Move forward and time advances. Move backwards and time rewinds. It’s a simple idea that games such as Superhot have done well. It’s one of the only things you can do in The Gardens Between, a simple, beautiful three-button game I’m enjoying during my breaks between climbing the mountains of this season’s gargantuan releases.
The Gardens Between stars Arina and Frendt, two friends who wind up in a series of puzzle levels that look like dreams about a 1980s childhood. The levels are presented as little island peaks covered in the bric-a-brac of that era, including an off-brand Nintendo Entertainment System and a Commodore 64. These objects are super-sized and serve as part of an obstacle course the friends must overcome to climb to the top of each island.
The controls are simple: Hold one button and the characters will try to advance to the top by walking, climbing or jumping on a set path. Hold a different button and they will reverse those actions. A third button lets them interact with things, though only at predetermined moments. Arina’s interactions involve a lantern that she can hold, put down or shine light needed to open the gate at the top of each level. Frendt’s interactions involve switches and levers. That’s it. Forward. Backward. Interact.
At first, each level seems like it should be a glide to the top. The characters will just walk right up, right? But problems reveal themselves. Their path may be blocked by a jump they can’t make or by a barrier that must be removed. How to do that? At first the solutions are simple. Advance the friends far enough for Frendt to flip a switch and make a bridge and then move on. Later, things become more complex. In the Commodore 64 level, the friends steps across a numerical keypad to type numbers into a monitor, but they’re not the numbers that seemingly are needed to turn on a nearby printer. What to do when all they can do is walk forward and back? That’s for the player to figure out.
Some of the pleasure of The Gardens Between is the beauty of each level. Each scene shifts from being frozen in time to gradually building or un-building itself as the player moves things forward or back.
Some of the pleasure is in simply exerting control over simulated time. It’s nice to be able to move events along but then also just let everything be still. Ah, to have a pause button in these busy times.
Still more of the pleasure of the game is its simplicity. In the last month I’ve shifted from clambering up the surprisingly sprawling Shadow of the Tomb Raider to getting briefly lost in the clouds of the loot-filled Destiny 2 (I’ll get back to it) to dropping in for a peek of a peak of Red Dead Redemption 2. I love playing games like that. I’m happy to devote 100 hours to climbing a new Assassin’s Creed. I like the huge games with their myriad systems and inputs. Taking breaks from them to play something so straightforward is a joy. Fittingly, I’m playing The Gardens Between on my Switch, the perfect system for taking a short gaming break between huge games or other complex parts of life. The game is also out for PS4 and PC.
The Gardens Between would be a delight for me any time of the year. This time of year, it’s even easier to appreciate and enjoy.
Kotaku Game Diary
Daily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.