Like any awkward, game-obsessed, stamp-collecting sproglet that grew up in the last century, I didn’t have a lot of friends. The few I did have I clung to like pet hair on dark clothing, and despite being similarly obtrusive and smelly, I like to think I made some cherished memories. However, there was always a pervasive anxiety that I’d either lose my friends, they’d stop talking to me, or- worst of all- that time and distance would one day part us.
The Gardens Between, from Melbourne developer, The Voxel Agents, and musician, Tim Shiel, takes this anxiety and transforms it into a time and reality warping puzzle game that is as meditative as it is emotive. Two best friends, Arina and Frendt, find themselves navigating a dreamlike realm reminiscent of the titular space where memories of their friendship have been made. What unfolds is a charming and reflective exploration of bonds, memories and time, replete with the clever and fantastical.
In each level, Arina and Frendt must use a lantern to collect an orb of light from a flower, avoiding other flowers which absorb them, and take it to the peak. Save for pressing a button to interact with certain environmental objects, nothing more than a single control stick is used to do anything. Whilst ordinary puzzle games would beset players with a plethora of mechanics, so simple are The Gardens Between’s controls that they’re almost ingenious.
However, even more remarkable is the game’s approach to its gameplay is its use of its core mechanic, and central theme: time. The pair and their surrounds are frozen until they are moved with the control stick, so players are free to start, pause, and enjoy the ambience at their leisure. Some obstacles advance or undo when time is altered, others do not, and these qualities result in some satisfying time-and-physics bending to advance.
Although the pair are controlled simultaneously, Arina and Frendt frequently diverge in their paths, and each performs a different role to accomplish their goal. Arina carries the lantern and can either place it in receptacles to create paths forward or place it on particular cubes that leap around to avoid bad flowers. Frendt can either ring bells to open or close the orb flowers or operate time switches that change its flow within a localised area.
Within these simple abilities, it’s remarkable how much character is injected in every little facet of the game, especially character animation. Arina’s boldness, jogging confidently ahead, and her impatience as she folds her arms and waits for Frendt to catch up. Frendt’s tendency to reflect on his surroundings, and tinker with any objects the two friends stumble across. All is underscored by stunning art direction, and the ambience of Shiel’s gentle melodies that play throughout.
Unfortunately, at times, getting stuck on a puzzle can be an exercise in patience. As there are no checkpoints, levels must be restarted in their entirety if the player gets stuck. Furthermore, segments of puzzles often require rewinding or progressing the same section, which some may find tedious. However, this is somewhat alleviated by levels themselves being short, unique in their puzzles, and how this deliberate linearity as an aesthetic choice underscores Arina and Frendt’s adventure.
Despite the joyful scenes interspersed between levels, as rosy backdrops gradually become sombre midnight, it becomes evident that a sadness ultimately underpins this tale of friendship. Therein lies the real poignancy in The Gardens Between; the universal nature of its core bond, that transgresses time, language and space. The collective moments that many wish they could re-experience, or change, or could preserve forever. The simplicity in enjoying ice cream together, looking at the stars, and the inevitability that each step in life brings one closer to parting.
Everything in The Gardens Between is near-perfectly analogous to life itself; wishing that we could speed through the mundane moments, before looking back and wishing we had had more time. With this in mind, every step Arina and Frendt take feels resonant, deliberate, almost precious; a moment I can replay and reflect upon, but ultimately never truly get back.
Whilst sadly fleeting, the sheer warmth and delightful charm of The Gardens Between makes it a poignant experience. We may never be able to revisit childhood or keep friendships forever, but the simple beauty of this title ensures that we can always keep fondly reminiscing.