The Gardens Between is one of those games that feels indicative of where the medium is up to. It’s exciting to play, because as you do, you feel it moving towards the center of what contemporary games look like. It becomes a point of reference for everything else. Released in 2018, The Gardens Between is a game about two young friends reliving moments from their time together. It takes place in an abstracted metaphor-land, where their travel up and along a mountainous pathway represents their shared past. Rather than moving the characters, you move time backwards and forwards, and the characters move accordingly; the game’s challenge, such as it is, comes from shifting around certain objects that aren’t time-affected like everything else. It’s similar to Braid, if you’ve played that. Like you can pick up little light ball things, and they stay with you even if you move time back before the point where you originally picked them up. They’re just not subjected to the same time mechanic as everything else.
As a metaphor, the time mechanic is really beautiful. It’s a game where time stands still – the memory has been locked in place, into an eternal now that stretches on forever. That’s already a melancholic image – there’s the sheer unbridled joy of childhood, mixed with the knowledge that we’re already after the fact. It’s somebody looking back at a memory, rather than someone living in that moment themselves. Nostalgia exists in this game as part of the core gameplay loop. That’s fucking phenomenal. You can run the memory backwards and forwards, replaying different moments – just like we do with those precious times from our childhood. Sometimes the two friends go down different paths, as in this image below – but it’s okay, because you know that even when their lives branch for a little, they’ll always come back together. That’s a really elegant, understated spatial metaphor. It’s classy, it’s subtle, and it’s really beautiful. Fuck, this game is good.
And yet I’m actually going to spend today criticizing The Gardens Between. I’m not really criticizing it per se – it’s more the focal point for a bigger conversation about the state of the video game industry. Either way, this game is just gonna catch it in the neck, which I’ll admit right now is a little bit unfair. The Gardens Between is emotionally capable, it’s intelligent, it loops the gameplay into the story in a compelling, original way – maybe some of the puzzles are a bit dull, and there’s not so much a story as an extended mood – but on the whole, I would say it’s a game at the forefront of the medium. And that’s – in some ways, that’s sort of the problem.
The broader issue that I want to talk about today is the maturity of the video game medium. Maturity is maybe the wrong word – it’s less an emotional or psychological issue as it is an issue of scope, of vision. Of profundity, maybe. As much as I love The Gardens Between, I’m also very aware that its basic artistic statement is ‘Man, wasn’t childhood great.’ And it’s a good game, don’t get me wrong. I only really have complimentary things to say about it. But in terms of its overall artistic vision, it’s limited. It’s not saying anything new, or anything interesting. Within a wider historical perspective, this is a game that’s advancing us towards a mastery of the medium. We’ll look back in twenty years and say look, important game, advanced our vocabulary and gave us more creative and technical tools for how we think about video game design. But the actual artistic message is kinda just filler. It’s not new or groundbreaking – it’s just ‘wow man, childhood’. And like – it’s not that stories about childhood can’t be exceptional, either. It’s just that this specific game doesn’t really have anything up its sleeve other than leaning real hard on the concept of nostalgia.
What we’re talking about is a wider problem with video games in general. You sometimes get an emotional range on display (sometimes), but within that, there’s a lot of hackneyed fucking shit. It’s not bad, it’s just self-indulgent and not particularly good. You know how back in high school or whatever you had all those kids writing really self-important serious poetry about their hurt feelings or whatever? It’s that. There’s a lot of video games that are still existing on a pretty gratuitous level. I actually – here’s a spicy take for you – I actually have this issue in particular with a few of the games about mental health. Within their context, I appreciate them as groundbreaking games that touch on issues that have never really been discussed before within this artistic medium. But I can also look at any of the other texts that deal with mental health in any other medium, and I can see that these early mental health games won’t age well. They’ll always be important as the games that did it first, but on their own merits, they’re not always amazing. Some of them fall into the trap of being just a little too taken with their own premise. I’m not going to name any specific names, because mileage will obviously vary on this for different people and different titles. But there are a few specific titles where I played it, and I went yup, not that great, but will be important to the historians in a hundred years.
Partly the problem here is about emotional range. When you’ve got games about ‘man, childhood,’ or ‘hey, I’ve got a mental health condition,’ those are obviously pretty big and important topics in and of themselves. But from an aesthetic perspective, there is such a thing as overdoing it. It’s the crude, blunt work of the new artist – that’s one of the things we remember about high school poetry, right, it’s just really blunt. Too much raw emotion, not enough craft. As an artist, you need to have a really tight control over how you deploy emotional cues. If you overindulge, your text becomes cloying and stuffy. Another part of the problem, however, is about the actual artistic vision. At its most basic, the idea of ‘man, childhood was great’ is not particularly interesting. It’s a very entry-level aesthetic idea. Compare something like It Chapter 1 (2017) – in that instance, the artistic idea is more like ‘man, childhood had these beautiful moments, but there was also this really weird feeling that none of the adults in our lives really cared about us.’ That’s way more fucking complex. There’s feelings of abandonment, of having to grow up too fast to deal with a world that’s cruel and uncaring and generally pretty monstrous. As a film, it’s got a really interesting resonance with something like climate grief. We know that a bunch of kids are growing up today feeling really stressed about climate change and the complete fucking inability of the adults around them to fix anything. That’s Greta Thunberg’s whole deal, right. It takes that concept and uses it as the context for a horror movie about an evil clown. The result is spectacular. And then we’ve got The Gardens Between, which – man, I’m in a real bind with this game. Compared to the rest of the video game industry, it’s pretty fucking top-shelf. Compared to the artistic scope of literally any other medium, it’s kinda entry-level. I want to be nice to it, because I think it’s a really good development, but at the same time – fuck, man, it’s hard. Would be easier if it just sucked.
[…] gross sentimentality for deep, complex emotion (there are still too many games where the point is wow, wasn’t childhood great), but it also offers some interesting forms of resistance to the problem of cultural cringe. These […]