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    The Gardens Between

    Game » consists of 2 releases. Released Sep 20, 2018

    An adventure puzzle game from The Voxel Agents about two best friends Arina and Frendt and their memories from childhood.

    Indie Game of the Week 247: The Gardens Between

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    Mento

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    Edited By Mento  Moderator
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    At the risk of losing what little credibility I have as a reviewer, I'm partial to the occasional food analogy to describe particular roles that the wide range of Indie games might have in my video gaming diet. Many are like Lunchables: miniature approximations of much larger meals that are sufficiently moreish despite their relative smallness and/or cheapness. Others are like sushi: delectable and varied and richly flavored, but served in such small portions that you're always left wanting more. The Gardens Between is a case of the latter: a wholesome, charming adventure game with a time-winding gimmick that is over far too soon, certainly way before I had my fill of its chronological puzzles.

    Metaphysically representing the memories of two close friends as they spend a stormy night in a treehouse, each of the game's diorama-like "islands" builds an obstacle course out of the fragments of a shared experience recalled fondly by the duo: e.g. the day they met after their families moved next door to each other, their various adventures and misdeeds across their neighborhood, or once-in-a-lifetime moments like witnessing a shooting star. Abstract depictions of these memories make up the fixtures of each island, such as one covered with enlarged video game paraphernalia and another filled with gigantic playground equipment, all with the invariable goal of transporting a globe of light held in a lantern to the island's peak in a ritual I interpreted as one friend helping the other to recall the incident or moment in question. As the duo walk, hop, and sidle their way up the islands automatically the player's role is to simply move time forwards and backwards when necessary, occasionally stopping to interact with a button or "garden friend" (a box-like entity capable of carrying the lantern for a while) in order to reach the top with the light still in tow.

    The two protagonists, shown here in the middle of a vortex? But it's, like, a vortex of warm nostalgia.
    The two protagonists, shown here in the middle of a vortex? But it's, like, a vortex of warm nostalgia.

    A typical example of overcoming an obstacle would be a light-absorbing black hole in the path: one that you would evade by leaving the lantern with a garden friend and collecting it again after you passed the black hole, the garden friend having found his own separate route up. Others get far more intriguing and clever, including "freezing" time (as in, not holding forward or backward) which doesn't necessary freeze everything on the screen, or using perspective in unexpected ways - the camera frequently spinning around the island to follow the duo at all times, which often grants you advantageous angles. However, I'd be loath to get too deep into the clever ways the game utilizes these tools: encountering and surpassing them is, after all, the essence of the game's challenges.

    There's also a touching story going on in the midst of all this time manipulation and light transportation between the two best friends themselves. Frendt is a kind, bookish boy without too much courage, whereas Arina is a tomboyish troublemaker with a tendency to not think before she acts. The pair complement each other perfectly, and while the game leaves it vague as to any deepening relationship between the two as they get older you get a sense that they spend the majority of their free time together. You might predict the ending or you might not, but the way the game explores and emphasizes the strength of their friendship through flashbacks without the use of dialogue or captions is masterfully done. The story also plays around with time as much as the mechanics do: at one point you solve an island involving an archaic Macintosh computer and a dot matrix printer, leading you to think that this idyllic childhood may have occurred in the distant past: it's later revealed that this memory actually came from a museum trip where the computer was one of the exhibits, with Frendt and Arina sneaking past a red rope cordon to reclaim an errant paper plane.

    Arina always carries the lantern (unless she drops it somewhere) and Frendt is the only one that can interact with these bell chime-like switches. Since the two will sometimes split up, it can be a challenge getting them to the right points.
    Arina always carries the lantern (unless she drops it somewhere) and Frendt is the only one that can interact with these bell chime-like switches. Since the two will sometimes split up, it can be a challenge getting them to the right points.

    With eight zones featuring two or three islands apiece, the game is relatively short: about an hour and change, if that. Most islands have one or two puzzles to solve, and though they can get tricky the relative dearth of moving parts means you could solve it in a matter of minutes whether you figured it out yourself or lucked upon a solution just through trial and error. The forward/backward mechanic means you have as much time as you need to take in the entire tableau - sometimes necessary, as the garden friends will hop around in and out of view, and you'll often need to track where they go to see if they pass by a light globe that they can absorb should you lend them the lantern - and the game rewards careful observation as much as it does experimentation with the active hotspots. Sadly, the game's over before it feels like it's done coming up with new puzzles; it's hard to argue that this is actually the case, however, without a version of the game that stays longer than its welcome. I suppose it works better in a thematic sense that The Gardens Between runs out of experiences to share far too soon, given how quickly childhoods (and life) passes us all by.

    As I intimated in the lede, The Gardens Between is one of those attractive, ephemeral story-driven Indie adventure games that might be too brief and meretricious for many, but I appreciated its simple message of the power of friendship - that is, through the enduring memories it creates, as opposed to weaponizing it into a giant energy ball and throwing it at Frieza or something - and I'm a sucker for any kind of time-manipulation puzzle format that regularly has me nodding my head in quiet awe at its ingenuity. I'm glad I took a chance on it.

    Rating: 4 out of 5.

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    bigsocrates

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    I played this game earlier this year while it was on Game Pass and I agree it's pretty decent, but $20 is a lot to ask for a game this short. It's interesting that we're seeing so many movie length games these days and while for me they're great Game Pass downloads I wonder about the economic viability of them as stand alone products. I'm not like philosophically opposed to spending that much on a short game if I really love it, but me Gardens Between doesn't pass that test. It was a fun, breezy, experience, but pretty ephemeral and I haven't really thought about it since I played it half a year ago.

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    Mento

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    #2 Mento  Moderator

    @bigsocrates: Right, I think that was what I was scrambling towards with that sushi comparison. It's definitely asking a lot for a little, length-wise if not quality-wise. There's also the issue that everyone's perception of value/worth is subjective and it's hard to critique that aspect as a result. Since it's a three-year-old game, I was able to pick up Gardens in a recent PSN sale for like £4 (annoyingly, it just went on sale for £3) which was far more my speed. (It also explains why I haven't reviewed any 2021 Indies on here yet.)

    As long as the developers of any Indie game are open to discounts in the future, I don't mind them charging whatever they feel their game is worth: the market will ultimately decide if that's the right choice, excepting factors like how difficult it is for any game to get attention on the PSN store. Feels like I'm walking into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark every time I boot it up.

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    bigsocrates

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    @mento: I don't have a problem with anyone charging whatever they want to for their game so long as they're up front about it (I.E. don't say or imply it's a 20 hour campaign when it's really more like 5, which some developers have done in the past.)

    My question is more about whether these projects are actually economically viable. I don't know if this one was supported by some kind of Australian arts fund or whatever; some games certainly are, but I just don't know whether the indie scene as it stands now is sustainable, and whether games like this are finding an audience. The Gardens Between got some mainstream attention and was on Game Pass so I'm guessing it did fine, but a lot of that is just kind of the luck of the draw. It's a good game but there are a lot of very good indie games out there. I think 4 out of 5 is by far your most common score.

    I guess my comment is mostly about the fact that indie game prices seem to be rising over the last few years without the development of the games changing much. This game has some pretty good graphics, but accounting for inflation it costs the same as Braid did in 2008, when most downloadables were $10, and it's about 1/3 as long.

    Maybe with game pass and discounts the high initial pricing doesn't matter, and this is the most profitable way to release short indies. I'm fine with that. I'm just curious as to how the economics are actually working out and if they're sustainable.

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    #4 Mento  Moderator

    @bigsocrates: I'd be curious to find that out too. "Millionaire overnight" type Indie successes like Super Meat Boy have become much rarer as the market has grown larger and more competitive. It might be that most Indie developers get incremental bumps courtesy of when their game goes on sale for the first time (or has a new highest discount), hits a new system, or some prominent streamer or review site covers the game some time after release - so many Indies launch every week that it seems tough to get eyes on a new release unless there's a pedigree behind its franchise or its developer, and the frequency of these post-release bumps become the true test of a game's viability. Among Us only exploded in popularity several years after it came out, if I recall. If those bumps in revenue are enough to help subsidize the developer's next project (and keeps the company solvent and pays for living expenses, for that matter), I think that's probably enough. (Without knowing for sure as an external observer, it does seem harder to be an Indie dev these days, or at least a runaway success like those featured in Indie Game: The Movie.)

    Actually, now I'm wondering if Indie games are given overly optimistic launch prices because seeing them on sale at 50% or 75% off a year or so later is a good way to draw new interest. Releasing at a much fairer price that would negate the need for heavy discounts might not be as conducive to dividends in the long-run. A cynical take, maybe, but I could see the appeal for Indie developers. It's not like they need to worry about reprints or their games suddenly becoming harder to find (at least, no more than they were at launch).

    The Voxel Agents, the developers of this game, have been around since 2009 making iOS games so I'm sure they would've been fine whether The Gardens Between did much for them or not. Probably thought it was worth the risk to attach a moderate price tag. Not to sound reductive, but there are so many games of its particular "attractive, story-focused, movie-length" approach (What Remains of Edith Finch, Bound, Firewatch, Tacoma, and The Last Campfire are others) that I'm sure they must all do sufficient sales numbers whether they happen to win awards or don't.

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    Humanity

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    I played this just when Game Pass was rolling out and although I can't remember much of it I remember it was the quintessential Game Pass title - too unsubstantial for an actual purchase, but delightful when packaged into a monthly service among other games. It is one of those gems that reviewers would praise unburdened by any financial considerations, creating a disconnect from the average gamer that would think this is neat, but not full price neat. If anything The Gardens Between along with other indies like Katana Zero or more recently Unsighted have found a wonderful home on Game Pass where you're free to dive in "guilt free" so to speak, hopefully leading to some wider word of mouth exposure that otherwise would die on the vine.

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    Tordah

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    I really enjoyed this one. 4 out of 5 sounds about right.

    I don't really have a problem with the short length. What content is there felt extremely polished to me, and I'd much rather have a tight and solid experience for a game like this than something that feels padded out.

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