Before I moved to Australia, my impression of the country was limited to depictions of tanned, rugged outback men, a la Crocodile Dundee. These days, there’s a little more variety when it comes to representations of Australia in the media, but not many games present a realistic look at Australia’s flora and fauna. That’s what’s charming about Paperbark, an iOS game where you control an adorable wombat on the hunt for food in the hot, summer bush.
Paperbark began as a student project at RMIT University and has since brought on additional talent, such as an Australian children’s author, to provide a finished product that is not only beautiful to look at, but sounds amazing, too. When you start the game for the first time, it recommends putting on headphones for the best experience. As soon as the title screen hit, I was immediately hit with a cacophony of bird sounds accompanied by a melodic fiddle that took me right back to my many strolls through the Australian bush with my husband and dog.
If you’ve never been to Australia, the bush is decidedly different from a forest in the Northern hemisphere, or the more arid inland regions of Australia known as the Outback. Paperbark’s watercolor art style and rigorous attention to detail in representing plants and animals brings the bush to life in a way that is not often seen in pop culture, let alone video games.
You control the wombat by taping the screen and interact with items in the environment indicated by a carrot mark such as food and obstacles in the environment. This makes the game easy to pick up for those who may not have extensive experience interfacing with video games, such as a caretaker or a child. The storybook-style narrative that follows the quiet journey of the wandering wombat makes it a great pick for kids and would benefit from being played on an iPad like an interactive book.
The watercolor visuals also tie into a gameplay mechanic wherein you can swipe your finger across the screen like a paintbrush to see more of the wombat’s environment. This is especially necessary for finding all the nooks and crannies of each area, as there are a number of plants and animals to collect throughout the game. Some of these secrets reward players with an entry in the game’s library, represented by a sticker that pops up on the screen when the plant or animal is first encountered. Unfortunately, on two different occasions I encountered a bug where the sticker wouldn’t disappear from my screen even after the library entry had been recorded, causing me to have to back out to the main menu and restart from the last checkpoint.
At the time of this review, the library did not provide any information about the flora and fauna collected, though it seems like the perfect opportunity to introduce some of Australia’s more common plants and animals to young learners and an international audience. Hopefully this feature is included in a later update, as it would be a shame for such an accurate representation of Australia’s natural habitat to be lost on those not already familiar with it.
Paperbark can be completed in a single sitting, and my first playthrough lasted about an hour. Rather than playing through the game from start to finish, however, I enjoyed booting up the game from time to time throughout the day to experience the soothing sounds of nature and the game’s beautiful soundtrack. There is a brief interlude towards the end of the game where I actually felt some apprehension for the wombat’s wellbeing, but rest assured the game ends on a reassuring note.
Outside of Junkertown in Overwatch, there aren’t really any representations of Australia in contemporary video games. Paperbark offers a beautiful look at the Australian bush that can be appreciated by both players young and old, and will hopefully encourage more interest in Australia’s varied landscapes beyond post-apocalyptic depictions of the Outback.