With Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, Ustwo Games is trying to deliver a world that feels both authentic and full of life, designed to evoke a sense of freedom and childlike wonder in players. As Alba, a young girl who visits her grandparents on the island of Pinar del Mar for the summer, you discover that this place your grandparents call home needs a bit of care and attention to thrive once again. With the island's Mayor hoping to build a luxury hotel on the site of a local nature reserve, Alba is determined to protect Pinar del Mar and prove that, no matter how small an action may seem, you can effect change.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is set to release on Steam for PC and Apple devices with Apple Arcade on December 11. Described as an open-world, quest driven adventure, you can experience everything the island has to offer and try to make a difference through exploration, volunteer work, community spirit, and much more besides. Studio art director David Fernández Huerta tells me that the initial inspiration for the game came in between projects with Ustwo programmer, designer, and sound artist Kirsty Keatch. The pair played around with the idea of making a free-roaming wildlife photography game which drew inspiration from the summers they remembered as kids – Keatch is originally from Scotland and grew up in Ibiza, while Fernández Huerta grew up in Spain.
Eventually, the game began to evolve into what is now, with more of a focus on actively working to save the island and the wildlife, but it still draws from the original concept. The team's own experiences and love for the Mediterranean coast influenced the setting of Pin del Mar, and their fond childhood memories of long summer days shaped Alba's adventures. "The house of the main character is the house that my grandparents used to have when I was a kid in the countryside," Fernández Huerta says, "and Alba's grandparents are modeled after and my own grandparents. We've made sure, as much as possible, that most characters in the game are either based on someone real or inspired by someone real in some way."
Ustwo Games' aim to make the island setting and its inhabitants feel authentic certainly adds to the appeal of exploring the natural world of Pinar del Mar. The island is full of various environments, such as beaches, forests, farmland, marshes, and towns, and in these various locales, you can encounter over 60 different animals. But as well as authenticity, the team wants to try and give players the freedom and childlike wonder that comes from being a kid during the summer holidays.
The choice to have a young girl as the protagonist came from both wanting to create this childlike feel and to also make it feel more inclusive as part of the studio's "unwritten rule" to keep having female leads in its games. Fernández Huerta tells me Alba's father is Indian, and her mother is Spanish, meaningful details that shape her into a fully realised character. "It's like, 'okay, what do I want this character to be?' I want someone to feel curious and to have the sense of wonder that we want to show with the game," Fernández Huerta says. "And there's no better way of conveying a sense of wonder than having a child. I have a baby and a five-year-old; for the five-year-old, the most mundane things are mind-blowing because he's never seen them before."
Fernández Huerta explains that Alba's efforts to help the island are also partly born from wanting to become a part of the community. As Alba isn't one of the locals, she is something of an outsider taking up residence over the summer break. And while it's not made explicit in the game, the way in which Alba responds to residents of the island captures this idea. Everyone on the island speaks Spanish, but Alba was raised in the UK. Since she's not too comfortable with the language, her dialogue choices are very binary – she responds to characters with head movements to give yes or no answers that you as the player can choose.
"You know, having a child myself who's been growing in a country that is not my country, [I think about things like] how is he going to fit? What is the sense of ownership over his national identity? Does he feel like he's Spanish or does he feel like he's English? And he's too young to think about that, maybe," says Fernández Huerta, "But it was definitely one of the inspirations for me, to have a character that felt like they are saving this place to make it their own – to make it so they can feel like they belong. In a way, there are selfish reasons to do these things. The selfish reason for Alba to do these things is to make sure that no one can say to her, 'you don't belong here.'".
Through Alba's desire to belong and have a positive impact on the place she's visiting for the summer, you can bring the community together. Afforded the freedom to explore and do things at your own pace, there are a number of ways you can lend a helping hand. From repairing broken birdhouses to fixing bridges and finding a resident's lost pet, there are lots of opportunities to make a difference on the island.
After all, if you're going to make the island a better place and put a stop to the mayor's plans, you can't do it entirely on your own. As you do quests, you will make friends with characters on the island, and they may pop up later on and volunteer to help you and sign your petition to protect the nature reserve. For example, after doing a quest you can befriend the local veterinarian, who will give you a first aid kit that gives Alba the ability to heal animals around Pinar del Mar. You gain quests around the island from both your grandparents, who might mention something that's going on nearby, or from text messages you receive.
As a celebration of community spirit and teamwork, Alba: a Wildlife adventure puts a lot of stock in the small actions we can take to make a difference. On the surface, fixing a bridge might seem small, but the work you do around the island can gain you the support of the locales and contribute towards the bigger picture of saving the island. There's something so heartening about the idea of playing a game that centres around a young girl's desire to take care of the environment around her, and lead by example to work towards protecting an island that's home to so much wildlife.
"I wanted to make the tone of the message be really positive, and really affirming and empowering... and to say to people that you can do it. It's not about you doing everything – because that's impossible – it's about you doing the little things. So someone sees you doing the little thing, and they can do the little thing. And between all of us, we can do the big thing together," says Fernández Huerta.
Between trying to save the island and its wildlife, you also have the opportunity to put Alba's camera to use to capture picture-perfect moments as you explore. Huerta has taken pictures of wildlife for his own enjoyment throughout the years, which led to the desire to create a bird photography game for almost a decade.
While the game has certainly deviated away from focusing entirely on photography, it still plays a part in the adventure by giving you the freedom to capture your own picturesque scenes, and also scratch that collectors itch. Throughout the island, there are many rare animals you can try to find and identify with your camera. Alba will have a little notebook that you can use to keep track of what you've found and what you're still missing, and residents may give you clues as to where you can find them.
As I learn about the concept of the game, I'm reminded of the summers I experienced when I was younger. The days seem to stretch on forever, and the small field outside my childhood home was the perfect playground for adventures of my own making. The prospect of having a world rich with wildlife to explore is undeniably appealing, especially as we enter lockdown for a second time. While the team certainly couldn't have predicted the game would be released under current conditions, Fernández Huerta hopes Alba: A Wildlife adventure will offer players some solace and reprieve.
"It's been really cool to see how Animal Crossing released the month of lockdown, and I think that has been the game that's been like the holidays for a lot of people. And they found solace in that. I hope that Alba can do something similar for people, where they can forget about the real world. But come into a world that feels real, that they have agency, that they can do things and people trust each other, and you can change hearts in a way and have a positive impact in the world."
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is set to launch on Steam and on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV with Apple Arcade on December 11, 2020.