When I first watched the trailer for Garden Story, I was reminded of one of my favorite Game Boy Advance games from my childhood. I wasn’t given much money as a kid, so I would stand at the GameStop demo booth and play The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap for hours on end. I wanted Garden Story to be just like the forest adventures I had back then. It fulfilled that promise and offered a lot more.
Garden Story is an action game where you play as a grape named Concord and solve 2D puzzles. It doesn’t try too hard to explain why some residents were frogs, some were fruit, and others were mushrooms. They all lived in the Grove and took care of each other in their own ways, especially as they were threatened by the monsters who were affiliated with the Rot.
I was charmed by the whimsical chiptune music, the unique interface, and the way the grass would part slightly when Concord stepped in it. Concord is the chosen guardian, but the villagers treat them gently, as if a child. There’s lots of handholding and care by most of the community.
However, Garden Story is plagued by the same problem as other indie action games. The game relies on experimentation more than an adequate tutorial introduction. It took me three days to learn how to heal and five days to learn how to open the mailbox (you attack it with a weapon). This is great if you don’t want games to handhold you through the mechanics, but I’m a very impatient player. I just want to be told that hammers are capable of clearing debris so I can be on my merry way.
I don’t have the time to make a thousand mistakes until I chance upon the right answer. Once, I saw some tasks on the notice board that might have been a bit of a pain. I didn’t want to go hunting for Rot monsters. I wanted to get to the next segment of my heroic adventure. So I simply gave up and went to sleep. I was unprepared for what was about to happen next.
My daily summary told me that not defeating the enemies meant that the villagers were too afraid to work and that the apartment cracks became more severe. I was horrified. The community counted on me to fulfill these tasks, and their fragile lives were worse off because I decided to phone it in. The game didn’t explicitly tell me off for making poor choices. Instead, Garden Story relies on the player’s own sense of social responsibility. It feels like a creative gamble since there’s actually not much that stops me from ignoring all of my tasks once I hit the next section of story content. What if I was forced to complete every task? Then I might have started to feel resentful towards the Grove. Instead, I was given the opportunity to decide whether the chore list was worth my time.
Once I advanced the main plot, I was surprised at how difficult the first boss was. Again, some guidance probably would have helped if Garden Story had pointed out its invincibility mode (which I highly recommend), but I figured it out after dying to the Bookworm about four times. Once I conquered the boss and relieved them of their treasure, I was immediately rewarded with access to the gorgeous summer-themed village. It was so pretty that I had nearly missed the fact that the spring interface had also changed to match the summery beachside.
Garden Story’s visuals are so thoughtful, yet organic. It doesn’t draw attention to the it’s best parts. The game is content to let the player to find every secret themselves. It was a complete accident that I discovered the pink flowers open and close upon being hit. Again: great for explorers and not so great for players who want to learn how to perform basic game actions immediately.
I also got lost a lot. I’m usually awful at paying attention to what background characters are saying, since I figure that I can always get a recap in a quest log. Not in Garden Story. Its logs are barebones and its quest markers nonexistent. If I tune out a major character, then I have to search for them aimlessly across the map. Or if they explain how to gather glass shards, then I fast forward through their explanations at my own peril. There are no guidebooks or encyclopedias in the Grove. There is only life experience and listening to your elders.
Garden Story is a cute pixel adventure that feels good and plays well. It’s also a fantasy where community welfare doesn’t exist independently from the player’s attempts to minmax Concord’s stats as quickly as possible. It still gives you an opportunity to be the prodigal son, but it never allows you to simply opt-out from the consequences of doing so. Which probably means that I’ll be playing Garden Story for much, much longer than I anticipated.