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The Gardens Between: short and bittersweet

At the start of this year I wrote a post about the games I was looking forward to playing during 2018. I must admit I haven’t done as well as I’d hoped: I’ve only managed to complete two out of my list of ten so far. A physical copy of one of the others has been waiting for me at home for a good few months, and a further two which originated from Kickstarter campaigns haven’t yet been released. That means I’ve got a lot to get through during the next couple of months.

One from the list I did manage to play recently was The Gardens Between by The Voxel Agents after it was released at the end of September. Seeing it at EGX that month reminded me how I’d added it to my wishlist after being drawn in by an art-style like a cross between The Witness and Oxenfree. So while my other-half dozed on the sofa and my stepson occupied himself with Minecraft one Saturday, I took the opportunity to download the game and spend the afternoon with it.

The following post contains a few minor spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on.

Protagonists Arina and Frendt, young neighbours who became close friends are Arina’s family moved into the area, escape to the tree-house in the middle of their homes during a storm. A strange orb of light slowly forms before time slows down and their hideout falls into a kind of ‘dream ocean’. This beautiful fantasy world is created of mountainous islands formed from teenage imagination and shared experiences, small rotating lands made from personal items such as games they’ve played and music they’ve listened to together.

The goal on each of about 20 levels is to figure out how to light Arina’s lantern and carry it to be pedestal at the top of the island. This isn’t as simple as it sounds however as a number of obstacles stand in the duo’s way: dark flowers which steal the lamp’s glow, fallen objects which obstruct the path, and bridges made out of fog which disappear as soon as it comes into contact with the light. Figuring out how to reach the summit rewards the player with a shot of the memory on which the island is based, preserved forever as a constellation in the sky.

Arina and Frendt may not have any special powers themselves but you have the ability to move the scene backwards and forwards in time with the left joystick. In addition, pressing ‘A’ causes the one of the friends to perform an action; Arina will pick up or put down her lantern, while Frendt can ring bells found within the level to alter certain items without changing time. The Gardens Between is therefore an incredibly easy and relaxing game to pick up with just two buttons making up the entire control scheme.

The puzzles won’t stump most players for long but do provide a pleasurable amount of challenge. For example, you might find yourself stuck at the bottom of a cliff but getting Frendt to plug in a giant video player causes a huge VHS tap to pop out and form a ramp. Reversing time to move the friends back to the beginning of the level means they’re now able to make the climb. My favourite obstacle involved figuring out a code, then using the time mechanic to have Arina step on a keypad to produce the right sequence of numbers.

So that’s what The Gardens Between is, and I can now explain what this title isn’t. There are no powerful overlords intent on taking over the world and no dramatic quests to stop them from doing so. There are no evil enemies who want to cause you harm and nothing which is going to hurt the characters in any way. There are no dramatic battles featuring weapons, explosions, violence and blood. And there’s certainly not enough content here to keep you going for the next couple of months.

But that’s in no way a bad thing.

A game doesn’t need to be any of those things in order to make an impact on a player. The Gardens Between was an experience that left a mark on me and there are many things I realised long after playing which gave it a deeper meaning. The apparent end of Arina and Frendt’s close friendship already gives the title a bittersweet feeling; but understanding afterwards how the time mechanic fits in with the way we view fond memories and that the constellations at the top of the islands are everlasting thoughts made it all the more emotional.

The thing that hit me the hardest though was the name The Voxel Agents decided to give their title because it couldn’t have been more perfect. The tree-house in the garden between the protagonists’ homes was where their relationship formed and memories were built on, where their imaginations joined to create their own special little world. And now everything they’d built together was coming to an end… I won’t deny that I did have a tear or two in my eye as the end credits rolled.

The Gardens Between may be short (I managed to complete it in under three hours), but it’s absolutely perfect just the way it is.

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