Joy is a terribly underrated commodity in video games. Most of the games I play inspire all kinds of feelings—stress, tension, exhilaration, frustration, even less-celebrated but still mentionable sensations like "comforting routine" and "empowering murder-fantasy."
There aren't all that many games that make me feel really, truly joyful. Botanicula is one of them.
Argh, this game. This game! It's basically a government-created smartbomb designed to deliver a payload of exuberant joie de vivre from your hard drive straight to your brain. Except it wasn't made in some government lab—it was made by actual people who put their actual selves into it. The result is a gorgeous, hilarious, endlessly creative, warm-hearted thing.
Botanicula, which comes out tomorrow and costs $10, is basically a point-and-click adventure game for PC, Mac or Linux. You'll be able to get it from Steam, the Mac App store, from GOG.com or direct from the developers.
In it, players control a group of five little nature-dudes who live in harmony on a giant tree. I call them "five little nature-dudes" since each one is different and it's not entirely clear just what they are. There's the little one-winger dragonfly dude, the little branch dude, the little(ish) fungus dude, little mushroom dude, and little glowing nut-dude.
Uh oh! Some scary black spider-things that more or less represent "evil" arrive and start sucking the life out of the tree. The head little nature-dude, (glowing nut-dude if you're keeping track) sees a vision and decides to get his little dude-friends and set out to stop them.
This is all conveyed without words—just like Machinarum, there's no talking in Botanicula, just goofy sorta-speak from various characters as well as visual representations of text that play like little cartoons.
Botanicula comes to us from Amanita Design, an independent Czech game development studio headed up by Jakub Dvorsky and Tomas Dvorak. Amanita is probably best known for their fabulous and too-often-overlooked adventure/puzzle game Machinarium. Have you played Machinarium? Good god, what are you doing with your life, etc. Go play it, etc. It's on like every platform known to man.
Where Machinarium relied on ingenious (if at times very difficult) puzzles roadblocking your progress, Botanicula is much more exploration-focused and, perhaps, approachable. I've been moseying through it and while all of its puzzles require brainpower and creativity, they're nothing close to the difficulty of Machinarium. They are fantastically creative, though—the game found a splendid number of ways to use my Macbook's trackpad, backing up Tim's notion that the apple trackpad is the best game controller yet made.
Botanicula feels designed to draw you into its world and, once it's got you there, to delight the living shit out of you. The world is organic and real-feeling from the first moment of the game. The art and colors are vibrant, soft, and lush. The puzzles and sequences themselves are all unique and memorable—you'll never repeat a single action, and each each new area and challenge arrives at new creative heights.
This game has been realized down to its tiniest details—many of the best gags are easter eggs that have no effect on the game whatsoever. (Watch out for the penguins, is what I'm saying.) The character animations are so good, so funny, that they recall Pixar's best and most charismatic silent beings—say, the robots of Wall-E. Each character was animated with flawless comedic timing—a pause here, a beat there—that makes every tiny movement a pleasure to watch.
On top of all that, Botanicula is possessed of one of the most creative and endearing soundtracks I've heard in ages. And that's not just my well-documented bass clarinet bias talking.
All of the sound effects and music in the game were created by the band DVA, who for the bulk of their sound rely not on instruments or samples but on human voices. Almost every humming insect, growing flower, and plunking, crashing sound effect was created by a human voice. It gives the game a loopy, child-like energy that in this age of (don't-get-me-wrong-lovely) chiptunes and electronically augmented sample libraries. It feels damn near sweded.
Friendly John Walker at Rock, Paper Shotgun observed that the soundtrack recalls the (hip! good! worth checking out!) band The Books, and he's spot on—from the moment the game started, I felt as though I was playing a video game version of The Lemon of Pink.
Curses. I don't want to get sidetracked on the soundtrack just yet. For now, just… the soundtrack to Botanicula is pleasing, hilarious, winning, touching, and flat-out gorgeous. It sounds entirely unlike every single other thing ever.
To sum up, here are some 100% true facts about Botanicula:
- Botanicula is so adorable that it can only be controlled by picking up a puppy and moving its puppy paws on your computer's trackpad.
- Botanicula is so funny that after they played it, the cast of Parks & Recreation said, "Wow, that's pretty damned funny."
- Botanicula's music is so good that the people who wrote the theme song to Parks & Recreation said, "Wow, that is some damned good music."
- Botanicula's sound effects are so good that you won't even notice that a lot of them involve a dude making chewing sounds in close proximity to a microphone. You'll even think it sounds cute.
- Botanicula is only on PC but feels destined for the iPad, so you should play it so that in six months when all the iPad people are freaking out you can be all hipster about it.
- Botanicula is so charming that it stole Julia Roberts away from Pretty Woman-era Richard Gere. He was pretty pissed but reported that he "couldn't stay mad at [Botanicula]".
- Botanicula is so organic that it won't deign to be sold in Whole Foods. It is so organic it lets out a quiet-but-not-that-quiet snicker every time someone brings up The Omnivore's Dilemma at a dinner party.
- Botanicula is so clever that it snuck up behind the raptor that snuck up on Muldoon in Jurassic Park. "Clever game," said the raptor.
- Botanicula is so damned good that it probably won't even wind up on Metacritic.
And so okay, yes, it won't be to everyone's taste. It's not exactly that difficult and there's not as much "game" to it as there is to many other games.
Vampires and Republicans probably won't like it. It'll probably go over the heads of most babies, and Vulcans won't see the appeal. Ditto serial killers and dead-but-actually-secretly-comatose soap-opera characters and people who paid to see Stan Helsing in theaters.
But whatever, I'm not talking to those people. I'm talking to you.
Botanicula is so good. You should play it.