainable future at the end of the game or a lifeless one ridden with destruction. We hoped that by showing players the impact they had on the world of the game, that they could make more mindful and informed decisions on the world in real life.
Operation Rainfall: Plasticity was previously shown at E3 2019, and it was supposed to be part of the INDIE Megabooth at GDC 2020 before the conference’s postponement. What has it been like to show Plasticity to the gaming industry at large not just for yourself, but for the students as well? How did Plasticity get involved with the INDIE Megabooth?
AZ: It’s been an amazing experience to share Plasticity with such a wide audience. We’ve been absolutely thrilled to have received such a kind reception from the industry and players from around the world.
I can say with confidence that it can be incredibly difficult to promote a student game. As a student team, we didn’t expect Plasticity to even surpass 100 downloads. However we have been given so much opportunity- we applied to INDIE Megabooth after seeing for years how the program supported the indie community and indie devs around the world in such an impactful way, and we were accepted to showcase at GDC 2020. We recently were featured in the Steam Spring Game Festival thanks to our participation in INDIE Megabooth, showcased at E3 2019, IndieCade 2019, and are awaiting news to showcase at a few other festivals.
We are so thankful for the generous support and recognition we have received, and especially grateful to writers such as yourself, who are sharing our game to a wider audience!
Operation Rainfall: What’s next for these students in the USC Games Program and for yourself?
MO: For me, taking the amazing experience I had on Plasticity, I am now directing my own Advanced Games Project at USC! It is called Beasts of Maravilla Island, and we are shooting to release on the Nintendo eShop in late summer.
AZ: I’m currently working as a game designer and artist at Tender Claws. We recently released The Under Presents, a time and mind bending theatrical adventure that combines VR and live action performance. You can expect more projects from us in the future!
Have you picked up Plasticity yet? What do you think of this game’s message?
Let us know in the comments below!
Aimee ZhangGDCGDC 2020Indie MegaboothMichelle OlsonPCPlasticityPlasticity GamesSteamUniversity of Southern California