Well kids, here we are. No one could have seen this coming: I’m writing a game review. You may be thinking “Jazz, that’s not what you’re nerdy about!” And you’re so right, but you know what? There’s only so much beer you can drink during a quarantine before they call it a problem, so I’m branching out.
First up on my games list was The Gardens Between, an indie game from Australian developer The Voxel Agents, a company that previously specialized in mobile games. The game released cross-platform in September 2018 and won a few awards at various award shows — none of which meant anything to me, since I don’t have the context for it. But it was listed near the top of the puzzle section on the Nintendo eShop, and the art was instantly arresting, which was good enough to spend an afternoon on. My game standards are pretty low right now (so if anyone has any recommendations, please tweet them at me) but this game was a pleasant surprise!
The Power of Friendship
Two small houses stand alone in the rain, a city sleeping behind them. Their facing windows are open, a makeshift rope dangling from the second story of the right, the curtain blowing in the wind from the left. In the shared backyard, center stage, sits a treehouse. A train rolls along behind the houses. The storm grows more intense. Hit start, and the train rolls the other way, the lights go up, and the heroes of The Gardens Between come into focus: two young kids sheltered in the treehouse, sitting on opposite sides of an electric lantern in a tense silence. As they stare at one another, lightning hits the treehouse and everything glows red. The scene starts to float and the light from the lantern seems to expand and zoom away, upending the world and signaling the start of the game.
The entirety of The Gardens Between passes by without a lick of dialogue. The characters aren’t even explicitly named — and frankly, they don’t have to be. This game does a beautiful job of telling a story through fragmented memories. Each world consists of two or three levels that join together upon completion to create a constellation that holds a moment in the friendship of the two young protagonists. Seven worlds make seven vignettes that finally reach the present for one final adventure. The memories represented aren’t life-or-death moments, but that’s the truth of friendship: it’s built through little joys you remember, not grandiose exploits.
Setting the Mood
Much like a person missing one of the five senses, a story told without dialogue has to rely on every other element of storytelling to be that much stronger. The Gardens Between really shines here with its incorporation of color palettes and musical composition. The score is simple and melodic, including nature sounds that the level design implies, like rain and wind. It serves as the perfect backdrop, keeping a dreamy quality that never gets too intense as the game progresses.
The color palettes also progress with each level, setting the tone for the game as well as creating a timeline. The first worlds are set in green hues with brighter lighting, showing summer. The next worlds are red-toned and windy, for autumn, and so on. The game does a fantastic job of evoking story and emotion by relying on these elements, and I found myself getting emotional towards the end of the game, knowing something heavy was coming by the way the lights and colors changed. Not to mention, the art style is gorgeous. Realistic animation with a touch of uncanny in the mountains built around broken computers and drainpipes.
Time Is a Circle?
The core gameplay mechanic in The Gardens Between is the manipulation of time, which I think is super unique. Not quite time travel, or slowing down time, like games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Max Payne feature, but something new: walking back and forth in a moment. Each level is effectively on rails, where the only directions to go are forward and backward. As you walk the characters forward, time progresses, but as you move them backwards time rolls back. In this way you can collect items and then rewind, keeping the items you gained as you shuffle back and forth to unlock the end gate.
Each level is a puzzle, making you figure out how to get the light to the end. What I really enjoyed about it, though, was that none of the puzzles were very difficult. They all required some thought, for sure, but there were only a couple of levels that had me stumped for more than a few minutes. The game forces creative thinking, but never incurs frustration. Nothing is timed, so each person can play at their own pace, and there are rewards for playing slower in the form of added tidbits of story. At the beginning of every level I would always hold back, just to see if there were any hints that might pop out, and one of the very first levels shows one of the characters tying up their treehouse boat to the dock. There are so many small elements built into this game that aren’t tied directly to the path of the level, that maybe no one will ever see but that add to the dynamic of the world.
Ultimately this game ends where it begins, which is very apropos. The Gardens Between presents itself as a puzzle game that ends up being a soaring commentary on fate. In every level, the outcome is fixed. No matter what actions a player takes, even if they change the way the level looks or functions, there is only one solution. So enjoy every moment, every day of a friendship, knowing that when it has to end it will and no thunderstorm or orb of light will alter that.
9.0 / 10
That Incredible Game
- Creative gameplay
- Captivating score and scenery
- Dedication to detail
- Feels repetitive or tedious at times
If any of my descriptions of the art design has caught your interest — or you just want to see for yourself — the developer made a series of trailers that show off the music and level art here.