Claudia Miranda
UX + XR designer, new media artist, and content creator living in Oakland, CA


Digital Experience Review: Toca Nature

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. - John Muir

For some of us, a day spent wandering in the woods sounds quite lovely. Surrounded by nature we come alive. Throw in a good imagination and it is transformed into a magical setting where everything could be anything. Suddenly you approach objects and decisions with what-ifs and how-abouts. I had an experience with a mobile game recently that made me want to go sit on a grassy hill and listen to the wind rustle though the trees. It sparked my imagination and made me realize how overdue I was for a hike. This game reminded me of my childhood, when walks through overgrown weeds in an alley could be transformed into treks through secret gardens. Broken glass became magical gems.

The game is Toca Nature released in November 2014 by digital toy studio Toca Boca as an iOS game. Toca Nature is an open-play style game geared towards children but anyone with curiosity and a love of nature could get lost in it. The game is a beautifully executed digital experience that transcends genres and audiences.

The Gameplay

"Observing nature through a child's perspective is seeing it through its details[...]Nature is not a wild unknown. It is an infinity of small wonders." - Toca Nature play designer Mårten Brüggemann says in this video about the creation of Toca Nature. From this idea the game design and mechanics are developed.  "The experience not being focused is the whole point," the play designer says. This type of open world game (also known as a sandbox game) is becoming increasingly popular (think Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto) and it is particularly compelling when created for a young audience. It becomes a safe place to just play.

The game has two modes. You begin with an empty island floating in space and in creation mode. You have access to different types of trees, the ability to create bodies of water, or you can make mountains rise from the land. The different types of trees and terrains influence the types of animals that will spawn there. You can chop trees down and plant new ones. The land can be designed however you'd like - there is no score system.


The second mode, exploration, is engaged with the loupe. Here you are zoomed into the land and can pick up fruit and plants to feed to the animals. The animals all like different things. "We want to simulate the wild, so don't expect the animals to be totally reliable!" says the designer of the creatures that inhabit Toca Nature. This unexpected reward game mechanic feels more meaningful than a reward we expected.


The Design

The characters are cute without feeling saccharine or cloying. They have a geometric, low-poly look. Modern mobile devices are capable of displaying very high definition 3D objects, so this look was no accident or attempt to disguise a technical limitation. It is an interesting choice. The whole game feels like an interactive ode to playing in a forest, stylized in a way that doesn't aim to replace the experience of being in nature. Instead, it reminds you that nature is an edifying place when we slow down to notice.

The color palette feels fresh and dreamy. The lighting gives the impression of a perpetual "magic hour" - forever dawn or dusk. The whole experience is rounded out with beautiful sound design - gentle, light and infinite.

The Experience

I have been a fan of Toca Boca's games from the moment they made me chuckle like a toddler with Toca Hair Salon 2. Their games always have super emotive animation, unique and adorable character design, original and fun sound design (check out Toca Band). Even in a portfolio of such great games, Toca Nature stands out.

As someone who will likely spend the majority of her life in front of a screen with technology, I welcome well-executed reminders of the natural world (I can't not reblog epic photos of the ocean on Tumblr for example); this game is just that. The playful interactions feel so benevolent and natural that they resonate on a primal level. As a user, I feel totally considered. It doesn't "take you down" to seeing the world as a child, it opens you up to it.The delight and inspiration you feel and retain is real.

For more information about the game check out official Toca Nature page. It is available for $2.99 from the iOS app store. All images belong to Toca Boca. Animated gif created using graphics from the printables available here.