The Gardens Between is a game about time, nostalgia, memories, and coming of age. Will we remember it fondly in the years to come? Here’s what we think.
How do you make a game that expresses nostalgia? I wonder if that was the question Australian developer The Voxel Agents pondered before they set out to make The Gardens Between. Or maybe the game mechanic came first, and the theme after? Either way, the metaphor fits like a VHS tape in a VCR.
Australian teens Arina and Frendt are spending some time in their treehouse when they go on a nostalgic journey exploring their friendship and all the adventures they’ve gotten into.
Each memory is represented as a series of surreal islands, littered with the various things the duo remembers. The two recall a trip to the museum replete with classic computers and dinosaur skeletons. They return to a summer party in an inflatable pool, play 8-bit video games and topple Jenga towers.
The back-and-forth conversation between Arina and Frendt is conveyed without a word, be it spoken or printed. Instead, it unfolds out of the game’s very mechanics itself.
The gameplay involves controlling the flow of time, rather than the characters’ movements. Arina and Frendt move on their own, often independently, and you simply get to move time back and forth while interacting with objects as you approach them.
The game’s puzzles have a singular goal: you must use a lantern to light up the stone pedestal at the end of each level. To accomplish this, you have to manipulate time and interact with various puzzle elements like orbs of light and darkness, jumping cubes, and obstructive clouds.
Playing and rewinding time creates the particularly unique sensation of going over memories again and again. I imagined Arina narrating an incident, only for Frendt to ‘rewind’ that memory and add his own contribution, taking the narration forward. Arina would then rewind that narration and add her piece, and so on.
Figuring out some puzzle solutions requires particularly going forward and back in time until you figure out a trick. It made me imagine Arina and Frendt fixating on a particular detail of their memories, going back and forth until they’ve agreed on a common interpretation.
Attention to detail is a hallmark of the game, present in its environmental design, its puzzle design, and most crucially, its delicate animations.
The islands of The Gardens Between are filled with such objects as headphones, a Walkman, an abacus, a printer, banana peels, a water gun, and more. Each object holds significance to Arina and Frendt, but apart from a cursory glance at a memory, the game never goes into detail on what each item meant for the duo.
There is a crucial exception to this observation above. One particularly poignant moment forms the pivot to the faint, imperfect story of The Gardens Between. I won’t spoil what it is or how it unfolds, but like everything else in the game, it is conveyed entirely through environmental design, puzzle design, and animation. The result is brilliant, but short-lived. It does make me wish the rest of the game had moments as emotionally charged.
The animations, however, really sell the two characters. Arina, for example, is impatient and can often be seen folding her hands as she waits for the dorky Frendt to catch up. Frendt hesitates to walk on a narrow pipe while Arina strides forth. Both characters often stop and point at things that awe them. When the duo finally reaches the pedestal at the end of each level, they nod at each other in camaraderie and set the lantern on the pedestal.
Thanks to its pleasant palette and meditative sound design, The Gardens Between is a calming experience. It may not have too much to say, but at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome. A little sadly, I doubt I will be getting all that nostalgic over a game about nostalgia.
The Gardens Between is available now for PC, Mac, PS4, and Switch. This review is based on a review copy provided by the developer. The game retails at $19.99, which is a bit much. Wait for a sale.
For more information on The Gardens Between, as well as a complete walkthrough, do check out our coverage of the game.
- Beautiful, calming aesthetic
- Cleverly designed puzzles
- Heartwarming characters
- Easy puzzles may disappoint enthusiasts
- Sparse narrative