Sometimes, the best tricks are the simplest.
There’s a puzzle about an hour into The Gardens Between. Arina and Frendt, the two kids who you passively control through the acceleration and rewinding of time, are on a rocky diorama adorned with an abacus, a printer, a calculator.
Around the first corner, past the printer, lies a counter. The numbers turn with the passage of time. Soon enough certain numbers, emblazoned in gold, stand out. It’s the password for the Macintosh Plus looking machine at the start of the level.
So you turn back time, only for Arina and Frendt to stumble over the keys. It’s then a small matter of spinning the kids backwards and forwards, until Arina finally jumps on the sequence for the printer to function as normal.
It’s a microcosm of the elegance underpinning The Gardens Between, a single player adventure made in Melbourne by The Voxel Agents. Out now on PC, PS4, Switch and the Mac App Store, The Gardens Between tells a silent story of Arina and Frendt through a series of dreamlike dioramas, unravelling parts of their childhood as the pair reach the apex of each colourful island.
It’s not a complicated game, deliberately so. Most will work their way through the levels in three to four hours. What’s enjoyable about the experience isn’t its difficulty, but the elegance with which the entirety of gameplay is resolved through three buttons:
The diagram shows a pair of JoyCons. The best experience is really with a single JoyCon in one hand, thumb on the stick and a second on the left bumper. It’s all you need to progress through the whole game, which gives you some idea of the experience.
You’ll be controlling Arina and Frendt throughout. Arina largely holds and controls the movement of a glowing orb, which unlocks pathways and is ultimately needed for each island’s summit. Frendt interacts with more commonplace objects: levers, pulleys, computers, a VHS player at one stage.
Sometimes the inputs are as simple as walking forward, hitting a button and moving on. Other times they’re a little more logical: Arina has to jump back and forward on a saw to drop a plank of wood so Frendt can cross.
PAX Australia attendees would have first seen The Gardens Between last year, where it was a part of the Indie Showcase. It was a huge success there by way of aesthetic, but it was also the worst possible environment to enjoy it in.
A large part of the game’s charm, you see, is really the soundtrack. Much in the same way Paperbark offered a soothing experience through the sounds of the Australian outback, The Gardens Between soul lies in the ambient OST from Tim Shiel (who previously composed the OST for Duet and abstract puzzler Induction).
[referenced url=”https://www.kotaku.com.au/2013/10/duet-and-wasted-time-well-spent/” thumb=”https://www.kotaku.com.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2013/10/04-410×231.png” title=”Duet And Wasted Time Well Spent” excerpt=”Perhaps the greatest thing a video game can do for its player is take a completely non-transferable skill, and convince him/her that learning this specific skill is important to the detriment of all constructive behaviour.”]
As you progress through the islands, the mood and tone becomes darker, more sombre, mimicking the drift of time. There’s little memories after you complete each island, but the individual dioramas have little cues themselves highlighting different aspects of Arina and Frendt’s life.
At its heart, The Gardens Between is charming, easy on the eye, and relaxing all at once. It’s a great game to block out the noise of the morning commute, and chilled enough to enjoy in the final moments of the evening. But more than anything else it’s elegantly designed, showcasing how much can be done with the most minimal of inputs.
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