I’ve always taken pride in my ability to communicate. Weaving words has been one of, if not the major part of my career for years, and yet I find myself at something of a loss as to how to explain The Gardens Between. This beautiful, mesmerizing, and melancholy title by The Voxel Agents has a brilliant way of evoking memories and emotions, allowing you to fill in the gaps and stories around nearly-universal icons of childhood with your own, personal experiences, making it difficult for me to explain how I feel about the game without wandering into tales of my own youthful adventures. Dinosaur bones, dated electronics, tree houses, and kiddie pools litter these strange, fascinating islands, stirring up memories of yesteryear so vivid, you can almost hear the familiar laughter of childhood friends.
The story revolves around Arina and Frendt, best friends who are whisked away to a series of floating islands in this entirely wordless, textless game. Wandering strange, surreal worlds, which feel very much like walking through a dream or a distant memory, you control the flow of time, not the characters themselves. The controls are shockingly simple, yet put to great use within the world. Using only the thumbstick and the A button, you’ll help the kids reach the summit of each island by nudging the thumbstick right to move time forward, nudging it left to wind time back, or by leaving the thumbstick be in order to make time itself stand still. These simple mechanics are woven seamlessly into the game, and are downright brilliant points.
Arina and Frendt each have their own personalities and skills, which are expressed both in design and their behavior within the game. Frendt, with his lanky build and glasses, isn’t nearly as athletic or bold as Arina, and is far more interested in electronics. He is able to interact with chimes, which act rather like switches, allowing you to move time forward for certain parts of the environment, changing a select set of objects while leaving the kids unmoved. Arina is outgoing and eager, usually taking the long way around, and tends to sulk when she can’t get to something which catches her attention. She carries a lantern which, when lit, can dispel dark clouds which may block your path.
The lantern turns out to be one of the biggest challenges of The Gardens Between. This game does more than simply challenge your problem solving skills, it will also test your powers of observation, and require you to overcome a gaming instinct or two. A lit lantern may well dispel the darkness, but you may need to walk across a path of darkness in order to advance further up the island. The challenge of the lantern isn’t simply keeping it lit, it’s figuring out how to get it where it needs to be, and how to have it lit or dark at the appropriate moments.
I was blown away by the quality of not just the art and story, but of the puzzles themselves. I always greet the chance to review a puzzle game with a mixture of excitement and dread, because while I love the genre, getting stuck while reviewing an unreleased game means that you’re on your own; there are no guides to reference and no way to ask for help from fellow players. While the puzzles in The Gardens Between were quite challenging at points, I never once felt that they were unfair, or like I needed to consult a guide in order to advance. While several did require some impressive levels of creative thinking and observation, every island felt unique and rewarding.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the brevity of this game. I was able to complete it in less than four hours, but I can say that they were an incredibly rewarding handful of hours. I found myself eager to rush from one island to the next, drank in the strange landscapes, and was left choked with emotion as familiar scenes and scenarios brought old, long-forgotten childhood memories to the forefront. The Gardens Between is distilled in every way; there is no fluff filler. Puzzles are exactly as long as they need to be, islands are just big enough to explore without being cumbersome, and the story is beautiful in its brevity, hitting every important beat without lingering unnecessarily on any kind of forced sentiment.
The Gardens Between is a masterpiece in minimalist storytelling. The game leaves itself plenty of space to breathe, evoking the emotions and private memories of the player, and allowing them to use their own, personal experiences to fill in the world. I expected to enjoy the puzzles and the beautiful, surrealist design of the islands, but was not prepared for how much impact the game would have on my emotions. I found myself recalling memories of when I, a bold and brash young girl, went on field trips with my childhood best friend, a quiet, bespectacled boy. Tears fell as the closing credits rolled, and I was left with an overwhelming urge to pick up the phone in order to rekindle a lost relationship.
The Gardens Between
The Gardens Between is a masterpiece of minimalist storytelling, weaving a wordless tale of friendship and time. By drawing upon a few, nearly-universal childhood events, it allows the player to fill in the story with their own emotions and memories, creating a shockingly moving, personal experience. Featuring a gorgeous, surrealist style and challenging but fair puzzles, this is a must-have title for anyone who enjoys puzzle games.