When gamers talk about the Atari days, I sometimes feel a twinge of jealousy. Often I’ll hear older gamers talk about titles like Adventure, and Yar’s Revenge, and say things like, “back then, you had to use your imagination to understand the story in a game.” And though I grew up playing an NES, games like Ninja Gaiden were pioneer titles that conveyed a cohesive story for players to follow along with. Since that landmark title, the narratives of games have grown more linear and cohesive, yet sometimes I yearn for a time where the burden of piecing together the parts of a story are thrust on the imagination of the player.
Thankfully, I believe we now live in an era of gaming that contains the best of both worlds. While games with complex narratives exist, like What Remains of Edith Finch, the indie market is also chock full of games that tell stories through suggestion and nuance, like Inside and Rime. I argue that the new game The Gardens Between is another stellar example of a minimalist narrative that is masterfully told in a way that invites the reader to put the pieces together themselves. Furthermore, like Inside and Rime, the skeletal narrative of The Gardens Between doesn’t prevent producers The Voxel Agents from using brilliant graphics and sound to tell the story.
The Gardens Between could best be described as a time-bending puzzle game. When the player boots up the game, the title screen shows two small houses on opposite ends of the screen, with a footpath dividing the properties in the middle. In the distance you can see “the gardens between,” and you can see the silhouettes of objects like a slide, a bicycle, and a treehouse with a tire swing swaying in the rain. As we zoom in to the treehouse, we meet a girl (Arina) and a boy (Frendt), both silent and seemingly despondent. Thunder crashes, and for a moment, time seems displaced: the rain drops rise to the sky and the train between the two children starts to head in reverse. A glowing orb appears in the treehouse, and when Arina reaches to touch the orb, the treehouse seemingly becomes unstuck in time, swirling in a void.
When Arina and Frendt awake, they are alone on an imaginary island, littered with the contents of the treehouse, and packing boxes—giving us a clue as to why lost time may be a major theme for these two characters. There are only two directions to go: move to the right, and time moves forward and the characters climb to the top of the island; move to the left, and time moves in reverse, and the friends move backward down the hill. At first I worried that the rail movement would limit my engagement with the game, but Arina and Frendt play different roles in climbing the mountain. Arina can carry a lamp, which captures light orbs that can dissipate fog barriers and extend bridges. Frendt can flip switches, which can alter the paths of moving objects, and even slow or reverse the time of the familiar images of bicycles and tire swings falling onto the island.
For example, one island is covered with the electronics the two friends enjoy, and the paths are littered with giant video game controllers, remote controls, a big VCR, and a huge TV at the top of the mountain. When Frendt flips a switch, suddenly the player can manipulate time and plug the giant VCR into the giant television. Then when the player rewinds time by hitting left on the joystick, the two friends walk backward to the remote control. Now that the VCR is plugged in, Frendt can push the eject button on the remote control, and the VCR spits out a huge video cassette, which functions as a ramp to help the friends reach the next level of the mountain. When the two ascend, there is a gap, and Arina can use the orb in her lantern to extend the light bridge. The crux of the game is learning how to combine the roles of the two kids in ways that manipulate time to climb the mountain together. All of the mountains in the game are comprised of the relics the two friends share together, and for reasons that become clearer, there is a constant trend that all these objects are falling or collapsing. Complimenting this story of escaping time is the ambient music of Tim Shiel, which simultaneously evokes the moods of serenity and sadness.
Since the puzzle mechanic consists of access points that the characters can interact with, I never felt completely lost when I was stuck on a puzzle. Some players may see this as a flaw, and want a more challenging puzzle experience, but I tend to think that wandering around aimlessly in a puzzle game takes away from my enjoyment. The game can be completed in about two hours, and while some players scoff at short games, I personally appreciate that The Gardens Between never came close to overstaying its welcome. Minimalist images between the islands help the player piece together the story, and the game ends with a subtle-yet-powerful scene that made me think about my childhood and the time I spent with friends in the moment.