‘The Geography’ is an Ambient Video Game Colored by Catastrophe

Ponder the planet’s future in the company of massive mountains and a great soundtrack.
September 17, 2021, 1:00pm
The Geography - Screenshot 2
'The Geography' screenshots courtesy of  Michael Berto and Titouan Millet

A set of mountains whose outlines oscillate in the distance, their shadows shimmering like glitches, and a wafting generative soundtrack unique to each play session. 

Based on this description, The Geography, out now for PC, iOS and Android devices, may remind you of other minimalist video games like Mountain and Mu Cartographer, titles where you mostly press a few buttons and soak up whatever vista you’re looking at. This holds true for The Geography; clicking or touching the top of the screen cycles through various panoramas, and you can change their color by interacting with the bottom. On the right-hand side of the screen are five little buttons that allow you to jam along to the game’s serene music. 

When I think of those other games, they’re like chill-out zones that exist almost solely in the digital ether. The Geography, in contrast, has an explicit tie back to the real world. Touching the top-right corner summons text that explains how the mountains you’re looking at are rendered from real-world terrain data sourced from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s surroundings. If you’re not familiar with the project, the Global Seed Vault is a vast library of seeds on an island in the Arctic Circle, a so-called “Noah's Ark” of agricultural diversity designed to safely store over 4.5 million crop samples. Should disaster befall the planet, this will help us rebuild it. 

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This is smart framing. Without it, The Geography would be pleasant if a little insubstantial, a fine companion for working quietly at home, or perhaps a pocket oasis on a busy commute. But with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault looming in my mind, I find it difficult not to contemplate crisis. The game’s big empty environments make me wonder, “what would the end of civilization actually look like?” It’s worth noting this is almost the opposite to how the game’s maker Michael Berto thinks about the Global Seed Vault. In the accompanying text, he writes of how “the concept of preservation, of erecting a monolith to protect the natural world, is a beautiful one.” I agree, but the idea of a scenario in which we actually have to use the vault fills me with genuine dread. 

Judging by Berto’s description of the game, The Geography has been designed to facilitate such varying experiences. It is, at once, for “meditation, relaxation, jubilation, contemplation, creative thinking, passive enjoyment, idle play, self care, sleeping and/or dreaming.” For me, the game’s contemplative landscape is colored by catastrophe, and more compelling for it.