It seems rather rare that a game with children as the protagonists actually delves into topics that are related to children, instead of just using its characters as shorthand for innocence, and The Garden Betweens’ forte is that it faces its topics and characters head on. Its failure, however, is that it doesn’t do so well.
The Gardens Between is a puzzle game in which two children explore levels based on objects from their friendship. As the player, you control not the children but the flow of time, and by moving forwards or backwards in time you can manipulate the level to allow the characters to progress.
The game’s focus is clearly its characters, a young boy and girl, but the characterisations of the duo is surprisingly lacking. There’s certainly no dialogue – certainly localising this game won’t be a challenge – but there’s also not enough non-verbal communication to make up for it. Each level is based on one or more objects from their past that represents a particular memory, but apart from these tableaus the characters and their relationship aren’t truly presented or explored. By boiling human experiences down to the barest quotidian association, the game denies any real depth to its characters or story. Since the game purports to be about its characters, this shortcoming ruins the narrative.
Some attempted characterisations are made, usually through the animations of characters. However this doesn’t happen enough to create any sense of a real relationship between the two – and most of the time the characters are interacting with the world it’s to point at the answers to puzzles, to the degree that animations that aren’t pointing at puzzle answers are rare.
In addition, since the levels are based on objects, it isn’t always clear what the memory is meant to be. This would be okay – memory is transitory, after all – if the achievements list didn’t describe in detail the setting for each memory. The character names are only told in the achievements list, too. Achievements are an important part of games, but they shouldn’t be necessary to know basic details about characters and the story.
The gameplay is a little better, as the interesting time mechanic is used in a variety of different ways, but there rarely any challenge to it. In most levels, by simply moving time forward or backward you can easily find the workaround to each obstacle, and so much of the time the gameplay is rather boring. Occasionally interesting puzzles are presented that require some real thinking, but these challenges are few and far between.
On top of that, the puzzles rarely seem to have any thematic relevance to the story. While sometimes you are required to interact with the aforementioned objects in interesting or novel ways, most of the puzzles are based around escorting a light orb around the level, and using the orb or hiding it away to pass different obstacles. Obviously ‘orb escorting’ isn’t exactly an important childhood pastime for most people, and the thematic irrelevance of the majority of puzzles is highlighted by the interesting presentation of a minority of them.
The game does have one saving grace, however, in the general ambience and atmosphere it creates. The ghostly soundtrack, art design and zoomed-out perspective of each level creates a beautifully disenfranchised tone, which reflects the game’s subject matter in evoking a sense of these two characters desperately grasping at the straws of a relationship that only exist in the memory. The art design in particular is fantastic to look at, with the objects ingratiated ingeniously into the level while remaining simple enough to be childlike.
The general design of the game would be the perfect way to deliver a touching narrative – but The Gardens Between barely has a narrative to be touching. Instead it just tosses around parts of ideas and hints at a story or characters, seemingly of the mindset that being evocative is the same as being meaningful. It isn’t.