We’re clashing Phoenix Wright, Disco Elysium and narrative deck building with the ecological crisis — to help fund real court cases.
By Joost Vervoort and the All Rise team
For the last year, we have been working with an amazing team on a game called All Rise. All Rise is a game about taking big corporates and others responsible for destroying the planet to court. The game is designed to be a much needed infusion of wild joy, curiosity and playfulness in a world where it can be very hard to fight the fight against climate change and ecological crisis. A lively current of electric energy in a time where ecological and climate depression and anxiety are rampant. We hope to inspire laughter alongside a sense of possibility and empowerment in players while taking the maddening political realities of environmental inaction head on. We hope to inspire people to look at what can be done through curious, creative eyes. In terms of game play and tone, it combines the court focus and absurdity of Phoenix Wright with the worldbuilding and narrative exploration of Disco Elysium or Citizen Sleeper. Deckbuilding mechanics a la Slay the Spire have you going out in the world to find clues, evidence, gossip and conversation tactics for challenging narrative encounters and court battles. And this is important: when people buy the game, they know they’re funding real environmental court cases.
From climate action to game design
Let’s talk about where this game came from, and the unusual team behind the project. About three years ago Dutch activist group Fossielvrij (Fossil Free) was at the head of a nation-wide movement to get the pension fund ABP, one of the biggest pension funds in the world, to take its 15 billion euros out of fossil fuel. Building on the successes of court cases against the Dutch Government and Royal Dutch Shell, Fossielvrij was preparing to take ABP to court. At the time, I joined this campaign because I thought it was a brilliant combination of target (a pension fund for civil servants, including myself as an academic) and method, and likely to be impactful. As it turns out the campaign was wildly successful — even before the court case was fully begun, ABP decided to divest all of its fossil fuel investments.
At the first meeting for the preparation of the court case, I thought — how can game design help this cause? What sprang to mind was a game like Phoenix Wright and the Ace Attorney series — a wild, funny and incredibly successful and classic series of games focusing on the court, like an anime Law & Order — but for climate cases. What if a wildly engaging, funny game like this could be made, and if players would know that buying the game would support actual environmental and climate court cases? I remember bringing up this idea, and how a 16 year old in the meeting immediately jumped up and shouted YES! PHOENIX WRIGHT!
Over the next year, an exceptional team gathered around the project. After writing about the idea I was quickly approached by producer Niels Monshouwer — who had made success in indie games and had then gone on to become a producer at Guerrilla Games, working on Sony flagship title Horizon Forbidden West as producer for robots and combat. Niels wanted to bring his experience in indie and AAA games to co-lead the development of this game that aimed to have a big impact on climate action. Niels’s talent and experience as a project leader quickly proved itself — he is steering the ship with a steady hand. I had had enthusiastic and super interesting Twitter conversations with narrative designer Meghna Jayanth, who was interested in games as way to represent and explore diverse worlds and help create deep experiences, and push back against the colonial and capitalist tendencies of the game industry. Meghna is a narrative designer who has led excellent work on games like 80 Days and Sable as well as Horizon Zero Dawn, and most recently, the wildly funny and beautiful Thirsty Suitors. We asked Meghna to join our project, and she enthusiastically said yes. Niels asked talented visual designer Marocha Arredondo, coming off of her work with Guerrilla, to join us, and she brought her experience, fast and flexible working style, and sharp sense for design to the team. Programmer Hugo Bille had led the International Game Developers Association’s Climate Special Interest Group for years — a wonderful community of climate-focused game developers. He had also done excellent work on games like Fe and more recently Ultros. Hugo quickly proved to be essential to the project, developing prototypes and ideas in creative and lightning fast fashion. We invited two excellent artists to the project — Enora Mercier, coming off of experiences with League of Legends and Legends of Runeterra, and Curran Gregory, who had done great character work on Paradise Killer. More recently, Vijay Krish, an artist who had done amazing work on Thirsty Suitors, has joined us for some beautiful and creative character work.
Finally, and I’m so excited about this, we are drawing inspiration for the game’s fashion from the work of my friend sustainable fashion designer Meghna Nayak, whose Kolkata-based company LataSita makes truly beautiful outfits out of old fabrics that could easily turn up in a speculative fiction tv show.
With this amazing team, and with starting funds provided by the Dutch government’s fund for creative industry, our game, now called All Rise, came to life. After we developed our first, more narrative-focused prototype late last summer we gathered a bunch of feedback on it, and the result is a new, fully game play focused prototype. So let’s talk about the game.
Wild joy in dark times
Games that engage with climate change and ecological crisis often only cover part of the possible design space. Either they’re set in a post apocalypse of some kind, or they treat ecological collapse like it’s a technical or management problem. But the reality of environmental action and politics is crazy, ugly, raw, inspiring and frustrating as hell. Activists are fighting for the planet, often with dire or even deadly consequences. There is also lots of love, strength, resilience and community to be found in environmental action, and occasionally, powerful and cathartic moments of hope. This means that the battle for the planet can be a source of inspiration for a fantastic and enthralling game.
With All Rise, we draw directly on the experiences of real environmental activists. We have a research team on the project — Kyle Thompson, Lauren McManamon, Mae van Veldhoven and Shreeya Patangay — who have and are conducting research that involves interviews with those at the heart of environmental action and court cases. We are connecting to ClientEarth, the global network of lawyers and legal people working on environmental destruction cases to develop this link between game design and environmental action.
All Rise consists of multiple chapters. Each chapter is set in a different part of the world, and focuses on a different case. The world of All Rise is a ‘sideways speculation’ — it is like our world in many ways, but some things are just a bit different, which gives us the change to show how many paths to the future are possible. We start with a concrete, more local case, and then move on to more global concerns such as CO2 emissions.
Our first chapter, The Murdered River, takes place in a sideways speculative version of Kerala state in India. The river of our city Muziris has been polluted to hell. Everyone knows, and nothing is done. But now it’s on fire.
Our player character is Kuyili, a lawyer who has taken up the gauntlet to fight the battle for the environment. Kuyili is a ball of curiosity, intelligence, daring and playful weirdness. She is a major source of the ‘inappropriate joy’ that we want All Rise to emanate. She sees the absurdity of our current times, and sees possibilities everywhere to subvert, experiment and mess with the systems around her. You can play Kuyili as more cerebral, more empathetic, or more ruthless and wild, but regardless, she’ll often hear from others that what she is doing should not be allowed. And yet, somehow, she gets things done that no one believes possible. We begin the game with Kuyili and her team coming off of a major victory — the river has been granted legal person rights. A great symbolic victory, but it has not led to any real action. With the river, now a legal person, on fire, Kuyili sees a chance to take those responsible to court for its murder.
But she’s not doing this alone. Inspiring and guiding your team of activists and legal folks is an important part of the game. We have described it as an emotional strategy game in this regard. The emotional energy of your team is a key resource. Climate action is hard, and people have to stay motivated.
Deck-building a better future
The game’s loop starts with a team meeting in which you send your team out on specific missions to gather evidence, gain insights, and new strategies. These are represented as cards that you can add to your deck. Your different team members have different moods, different skills, different motivations. Guiding them well pays off. Matching them with missions that fit them well yields results — but sometimes a strange pairing of skills and assignment can produce unusual outcomes, and cards.
As Kuyili, you go on your own missions — talking to people, exploring important locations. The core of the game play happens around the encounters you can have with key people — people such as Rishabh, who works for the corporation connected to the region’s fossil fuel industry. Rishabh is eager to ingratiate himself with the corporation’s family, for reasons of love and power. He is involved in local business dealings and politics, and a key target for Kuyili and her team. When you meet Rishabh, you enter a card battle. You alternate playing cards with Rishabh that represent your conversation with him. Cards can have a range of effects, and they align with different strategies: ‘gut’-cards play on people’s sense of justice and anger, ‘heart’-cards focus on empathy and relationality; ‘mind’-cards focus on logic and evidence; and ‘weird’ cards focus on the weirdness and absurdity. Kuyili and other characters themselves have different scores for each of these stats. Meeting an opponent’s ‘heart’ based card with your own ‘heart’ card indicates that the conversation is flowing well and that you can keep playing. The better the conversational flow, the more chances for you to gain insights or come out on top. But the same goes for your opponent. Each card battle is designed to be able to yield very different results — and give you different cards. It’s possible to lose a card battle but still have a partial win on the ‘weird’ stat if you play the right cards. Rishabh is a really weird guy and you might learn some valuable things about him. You might get some evidence against him that you can use in court later. Or you might get on his good side and agree to meet up again. Maybe over dinner?
That is the game loop: you organize your team, you and the team find cards in the world, you use those cards to win card battles with challenging and interesting opponents, and the cards you win go into your deck, which represents the case you’re building. All of this culminates in the final card battle of the chapter: the court case itself. We believe this loop of team management, world exploration, and card battles allows for exciting game play, and for a lot of creativity. Our chapters are designed to be rather short, but to allow for many different combined endings. Each card battle also allows for many different strategies. This means that the game can be replayed very easily, and that your choices really matter. You might just find a creative way to win a card battle or manage your team that results in you getting a card that very few other players have seen, further opening up your possibilities.
There are some really cool benefits to the deck builder approach to All Rise. Representing tactical moves, evidence and insights through cards makes us able to capture the core of climate action in this very strong, easily graspable and flexible format. It allows us to work with climate activists through the language of card development, which is very fun. It allows us to easily expand the game with new card packs and sets — and this can be an amazing tool for fundraising and awareness raising around specific climate campaigns and court cases.
Next steps and funding
With the new playable prototype nearly finished, we have completed our current project funding, and are actively looking for funding for the next phase. We are in conversations with game publishers, but also with public funds and philanthropic organizations interested in supporting the fight for the planet through new and original means.
Our first chapter is The Murdered River, and then All Rise will move to other parts of the world. Kuyili and other characters will continue to play a role, while new teams take on new cases everyone is in contact and learning from each other, using Client Earth as a real world example.
Working on All Rise has been an absolute blast so far, and the team is just the best. With our second playable prototype almost finished, it is the right time to talk about the game again, which I find to be a real joy as well. Expect many stories about All Rise to come out, like this lovely interview I did with games journalist and Rick and Morty writer Heather Anne Campbell who cycled all the way from Amsterdam to Utrecht to talk to me here at home.
If you’d like to talk to us about All Rise, now is the time. If you’re interested in discussing funding for the current chapter or the next chapters, get in touch as well!
Environmental collapse and climate change are a real existential challenge for humanity. It can be a heavy and dispiriting struggle. Let’s tap into new sources of energy and joy through play and radical action, and take the risk of being inappropriate in stride.
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. He leads the NWO Vidi project Anticiplay and is a leading researcher on the Horizon Europe project STRATEGIES which focuses on the transformation of the European game industry. He sings about the global crisis in Terzij de Horde.