Gibbon: Beyond the Trees – Interview with Felix Bohatsch

Broken Rules is the little independent studio that could — and does. Based in Vienna, Austria, the award-winning company was established in 2009 and has been making original, hand-crafted games ever since. With a mission to ‘Create games that innovate while maintaining broad accessibility, they’ve continued to make waves in the space.

Broken Rules is also behind the pioneering public game exhibition space, zamSpielen, which promotes social interaction through engagement with often unreleased or little-known video games.

Their latest endeavour, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees (or Gibbon for short), embodies everything they stand for. Following a family of lost gibbons, players experience first-hand the frightening reality these critically endangered creatures face today: a constant battle to survive as their homes are crippled by deforestation, poaching, and climate change.

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees

In true Broken Rules fashion, the 2D, hand-drawn narrative masterfully uses colour, sound, and intuitive movement to heighten sensory engagement in the world. The title had a limited free demo release on Steam Next Fest and the response was nothing short of overwhelming. Descriptions included, ‘my favourite game of the year so far, ‘pure joy under the thumbs’, ‘a game that almost made me cry at work’, and ‘fantastic, heartfelt, downright beautiful’.

Not a bad rap by any means.

Here we speak to Broken Rules’ CEO, Felix Bohatsch (ELOH, Old Man’s Journey) about bringing this deeply moving game to life.

TAHLIA: I love the unexpected origins of Gibbon: Beyond the Trees. Can you recount the genesis story for us?

FELIX: When visiting the zoo with my kids, I always stop at the gibbons and watch in awe [at] how effortlessly they move across their poles and ropes. This made me prototype a game that fulfils the dream of, “How cool would it be to swing through the jungle as a gibbon?”. As a player, I was always a fan of side-scrolling endless runners like Canabalt or the Alto series, and it seemed like a perfect chance to build a flow-based mechanic in a procedurally created world.

TAHLIA: You could have very easily made a surface-level, aesthetically-pleasing endless runner. What made you decide to tackle the vitally important issues the title does?

FELIX: When playing other endless runners, I often want to know more about the characters and why they are here, moving through the world. So, instead of keeping players hooked by high scores, goals or pickups, I wanted to keep our players coming back because of the story.

During [the] conception phase I teamed up with Clemens Scott, and together we started designing. During research, we quickly realised how dire the situation of gibbons is in the real world. We immediately felt it would be wrong to just create a pure escapist experience in a perfect jungle. Rather, we picked the gibbon’s plight up and made it the core of the story we wanted to tell. True to our studio’s core goal (to create games that linger on in our player’s minds after they stopped playing), our aim was to show players what the problems are and invite them to think and learn more about them. These are complex problems linked in a globalised world. There is no simple solution — and we certainly don’t know it — so we want our players to decide for themselves how to act on it.

Using empathy — that all players feel with the character they play — we link our audience with gibbons and their struggle. What better medium than games to put people into the shoes of another being and show them a part of the world from a new perspective?

TAHLIA: Aside from the global pandemic, did working on Gibbon present any unique challenges to you and the team?

FELIX: For all our previous games we chose inspirations for our settings we knew very well. Chasing Aurora and Secrets of Raetikon are set in the wilderness of the Alps, which we know very well as we’re based in Austria. Old Man’s Journey is set in the Mediterranean area (Italy/south of France etc.), which we know well from vacations. For Gibbon, we focused on Southeast Asia, where many of the gibbons live, but we didn’t know much about this region. Initially, we wanted to travel there, but [the] development timeline was already tight, and then COVID destroyed any of our plans to visit Thailand or Borneo.

It’s very important to us that we represent our inspirations respectfully, so we needed to find other ways to learn more. We decided to talk to multiple NGOs [non-government organisations] to learn about gibbons and the problems they face from people working in the field. We learned a lot about gibbons from the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project and the Gibbon Conservation Society, which is why we have a gibbon family in the game, and poachers hunting the gibbons for Lilac (our baby gibbon).

We also talked to Rainforest Rescue and Bruno Manser Fonds, two organisations focused on keeping the rainforests alive. From them, we learned that the main threat to primary forests and the creatures and humans living in them isn’t logging anymore, instead, it’s burning down whole patches of rainforest to be used for farms — mostly for palm oil. This also informed important areas of the game. While our initial concepts mostly focused on logging, we added whole new parts emphasising deforestation by fire during the development.

Last but not least, we worked with a culturalisation expert to make sure we are treating our inspirations right, even though most of the team had never been to Southeast Asia.

TAHLIA: With all this due diligence in mind, what would you like players to take away from their gameplay experience?

FELIX: The game guides players emotionally through a story arc to reflect on serious, real-world issues of deforestation and wildlife poaching. It avoids preaching or shaming certain behaviour; instead, it raises awareness and provides ways for the audience to think, investigate, and act for themselves. As entertainment creators, we embrace our responsibility of spotlighting these specific issues, but the consequences for the audience are not for us to prescribe. Every player is different; what to do after playing the game is an individual choice. That isn’t to say we leave the players empty-handed after the game. We made specific efforts to bridge the gap between the game and the real world: links to NGOs in the game and on the website, and real-world facts in the game and video trailers that diverge from in-game footage and focus on the issue instead. All these options provide ways for players to educate themselves, engage in helping gibbons and their habitat, and make a real-life impact outside of the gaming sphere.

TAHLIA: The integration is super effective — it’s beautiful how you’ve done this. Given Broken Rules is already internationally renowned and has a bounty of industry awards to show for it, what keeps you excited about your work?

FELIX: Games are a unique medium that can immerse us in all kinds of worlds and settings. They can put us into the shoes of totally different people, or even creatures, and show us problems and issues from another perspective. I want to keep using this medium to connect with people all over the world and point them to problems or ideas that I think are worth thinking more about.

TAHLIA: You’re absolutely nailing that! Zooming out a little, do you remember the moment that initially sparked your desire to work in game design?

FELIX: While I played a bunch of video games, I never considered myself much of a gamer. I [preferred to] spend my time in hip-hop and skate cultures, as well as experiencing nature and going to the cinema. Initially, I wanted to study graphic design, then ended up studying computer science and found myself very much liking programming and designing interactions. When a professor asked who would be interested in learning more about game design for the final bachelor project, it dawned on me that games are a beautiful multi-disciplinary field where a lot of my favourite things converge.

TAHLIA: Are there any games that have had a particularly profound impact on you?

FELIX: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus because they showed me how mechanics and interactions can have a deep emotional impact on me as a player; Super Mario Galaxy because it finally showed that 3D can offer more to me as a player than is possible in 2D spaces; Monument Valley because it provided me with an intimate, beautiful experience I could enjoy in my favourite reading nook.

TAHLIA: That’s a great collection of inspirations! Speaking of inspiration, when young creators and developers ask for advice about working in the gaming space, what wisdom do you tend to share?

FELIX: Go out and explore. Experience the world and find out what inspires and touches you deeply. Go to museums, read books, watch old movies, and go dancing! Your main inspiration shouldn’t just be games.

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees was launched on Apple Arcade on 25 February 2022, and will soon be made available for Nintendo Switch and Steam.

Special thanks to Felix Bohatsch for his time. You can keep up to date with Broken Rules and their future projects over on Twitter and via their e-newsletter.

Tahlia Norrish
Tahlia Norrish
Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie actor, writer, and founder of The Actor's Dojo. She credits/blames an early obsession to Pokémon for her continued love of anime and gaming.

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