You’ll never guess what I did. I beat a video game that came out in 2018…in less than 5 hours! What’s my secret? Well it’s simple really. The game is short and good. Ta-da.
The Gardens Between has the confidence to never utter a word or write a single line of text on the screen, but it still teaches the player how to manipulate time. Each level is a rotating diorama through which you must guide two friends. Each of them has a unique ability that helps both of them advance. While the levels are scattered with real world objects from these friends' memories of time spent together, they also contain otherworldly doodads that must be satiated with luminous balls. One character holds a lantern that can transport these light orbs, and the other can flip switches to change the state of the level.
Those are pretty much all the mechanics of the game. Move time forward and back, watch the characters move with time, and press a button when they are near something they can change. You know that you can only do a couple of things, and that's how the game fools you into thinking it will be easy. But The Voxel Agents have woven together levels with those mechanics that makes this a challenging and rewarding experience.
An extra benefit of controlling time and not the protagonists is that it forces you to look at the level as a whole. The environment rotates as you move forward and back (a feature that is key to some of the puzzles) and you can move along at a snail's pace if you choose. It feels a bit like turning a gem to see all its facets in the light. Or like turning your wrist so your watch reflects the sun into your friend’s eye. That's when you really start to notice all the objects that have been dropped in to navigate around. There's general kid stuff like Jenga, dominoes, and couch forts, but also things Only 90s Kids Will Understand™. You've got your SNES analogue, your CRT TVs, your VHS tapes, and a, uh…wave frequency modulator…thing.
It would have been easy to drop these in as set dressing but instead they are key parts of puzzles. Each time I realized this I went from thinking "How clever of them!", to thinking “How clever of me!” immediately after solving it. I think that’s what you want from a puzzle game.
The story told through interdimensional dioramas is a simple one about childhood friendship. In different environments these kids are split up for varying amounts of time, always brought back together at the end of the level. Yet, in the closing scene they are finally split apart by one child’s family moving. You spend the whole game keeping them together and in a few seconds all your work is undone. It's a little frustrating, but it also captures how being a kid is a series of lessons on powerlessness.
Yeesh, getting a bit broody in here huh? Let's forget about that stuff now, I have to call out the animation at the end of each level. While one of the characters is usually following the other, when they reach the end both stand by a portal. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of seconds while one catches up, but they always end up looking at each other, the door to the next world between them. The girl holds the lantern out, the boy grabs it, and they are transported through time and space together, connected.