As games and media tend to follow current issues, I can’t help but notice more and more games having some kind of connection to the environment. Games are beginning to think a little more about what our impact on nature really is.
With drastic changes to our environment happening every day due to climate change, this kind of recognition has never been more important. Sure, games like Sid Meier's Civilization and Animal Crossing see players running around chopping trees down and pillaging land without too many consequences, but others are connecting with what it means to live in an ever-changing, living World.
Carto, a cute little puzzler published by Humble Games and developed by Sunhead Games, does this with resounding success.
Carto's Puzzles Ask You to Appreciate Nature
Carto follows the story of an amateur Cartographer named Carto. She and her grandmother traverse the world in an airship, documenting and mapping out the lands. One day, after a particularly vicious storm, Carto falls out of the airship and loses track of her grandmother.
Being a girl of few words and a big heart, Carto traverses the world utilizing her mapping skills in search of her grandmother. As you traverse the world as Carto, you can open up a map and shift the terrain around you by sliding and rotating map tiles.
For example, let’s say you’re walking down a path and stumble upon a giant boulder that blocks your way. All you have to do is open up your map and move the boulder out of the way. By sliding the map tile with the boulder out of your path and replacing it with a different map tile, you can continue your Journey.
This sliding and rotating of map tiles to solve puzzles is at the heart of the game, but how these puzzles interact with the environment is where it all comes together. Carto blends these puzzles seamlessly with nature throughout the entire game.
For example, you might be traveling through a maze of flowers in search of an exit; the only way to find it is through environmental clues. It could be following the direction that flowers are growing, it could be noticing that some flowers have bugs on them while others don’t, it might even involve opening your map and seeing what those flowers look like from a bird’s eye view.
Each puzzle is so clever in its execution because it so thoroughly utilizes the world it sits in. As soon as you get used to one type of puzzle, the game will shift your understanding of its core mechanics through new scenery, characters, and animals.
Whenever one of these puzzles is solved, new map tiles will be revealed to you, providing a path to the next challenge or chapter. Each chapter of the game is played in a different biome: forest, desert, arctic, and so on. In each biome, there is a community with an astounding connection to nature.
The dialogue between Carto and these community members provides for a smooth way to learn more about the puzzles you are going to face in any given chapter, but more importantly, it feels genuine. There are always tasks the community needs your help with.
It could be anything from participating in goofy fishing tournaments to helping desert dwellers find lost family members in the chaos of a raging sandstorm. You learn about how the community around you thrives in their chosen world and come to appreciate the knowledge they have.
Whatever that knowledge is, these connections and conversations make every one of your actions matter so much more. There is never any conflict between characters themselves either. Instead, Carto and her friends work together to overcome nature’s beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, obstacles.
The game is filled to the brim with cute and friendly moments that just make you feel a little bit happier. One of my favorite moments of the game involves Carto hugging a particularly adorable forest creature. If you aren’t lingering with the community and solving puzzles, it is easy to get lost in the scenery itself.
Carto feels like a book a teacher might read to a group of school children. Every map tile boasts of pretty scenery with swaying trees, shifting dunes, and the ever-flowing tides of the ocean. There were so many moments where I would stop whatever puzzle I was doing and just sit in the scene, like I was lingering on a particularly well done page in a picture book.
There is something special about Carto. Sure, it has satisfying puzzles that make it worthwhile on its own, but its ability to meld puzzles with a deep understanding of nature make everything feel more heartfelt. I truly cared about the environment I was in.
I found it all the more beautiful as I traversed different biomes and ran into quirky characters whose whole lives revolved around thriving in these elements. Carto is a small game. It can be completed in around 5-7 hours and nothing ever gets too complex.
The thing is, every character, chapter, puzzle, and riddle circle back to one fact: The natural world is a fascinating place. It’s nice to be reminded of that.