The Gardens Between (2018)
Developer: The Voxel Agents
Back in 2019, I wrote a special feature about the indie games I had the chance to check out at SXSW Gaming convention in Austin (wow, that feels like ages ago). One of the games that was mentioned in this feature was The Gardens Between, which was already out at the time but had a demo was available to play at the convention. I enjoyed the game ever since I played the short demo, and I'd picked it up not too long after SXSW. It's one of those games that I hadn't gotten around to for a long time, but it popped up on my library and I decided to just go for it. The Gardens Between is a puzzle adventure game where you control time instead of the characters. The Gardens Between is full of mind-twisting and fun time puzzles that tell a story about two best friends and their memories together.
The Gardens Between starts off with the story of two best friends who are hiding from a storm inside of their small tree house. It's not clear what's going on, but you get a feeling that they're both feeling quite sad on this rainy night. Suddenly, a strange light appears and they are transported to some sort of dream world. These small worlds or "gardens" you'll travel through all seem to have literal pieces from their memories together incorporated into them, such as video game consoles and toys. The Gardens Between has a very simple concept to its mechanics. You use the joystick to the left to move back time, and to the right to go forward in time. Occasionally, you use one button to cause the characters to interact with an item. That's all of the controls. Yet, the game does quite a lot with its simple mechanics. It starts out fairly simple puzzles that just involve going back in time and having the characters grab an item, then going forward in time to put it where it needs to go. However, the puzzles later get more complex and involve you using the time mechanic in different ways. For example, letting time stop over certain items will cause them to react in certain ways, triggering a path. If you think too much about how things work in these gardens inside and outside of time, it's a little strange, but it works really well for puzzle-solving. It makes you have to think outside the box quite a bit, and when you figure it out it sort of blows your mind. It reminds me of Monument Valley in the way it makes you look at a 3D world differently depending on perspective.
This is probably a strange thing to point out, but this game might have the one of the best title screens of any I've played. The art and the soothing music combined with the thunderstorm sound and visuals could honestly work as a stand-alone "rainy day" relaxing YouTube video to play on loop. The art style of The Gardens Between is really cute and cell-shaded, making the worlds really exciting and full of life. The environments convey a feeling of nostalgia, reminding us what it was like to be a kid. The soundtrack mostly consists of soft, ambient piano pieces and at times more synth-like sounds that purposely sound a little more dated. As I often mention, I love soundtracks with a vocals and there's a few in this. The credits theme evokes a sort of bittersweet, longing feeling that makes you feel what the characters feel.
Despite there being no dialogue in The Gardens Between, there's definitely a story being told. The two kids, Arina and Frendt, are close friends and have spent a lot of their childhood together. However, as you can assume from the moving boxes in the first garden, one of them is moving away. Dealing with this is unfathomable for the two friends, so instead they're temporarily escaping together to a world crafted by their favorite memories together. It's a story that can hit anyone pretty strongly, as it did for me. I think most people know what it's like to have to move away from or stop seeing a best friend, and how as a kid that can feel like the world is ending. The two kids reminded me a lot of myself and one of my childhood best friends, back when we lived only a few houses away from each other. I spent almost every day in the summer at her house, and we never ran out of things to do and adventures to go on.
The Gardens Between is an unique take on puzzle and adventure, and it definitely plays very differently than anything else. It's a fairly short adventure, but it manages to tell its story little by little as you develop a bond and relate with the two friends. I personally love a puzzle game that can accomplish telling a story with its mechanics, and it's an extra plus that it's a beautiful-looking game as well. It tugs as your heartstrings using nostalgia and feelings of close friendship, making you long for when everything was simpler. I recommend this game to anyone into adventure games or puzzles - even though the puzzles near the end can get a little challenging, you just have to take a second look a everything and be creative.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, App Store, and Google Play.
Played on: PC
Playtime: 3.5 hrs