In , we are in charge of the everyday life, routines and chores of Talma at the end of her life.
On her dilapidated farm, encroached on by the desert, we plant crops, milk the goats, fetch water from the well, or go on the occasional walk looking for mushrooms, perhaps stumbling upon some relic from her distant childhood that will get her reminiscing about the days before everyone else moved away to the city. From time to time, she’ll receive letters from her relatives, but the only human contact she has is with the trader who brings her the letters.
The Gardens Between puts us in charge of the flow of time itself. Each level is a small islet scattered by seemingly random objects like giant gaming consoles, beach balls, furniture etc.
The teenage friends Arina and Frendt will try to reach the top of each islet by walking on a predetermined path, but they need the player’s help in removing obstacles and creating pathways through rewinding time and making the kids interact with certain objects. At the end of each level, we are rewarded with a memory of a single moment in the friendship of Arina and Frendt, and the islet and its objects are revealed as some sort of abstract memory space standing in for a specific day or afternoon in their lives.
On the face of it, both The Gardens Between and The Stillness of the Wind share some fundamental themes and a common mood. They are both about change and the way people deal with it; sudden change in the case of The Gardens Between, a slow one unfolding over the course of years or decades in The Stillness of the Wind.
They are both about looking back at our time with people who are no longer a part of our lives. Both indulge in a mood of wistfulness and melancholy. In other words, they are both games about memory, ephemerality and the passage of time.
In fact, the two games feel almost complementary, as they tackle the same issue from different directions. One looks at it from the point of view of youth, looking backward in time, the other from the point of view of old age, looking forward more often than backward. Given how thematically similar and compatible the two are, it’s interesting that they approach their common themes through mechanics and interactions that could hardly be any more different.
The Gardens Between is an original (if fairly traditional) puzzle game with distinct challenges to overcome and stages to complete. The Stillness of the Wind, on the other hand, takes inspiration from farming management games and then proceeds to remodel the blueprint in the image of a minimalist survival game, meaning it ultimately feels more closely related to the taciturn melancholy of Fumito Ueda’s games than something like Stardew Valley. How, then, do these games use their wildly differing mechanics to express something about memory and the flow of time?
The Gardens Between does so by imbuing our actions with metaphorical weight. Going back and forth in time, rewinding and fast-forwarding, shares obvious similarities with reminiscing.
In our memories, we are free of the strict directionality of ‘real’ time and can relive an event again and again, lingering on an individual moment before jumping ahead to a moment in its future or vice-versa. Given that our aim is to “unlock” memories, this mechanic-as-metaphor makes sense for an exploration of memory, at least in theory.
And yet, it begins to break down soon. Why, if these are vivid recent memories the protagonists are clinging to, do we have to work to unearth them in the first place? The reverse would make more thematic sense, performing some kind of metaphorical work to prevent them from fading away in the first place.
In the specificity of individual actions, too, the metaphor starts to lose power. While clever and enjoyable in their own right, the puzzles we solve by manipulating time have little resonance with the game’s overarching themes and narrative; the obstacles and objects we interact with, although often abstracted, have no metaphorical or symbolic dimension. And since we use the mechanic of rewinding and fast-forwarding almost exclusively to solve these puzzles, whatever metaphorical power it might have had quickly recedes into the background.
The Stillness of the Wind, even though poetic, is very stingy with metaphors, if it uses them at all. If we squint a bit, there’s just a hint of allegory about it, in the sense that the game could be said to mirror the process of getting older beyond just the individual story of Talma.
Not unlike an allegory, the game’s world and characters feel dreamlike and removed from specificity, but Talma is not an Everywoman, even though every one of her days (except the last one) could be called an Everyday. Her (and by extension, our) actions could hardly be more mundane and literal. As Talma, we perform a series of chores, go to bed, and eventually get up and do it all over again.
I have seen people describing The Stillness of the Wind as ‘relaxing’ or ‘soothing’ and, while it’s not hard to see why, there’s also something anxious and desperate about the game’s rhythm and repetitions. It’s a slow game only in the sense that it takes the ageing Talma a long time to complete any task.
The flow of time, on the other hand, is swift and inconsiderate of the needs of an old person living alone in the wilderness. Time doesn’t stop for Talma: a couple of minutes pass, and it’s time for bed again, several chores left incomplete. This is not a difficult game, but its trajectory, with hardships steadily increasing towards the end and wolves killing off Talma’s goats one by one, parallels the decline and imminent death of Talma herself. It is this arc that makes the game seem allegorical. Talma may live and die alone, but her story still points to something that’s common to all human beings.
There’s an uncompromising starkness just underneath the calm prettiness of The Stillness of the Wind, and all the parts borrowed from survival games and farming management games are there to express and reinforce it. By contrast The Gardens Between is a puzzle game first and foremost, and as a result any themes it tries to evoke feel faintly dissonant and forced.
Of the two, it’s the more enjoyable game, but its exploration of memories and the past doesn’t go far beyond a vague and intermittent sense of nostalgia. We never dive into Talma’s memories. Nevertheless in playing the game we shoulder and share some of the ever-accumulating weight of the past pressing down on her. It’s almost enough to make one wish for a rewind button but, in this world, there are no second chances.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.