I think it’s safe to say that many of us play games because of nostalgia. It’s not a bad thing by any means, but it’s definitely a driving force in the industry and a tangible thing that developers and publishers like to tickle repeatedly. The thing that stands out the most to me about The Gardens Between isn’t that it harkens back to any particular feelings; rather, it is a game about our memories and our fondness for some of them in one of the most interesting interpretations I’ve seen in any medium.
The Gardens Between stars a couple of young friends who are playing in a treehouse when a storm crashes down on them. After a flash of lightning, they find themselves on the beach of a small island that’s strewn with large boxes full of toys that are slowly spilling around them. I was under the assumption that the game was something of a cooperative platformer. In actuality, the only control you have in the game is to move your characters forwards or backwards in time. It’s a neat effect; the animation is fun to watch, often so much so that I moved the frames slowly to enjoy their nuance.
The goal of The Gardens Between is to take the girl’s lantern to the end point in order to launch onto the next stage. Doing so requires subtle manipulation of the environment to open new paths. For example, in the early part there are areas where the light gets snuffed from your lantern by a little black hole, so you must find what looks like a hopping television set and backtrack until the light is transferred to the TV as you walk by it. Then moving time forward again, the TV creature moves up and around the light-nabbing black hole as your avatars walk by it, until you meet later in the sequence, bringing the light back to you.
I’m reticent to say much more than that, because a lot of the magic of The Gardens Between is held within these epiphanies, these “a-ha!” moments in which you realize the puzzles within are clever and intricate, and you feel like a genius when you figure them out. Just as important as the puzzles is how amazing the diorama-like stages are to look at. They’re a mix of cute little pine islands and childhood tchotchkes that contribute towards the nostalgic nature of the game as a whole. Each set of three stages represents an interconnected chain that leads to little story bits – which are wordless and still dioramas, but carry their weight in facial expressions and mannerisms.
I came into The Gardens Between fully expecting to be charmed. But I was shocked when the whole thing just blew me away with how smart and well-designed it all is. In this day and age you often expect games to follow certain well-trodden formulas, so it’s lovely when a developer subverts those expectations with something filled with such wonderment and endearment. Definitely not an experience I’ll likely forget.
The Gardens Between is available for Switch, PC, Mac and PS4. We reviewed the Switch version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for The Gardens Between was provided by Stride PR. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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