The Gardens Between, developed by The Voxel Agents and released in 2018, is a puzzle game of unusual beauty. The game begins with its two characters sitting in a tree house during a rainstorm. They are childhood friends, now in their teens, and immediately the player senses an air of melancholy about the characters and their situation, of fond, shared memories and an era drawing to a close. This hollow feeling that many experience as they reach the cusp of adulthood and realize that their childhood – a time when everything seemed simpler – is now over and will never return, fills the game. The ostensible simplicity of childhood is woven beautifully into the fabric of the game at large as our two heroes are whisked away into a dreamland of their memories. What follows is a satisfying, if somewhat brief, adventure filled with clever puzzles, luscious colors and more than a little nostalgia.
It is the atmosphere of the game that captures the attention before anything else. The menu screen is an image of the two houses where the characters live. This segues into an animation of the characters in the tree house, from where they are suddenly transported to a fantasy realm consisting of small, circular islands; this is where the actual gameplay takes place. The color scheme, from the blue hues of the rainy reality to the dominating greens of the island world, is gentle and purposefully dreamy. The graphics are not exactly detailed, but they are pleasant to regard, and the simplicity therein seems to be an intentional, artistic choice rather than, say, the result of limitations in the budget. The design of the fantasy world, itself, is effective: the islands, made of rock and covered by grass, are littered with items, mementos and images from the characters’ childhood. There are televisions, laundry racks, assorted furniture, tools, video game consoles et cetera. The islands are separated by water: each island represents a single level of the game. The music is minimalistic, ambient, and really quite good, and it further enhances the dreamlike experience.
The gameplay itself is very simplistic. Controlling both characters in turn, The Gardens Between is, essentially, a side-scrolling game, although not in the traditional sense. The player can only move sideways and there is no jump option. The island levels spiral upwards and each has a path which moves around it, reaching higher and higher, and each level ends once the player has reached the top. The puzzles are obstacles blocking the paths. Along the way, the player comes across glowing orbs of light and lanterns. One can use the lanterns to pick up the orbs and then place them onto their designated platforms to remove the obstacles. The trick is that, as the player moves forward along the path, time moves normally; but when the player moves backwards, time also moves backwards. The platforms the orbs of light can be placed onto keep jumping all around the islands as the player moves, making the puzzles even more difficult. This tinkering with time gives many opportunities for very unique puzzles that would otherwise not be possible. The difficulty level is just right; most puzzles take a while to figure out, but none of them is insurmountable or too timeconsuming.
Overall, the game is a wonderful experience if one is looking for something that has a great atmosphere, yet is easy enough to digest. It is a tad short and there is scarcely a story to speak of, but the puzzles are clever, and the aesthetics are truly breathtaking. Don’t be surprised if you come away from it feeling a bit nostalgic yourself.
Publisher: The Voxel Agents
Developer: The Voxel Agents
Platforms: Linux, macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS,
Stadia (played on Microsoft Windows)
Release Date: Windows, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4: 20 September 2018
Xbox One: 29 November 2018
iOS: 17 May 2019
Stadia: 1 November 2020
Pictures: screenshots from the game, taken by the author
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