Thinking back on the years of our lives, there are always those connections and friends that, simply due to the passage of time, slowly start to drift away from us. While some memories are sometimes better left forgotten, time and memory can often work in tandem that cause fractures in our current moment and separate us from those we know and love, whether we intend for that to happen or not. In the case of The Gardens Between, a new puzzle game that comes from the Melbourne, Australia-based studio The Voxel Agents, the desire to hold on to those we love–and the memories that we have of them–comes at the forefront of its emotional and powerful story, as the player works their way through beautiful puzzles that hold as much symbolism as they do secrets to explore.
The Gardens Between focuses on a pair of best friends named Arina and Frendt, who at the beginning of the game are seen inside of their treehouse on a rainy urban night. Through an unusual set of events, they soon wind up in a surreal world detached from time while exploring a series of islands which each hold various objects, items, and memories shared between Arina and Frendt.
By exploring and reaching the end of each island, the player not only completes a variety of challenges by solving puzzles, but will also piece together the game’s larger narrative, with each new island holding some new, hidden component of Arina and Frendt’s memories. Through the time that you spend reaching the end of each of the islands, you’ll gradually reveal the numerous layers to Arina and Frendt’s friendship in both a literal and metaphorical sense, all of which ties in to the game’s impactful and touching conclusion.
While the majority of the story is told without any sort of dialogue or voice acting from either character, it would be hard to play The Gardens Between and not feel some sort of empathetic connection to Arina and Frendt, as the game effectively transitions between moments of beauty, melancholy, and poignancy throughout its 2-3 hour adventure. Throughout my time with The Gardens Between, I couldn’t help but be drawn in by how its surreal level design calls to mind a sense of childhood wonder and whimsy, while also admiring the fact that it isn’t afraid to delve into some deeper, more emotional territory throughout its story.
Alongside its storytelling, the gameplay of The Gardens Between sets the title’s serene and poetic tone by having players guide Arina and Frendt through a series of puzzles and obstacles by manipulating the flow of time. While puzzle-solving via time is not an entirely new concept to puzzle games of its kind–with Braid in particular coming to mind–The Gardens Between adds a unique element to the mechanic in how the player is directly altering the flow of time to set objects and the environment in motion.
As the player does not directly control either Arina or Frendt, instead The Gardens Between has players using the analog stick to direct the flow of time to either move forward or backward, in turn pushing the two characters ahead or in reverse. The simplest way to think of it is that the player is essentially fast-forwarding or rewinding a tape, with the “tape” being the characters, items, and other objects in the environment moving forward or back, in this case.
Aside from influencing the direction of time, both Arina and Frendt have their own unique ways that they can interact with the environment, which the player will have to observe in order to complete the puzzles on each island. Throughout the game, Arina holds on to an imaginary lantern that can hold light, which the player will need to figure out how to carry through to each island’s end, as some environmental objects can take it away from her. Likewise, Frendt has the ability to interact with various items in each map, such as levers and switches, that can directly alter or shift objects within the puzzles.
In combination with its time manipulation mechanic, each level in The Gardens Between essentially has a sort of corkscrew-like design that makes its puzzle-solving less about figuring out complex solutions that require precision to complete them, and more about paying attention to the order of events that play out in each level and figuring out how to manipulate them for particular solutions. At the beginning of the game, this starts off simply enough; rewinding time and interacting with objects in the environment, such as levers or switches, can alter the objects being affected by your manipulation of time and let you push Arinda and Frendt forward.
However, as the game progresses, the core mechanic of rewinding and advancing time never wears out its welcome thanks to the creative ways that The Voxel Agents encourage the player to use time manipulation for puzzle solutions that may be a bit unorthodox. One of my favorite examples of this comes from an early puzzle where there is a saw embedded in a plank of wood that can form a bridge for Arina and Frendt to access a new part of the level. By hopping on top of the saw and repeatedly moving time forward and backward, the saw (in turn) can cut through the board and allow Arina and Frendt to move onward.
The Gardens Between is not necessarily a “challenging” game compared to more mechanically-complex puzzle games, such as the previously-mentioned Braid or something like The Witness. Instead, The Gardens Between favors a relaxing, transcendent experience over a frustrating one, and it suits the game’s colorful, vibrant, and creative approach to puzzle-solving. Aside from a few puzzles towards the end that may not have immediately-recognizable solutions, The Gardens Between kept my brain teased engagingly, but I never found myself wanting to escape its soothing worlds out of impatience from not being able to move past a tricky puzzle.
Though The Gardens Between already features a potent combination of poignant storytelling and creative gameplay, the most striking aspect of the game comes from its magical visuals that truly make it feel like a wonderful, surreal adventure. Reminiscent of the beautiful visuals that defined games such as Journey and Monument Valley, The Gardens Between is continually inventive and stunning to look at, and the game’s variety of islands display that quality at its best.
From an island surrounded by old CRT televisions and vintage video game consoles, to a breathtaking island filled with autumn trees and falling leaves, The Gardens Between features gorgeous art direction and animation. The game’s soundtrack, which I’m more than likely to now put on frequently after having finished it, also perfectly complements the game’s visuals with a variety of soothing and atmospheric compositions that drive home its surrealist, childlike experience.
While it’s a brief experience that will take most players only a few hours to complete, The Gardens Between captures a nearly-perfect balance between story, gameplay, and art that easily puts it among the best indie games that have released this year. Having previewed it earlier this year at PAX East, I’m happy to say that with the final game, The Gardens Between fully delivers on the initial promise that it displayed with its gorgeous visuals and soundtrack, a creative puzzle-solving mechanic, and a heartfelt story that will, by its end, likely relate to many of us.
As a title that I would consider a bit “under-the-radar” compared to the heavy-hitting games coming this fall, The Gardens Between is a wholly unique experience that you shouldn’t let fade away from your memory.