Developer The Voxel Agents
An effective PAX demo is either brief, but poignant, or something that can draw a crowd who are happy to watch others play. In previewing The Gardens Between, I can tell you theirs is both. As I wandered through a beautiful place, around a Hills Hoist, avoiding the swinging lanterns, I noticed my family had gathered to look at the spectacular visuals over my shoulder. “Can I have a turn?” my little son asked, right when I was finishing the last of a few small, but clever, puzzle levels. “Good timing!” I noted.
To Creative Director/Game Designer Henrik Pettersson, being awarded a place in the showcase was an opportunity to engage and communicate with an audience. He says, “I’ve always been jealous of the creative fields that see and hear a direct response.” What does he hope players will experience of the game? “I want players to connect with our spaces and feel a sense of peace as they uncover the puzzles and selected parts of the story.” Indeed, the mix of ambient and explicit storytelling reminds me of Old Man’s Journey, where information is delivered incrementally, through both levels and cutscenes.
Pettersson says, “Our characters, Arina and Frendt, are going through their late years of childhood together. The players will peek directly into some of their moments, but a lot of the narrative development is also found within the gardens and heard in the soundscape.” The gardens are set on rocky islands in which oversized, but mundane, backyard items are embedded. Including sprinklers and pot plants, Pettersson notes, “The spaces are built from the vestiges of life and the gardens Arina and Frendt visit relate to their story.”
Gameplay consists of walking either left or right, with both having temporal implications. The aim is to discern ways to light your lantern and keep it from being snuffed out before you need it. As Pettersson says, “The player controls time. The rules of the gardens bind everything to a timeline with the exception of a few entities that can move outside it. The player can pick up an object from the future and use it in the past.” To highlight the change aesthetically, he says, “We’re using a combination of screen warping shaders, high-pass audio filters and selective colour desaturation.”
Puzzling is a bit similar to in She Remembered Caterpillars, where you have to visually note how the level works, as you progress through it, then go back and change something. I didn’t find the demo’s puzzles difficult, but I did sometimes find a solution hard to imagine in advance. Similarly, I can’t envision how gameplay will develop from this point onwards, but I’m sure designers have their ideas. Pettersson mentions, “The mechanics came from a series of prototyping experiments we did many years ago. The Gardens Between is the 5th or 6th iteration on the mechanic.”
Keen to connect with an audience, Pettersson leaves us with some of his influences and intentions for the game, “The stories we love, like Alice in Wonderland, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Coraline are all based around the ‘voyage and return’ format. We really wanted to explore that with Gardens. The voyage is usually internal and blends fantasy and reality in a way that can be both playful and scary.”