The hub world of Remnant: From the Ashes (RFTA, Perfect World Entertainment/Gunfire Games 2019) is one dominated by plant life. Gargantuan trees loom over the starting city and grow in and through buildings, weird fungal growths litter the environment, and everywhere you go humanoid motile trees are trying to cut you to pieces, skewer you with arrows, or charge toward you aflame with suicidal/homicidal resolve. Collectively these trees are The Root, the game’s major threat.
In this time of major ecological crisis, it’s hard not to read an eco-political message into a game in which the trees themselves are rising up against man, laying waste to the symbols of civilization and industry. Maybe these representatives of nature are trying to wipe out humanity in retribution for the damage our actions have wrought on the world. It’s us or them, and at the start of the game, they’re winning.
After fighting through a veritable forest of vengeful trees and killing vicious bosses on Earth, you will find yourself at a gateway to other worlds. The first world you reach is called Rhom. According to the lore, the people of Rhom are the only ones to have defeated The Root, but at the cost of their civilization. The skeletal remains of buildings litter the land, their exposed metal frames standing strong against the desert winds even as the cement erodes. The locals don’t dwell in these ruins — instead, they’ve constructed new towns, adobe houses decorated with pottery and bones, lit braziers, simple furniture, and tools. The people are accompanied by domesticated dogs and defend their homes with a ferocity unmatched even by The Root — it’s no wonder they came out on top.
Indeed, after being greeted by a herald, your next encounter on Rhom will be a violent one. These people have seen what happens when armed outsiders come into their midst, and they will do anything to protect their way of life. Like all colonizers though, you arrive with superior firepower, strolling through the interplanetary portal with high-powered rifles, submachine guns, and war hammers made from motorcycle engines (not to mention the special power known as “being the player character”).
First, you’ll kill all the townsfolk and their loyal dogs, and then you’ll ransack their homes, smashing everything in sight for the scrap you use as currency. What might these pots contain? Who cares, smash ’em for scrap! What is the cultural significance of these urns? Who cares, smash ’em for scrap! What might these alters laden with bones tell us about the spiritual beliefs of these people? Who cares, smash it all!
It’s a story as old as empire — people driven by their need for glory travel to distant lands, kill or enslave the people living there because they are somehow less than, destroy the symbols of their culture, steal their valuables, and return home feeling like champions and great explorers. (But you can’t “discover” a place where people are already living. It doesn’t work like that.)
The Consequences of Colonialism
And whilst the age of empires (no, not that Age of Empires) might have come to an end, we still live within its shadow. All around the real-life world, academics and activists of various stripes are grappling with the many consequences of colonialism. For obvious reasons though, governments and other institutions can be hostile to post-colonial points of view that might force them to confront their actions and the damage wrought in their names.
It’s refreshing to see a game not only grapple with the issues of colonialism, but to also put the player in the role of the genocider, to force us to come to grips with our own complicity in these systems of slavery, murder, and control. (My tongue is firmly in my cheek here. Not only does the game offer no commentary on your imperialist actions, you are, of course, rewarded with XP and currency for your wanton destruction of the locals, their belongings, and their way of life.)
But what does this have to do with our current ecological crisis? It’s exactly these extractionist colonial ideologies that feed into the hyperconsumerism of today. Whilst the planet itself seems to be telling us that there are limits to what damage it can sustain whilst staying within liveable limits for us and the many other species that had adapted and survived to pre-industrial times, we have labored for centuries now under the myth that there is always more just over there. There is always more land for crops, more animals for food, more gold, more workers (both willing and un) — all we need to do is get in a boat and travel over the horizon until we find a new place to destroy and a new people to subjugate. Similarly, if we’re worried about where we’re going to dump all of the mountains of trash we create, we can simply put it on a boat to Asia somewhere, and let them worry about it.
Don’t think about the enslaved people mining precious metals for your next smartphone, or the enslaved people working to ensure you have chocolate, almonds, and countless other products. If we’re worried about the damage being done to the environment by our consumption, we can find sustainable ways to consume . . . because heaven forbid it’s that relationship to consumption that we begin to question. The hub world of RFTA might be desolate and dilapidated, but as long as there are other worlds populated by people whose personhood we are unwilling (or unable) to respect, then we will find plenty of currency and crafting materials to propel us forward on our colonialist mission.
I’ve spent these words talking about subtexts that probably weren’t intended to be in the game. But that’s the great thing about Soulslike games and their penchant for a more minimalist storytelling style — it gives the player space to read between the lines — and I wouldn’t have dived so deep on the game if it hadn’t gotten its hooks into me. Since I first played Dark Souls I’ve wanted a Soulslike with continuous (online) co-op, and RFTA has given me exactly what I wanted, spread across multiple worlds and tied together with a sci-fi story I can’t help but get caught up in.
Remnant: From the Ashes is well worth playing. But as you play through this game about an interdimensional threat to all life, and the brave warriors who are prepared to put a stop to it, ask yourself, which one of those describes the plants, and which describes the people? Maybe, just maybe it’s not the plants that are the real threat.
Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers a fair wage. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.