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Off the Clock: Tending Someone Else's Garden

A Good Gardener and Show Me A Hero both explore frustrating, seemingly unavoidable cycles.

Welcome to Off the Clock, my weekly column about the stuff I've been doing while out of the office. This weekend, I spent my free time playing...

A Good Gardener

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I grabbed A Good Gardener last month, then totally forgot about it until a reader reminded me to play it yesterday, and I'm very glad he did. A Good Gardener begins with the sort of Futura Bold title card that's become a signature of Wes Anderson and then introduces the player to the sort of clenching, mid-level bureaucrat that you might find in one of his films. From now on, says the bureaucrat, you'll live in the ruins of this bombed out house and it will be your job to plant a garden with seeds provided to you.

So you get to work. You grab the seeds from their box and plant toss them into the lump of dirt in the middle of the living-room-turned-courtyard. You grab the watering can and wet the soil. When you're done for the day, you head to a door marked "Your Quarters," click on it, and cycle through to the next day. You run out of water in your can and worry--then a nice rain comes and refills it for you. You spend one day pulling the weeds from the ground. You do this all accompanied by a quaint little music loop that recalls Wish-era Cure pop songs, if a little more minimalistic. The instruments slide into the track one at a time--it's a nice rhythm to work to, so you keep going.

Then one day, maybe after it rains, some of your plants bloom. But (without getting too specific), they're not exactly what you hoped you were growing. They're still beautiful, but they're decidedly undesirable, and that stings a bit. Your bureaucrat comes back with a whole lot of praise for your work, and that's when you realize that you're not an employee, you're a captive--or really, you realize that there isn't much of a difference to this man. And what a harvest you've brought him.

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And this repeats: You plant his seeds, tend to the crops, and then he returns. If you're like me, maybe you decide to stop planting new flowers and to stop watering the ones you've already planted. But then it rains again, and they grow against your will. Then the bureaucrat shows back up, and maybe you'll feel the hint of panic that I did: Does he know that I've been trying to sabotaging the garden? Maybe just plant a couple of seeds so he won't know. And sometimes, a strange, guilty sort of pride at the beauty of your terrible garden.

And so on and so on.

This loop is like a strange inversion of Porpentine's Skulljhabit or With Those We Love Alive, Twine games that somehow create a feeling of self-discovery by combining motifs of repetition and heavy doses of grim, sloshy fantasy. A Good Gardner, on the other hand, presents itself as saccharine and upbeat, but carries a message much more bleak. The little walled in garden is claustrophobic in a way unique to open air places: The towering factory is a metaphorical extension of the walls and the hint of an outside world rubs your face in your surroundings. And there's no escape, no way to move forward without continuing to plant the seeds they want you to plant.

Why not resist? Why not refuse to plant the seeds? Because if you do, nothing happens. I looked for a savior everywhere: I tossed seeds into the concrete where they would roll away fruitlessly; I watched as birds dug out freshly planted seeds; I let weeds overgrow my garden; I refused to water the growing plants. But none of these things brought about any change. The rain would come and the flowers would grow, and my choices were to wait forever or else plant another. A Good Gardener is fundamentally fatalistic: There is no resistance, just progress towards a goal you don't want to achieve.

There's no explicit punishment for refusing to do what the man and his country want you to do. I've seen some players complain that this is a missing feature: There has to be a way to be a noble martyr, right? The sad answer is "No, not really." Your character has no name or face or voice, so to this bureaucracy you (and any attempt you make at resistance) barely exist. Just imagine that there are another thousand gardens like yours out there, another thousand captive workers with no way to communicate or organize or resist together.

What's one bad gardener to a machine like that?

You can grab A Good Gardener for five bucks from itch.io.

Speaking of distressing political cycles, I also spent my free time last week watching...

Show Me A Hero

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I spent my flights to and from San Francisco last week watching the entirety of HBO's Show Me a Hero, a mini-series that dramatizes the efforts to integrate Yonkers, New York through a series of housing policies throughout the 80s and 90s. Co-Written by The Wire creator David Simon and scribe William F. Zorzi and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), the show would depict the rise of politician Nick Wasicsko alongside the lives of those stuck in the city's projects. It's a hell of a premise, but I came into the series with ambivalence.

Over time, my love of The Wire has become more and more complicated, and a big part of that is about the show's failure to spend much time examining how civilians working in Baltimore's inner cities struggled to right the same problems that its police force and local government fought. Nailing that would be key for a depiction of Yonkers' troubled history. Seeing Haggis' name attached only made me more skeptical--for all of its awards, Crash's handling of racial tensions only ever felt naive and detached.

But Show Me A Hero (mostly) worked for me.

Like A Good Gardener, it focused in on a series of painful and seemingly-unavoidable cycles. Characters (both in the projects and in city hall) are punished for decisions made above their heads. They're often unable to build coalitions with others even when everyone seems to have the same big picture goals, and the result of that is a fragmentation that leads the city to repeat the same fights over and over. Worse, these cycles lead to the cynical view that nothing can ever change, which in turn leads to a frustrating breed of political opportunism. Someone's gotta grow the garden, may as well be you, right?

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And like a Good Gardener, Show Me A Hero combines open spaces with claustrophobia. The show's cinematography contrasts the narrow hallways and cramped workplaces of its racialized working class with the cool, airy lobbies and courtrooms of government buildings (and the spacious homes of the people who work there.) At key moments, this contrast inverts: When one character leaves Yonkers for the Dominican Republic, we're treated to broad streets and scenic coastlines, while during contentious council meetings in city hall, the screen fills with angry, shouting citizens. The sensory overload makes it literally, physically hard to continue watching.

The end result is a human take on a institutional issue. Show Me a Hero uses the (real) stories of the residents of Yonkers as an illustration of the way structural problems like segregation work. It's valuable, since these things are so often depersonalized so that they can be turned into talking points.

I do wish that Haggis, Simon, and Zorzi felt more comfortable in the projects, though. It's a shame too, because in the rare moments where they get it right, they really get it right: Children playing in the streets, an adult son playfully bickering with his aging mother. But these sort of moments are too rare. One of the key conflicts in the show is that many of the residents of city's overcrowded affordable housing high rises want to move somewhere safer, so framing the projects with some degree of "threat" is necessary (and accurate). But the show rarely feels like it understands these places as homes. As The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum says "Springsteen dominates, while hip-hop leaks through doors."

Still... much, much better than Crash.

I've Also Been...

Reading:

Listening to:

I didn't leave you with a question last week, but I do want to make a habit of it so:

I spoke a lot (above) about the gameplay "cycle" of A Good Gardener, and I've spoken at length lately about how much I love the "loop" of Fallout 4. These sorts of design elements can be big or small, but they're very common in games. They can be as short as Halo's repetition of Look->Move->Aim->Shoot->Look or as broad as Anno 2205's sprawling arc of resource gathering and infrastructural improvement. So tell me about one "gameplay loop" or "cycle" that has stuck with you. Doesn't have to be your favorite, just has to be one that popped into your head and that you have some thoughts about.

See you here next week (and maybe even on time!)