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The player speaks to another Na’vi and a human at the HQ on Pandora in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Image: Massive Entertainment/Ubisoft

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Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is a gorgeous but empty call to environmental action

Massive Entertainment’s storytelling themes belie a flawed framework

When I’m finally allowed to climb the ikran rookery to bond with a mount of my own, it’s easy to see the big-picture appeal of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Those first moments of flight, with my gangly Na’vi character silhouetted against an impossibly vast sky, are exhilarating. Flying remains one of the greatest expressions of human fantasy, possibly even more poignant for a young Na’vi who was essentially raised as a human, away from their birthright of ikran-enabled flight. My character whoops with delight as Pandora unfurls like a glittering diorama; my ikran and I soar through clusters of floating islands and ancient trees without a thought or care in the world. When I return to the ground after this whirlwind of serotonin — arguably the highlight of the early game — I recognize the exact flavor of escapism that has settled on my tongue as the taste of impending indigestion.

Frontiers of Pandora is probably going to be a great life sim for the small but earnest community of Na’vi fans out there, especially those with PCs who will surely be responsible for some of the unholiest Na’vi mods that James Cameron will (hopefully) never see. It’s a natural extension of Cameron’s enormously profitable movies — big, showy, purposefully unsubtle entertainment for the widest possible audience. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but a reflection of Cameron’s intent with the original Avatar film and subsequent franchise — a universally conscientious science-fiction story that aligned with his own interests in environmental activism, albeit the sort of activism one does when one doesn’t have to worry about one’s material day-to-day existence. Following this blockbuster heritage, Frontiers of Pandora (so far) checks a lot of familiar boxes.

My character is an unnamed Na’vi who has just come out of 16 years of cryosleep; they are one of a handful of remaining Sarentu, a clan once valued for their diplomacy and storytelling. These newly liberated Sarentu kids were raised in a residential “school” and are far more human than Na’vi — they have little first-hand experience of Pandora and cling to disembodied bits of their language. Now grown and taken in by the Resistance, my Na’vi must rediscover their roots in “the Western Frontier” — a resource-rich region filled with potential profit — and unite disparate Na’vi clans against the encroaching Resources Development Administration (RDA).

The player approaches a green ikran, ready to tame and fly it, in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Image: Massive Entertainment/Ubisoft

In developer Massive Entertainment’s hands, it’s all still a direct extension of Cameron’s original perspective. But despite the latter’s philanthropy and investments in environmental causes, Avatar was still born from a distinctly white, wealthy, western framework that revolves around an awkward core of postcolonial guilt. Twenty hours in, and Frontiers of Pandora is more or less a Na’vi cultural immersion program with lackluster political cosplay and the conversational mouthfeel of a Ted Lasso episode. The comfort and beauty of Avatar is really in how it lets people work through settler guilt through the fictional safety of blue alien skin.

The gameplay is more or less the same as any big open-world RPG; There’s a main questline buttressed by smaller side quests and exploration objectives, reputation and multiple currency systems, gathering, cooking, and crafting. My Na’vi can go about her business with guns blazing or using Na’vi weapons and stealth. (Frankly, if you’re putting me up against mechs and anti-air turrets, I’m always going to go with grenades and rocket launchers.) There are multiple skill trees and “ancestor skills” that must be unlocked by interacting with tarsyu flowers around Pandora. In the Upper Plains, I encounter, very briefly, a temporary ground mount called a direhorse, which fills in a very small amount of time during which I can’t call my ikran. I can swim and climb and spend an inordinate amount of time using the Hunting Guide to track down specific types of crafting materials.

Gathering has its own simple mechanics — I have to carefully, consciously figure out the best way to pluck fruit and snatch eggs to maintain a semblance of harmony and respect for nature. I’m taught to give thanks to Eywa and the animals whose skin and meat I harvest after I kill them; I am supposed to be a thoughtful Na’vi, only taking what I need with great care from the world around me. In Na’vi culture, we’re only meant to remove a single egg from a nest to ensure the survival of a species, but there’s nothing stopping me from reaping an entire generation of eggs from the forest because I can and I want to (and also achievements, maybe). Such is the beauty of gaming.

The player faces off against an RDA mech, wielding nothing more than a bow and arrow with explosive ammunition, in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Image: Massive Entertainment/Ubisoft

Part of my mandate is to clear out the RDA drill sites and gas excavators that have scorched the earth and poisoned the water; the map colors these areas in sickly browns and oranges from the sheer intensity of human pollution. As soon as I clear an RDA excavation camp, the surrounding area bursts forth with life like a cartoon parody, as if nothing had ever been wrong. But the main quest engages my “new” identity as a human-coded Na’vi who becomes an impromptu envoy for the Resistance to fight the RDA. When you cut through all the horribly tedious banter and trite dialogue that passes for characterization (Priya Chen’s lines are just one of many narrative injustices), what’s left is the echoing guilt of people who ruined their own planet, living a fantasy of working with “pure” indigenous locals in the hopes of making things right.

If the original Avatar was intended as a sort of edutainment spectacle — a mix of green storytelling and technical wizardry — Frontiers of Pandora follows in those same footsteps, except that this time we have a real-life climate crisis in full swing. Green edutainment was a big part of kids’ media in the ’90s, with EcoQuest and Captain Planet pitching approachable, simplified lessons about doing your part against unjust corporate polluters. There was still this very panglossian outlook on what the future could be, before we all became distracted by the advent of home internet and big globalization. It is actually kind of unbelievable that, 30 years later, we still haven’t really evolved this particular storytelling form, even as our literal environment has materially deteriorated into an irreparable state. After all those decades, we’re still relying on the same storytelling tropes from FernGully, a children’s film, with just enough self-awareness to seem progressive.

Today, it is more difficult than ever to play carefully designed, easily digestible games about environmental crisis and genocide (in this case, both) and then tab out to the real-life horror of rising sea levels and multiple real-world genocides happening at once. The cavalier one-liners from RDA military NPCs about wiping out “the blues” and the overall dehumanization are thin gruel to feed us when milsims and Call of Duty sit side-by-side in the same marketplace. I live in a city that is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world — a visceral phenomenon that I can feel every day with every inch of my own body. With Frontiers of Pandora, Massive Entertainment seems to want me to identify with my character and feel righteous fury and despair about the state of my home; that’s so easy in 2023 it almost feels like cheating. But here we are, doing our best to absolve the Resistance of its collective guilt, and on a more meta level, temporarily freeing the player of the real-world conditions that define the whole Avatar premise in the first place.

Two Na’vi soar above Pandora, where a field full of pink flowers and dinosaur-like creatures unfolds below, in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora Image: Massive Entertainment/Ubisoft

You do not come to Avatar for education, or even edutainment, but for good, old-fashioned feelgood entertainment, and maybe to one-punch kill a soldier or two. But it is a gross misunderstanding to treat entertainment as inherently apolitical. What Massive has done with Frontiers of Pandora is to make a careful study of how real people discuss colonialism and its connection with environmentalism, and turn it into a recognizable, respectable echo. I do not need to finish the game to know that it’s going to be just barely uncomfortable enough to still simulate that sweet feeling of accomplishment — that I played something that felt adequately meaningful and resonant with my material reality, without ever fully plumbing those depths.

It is one thing to crib from ecopolitical movements, to watch this year’s How to Blow Up A Pipeline and feel moved and energized to speak out against unjust hypercapitalist systems, to take those lessons and weave it into your art and hope it strikes a chord with even one person. Art is made to do these things. But it is another thing entirely to experience that message within a system of wanton consumerism filled with in-store purchases and resource-hungry hardware requirements that have devastating environmental effects. These features are perfectly normal within the context of a AAA game. But the hope that even a small part of Avatar’s environmentalism can fully resonate in this context, without being inherently hypocritical, is laughable.

If anything, Frontiers of Pandora is an extremely visually engaging reminder of how far we’ve progressed in games — not thematically, but technically and graphically. After all, a planet worth saving must be shown in its best light. But peel those gorgeous layers away and all the game has done (so far) is find ways to reproduce archaic environmentalism in a more palatable way, where the native is now centered instead of a well-intentioned settler. If you scratch a little at these themes, it’s the same framework underneath.

As I approach a befouled RDA camp on foot, I come across a group of Na’vi NPCs who are discussing whether humans deliberately destroyed the earth and water around them. “Perhaps they do not even mean to harm the forest in this way,” says one. “They would harm the living by mere accident? I cannot accept it.” . Even with good intentions, it seems like all roads lead back to the quiet hell of the naive, wide-eyed native, too pure for this world, in need of rescue.

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will be released on Dec. 7 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. These impressions were written using using a pre-release PC download code provided by Ubisoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.