When I was a kid, I thought I’d be with my best friend forever. We built forts together, had our own secret codes, made mechanical tornadoes out of old pill bottles and RC car motors, and generally had our own secret world. As is the case with many young friendships, life circumstances separated us and that shared world was eventually lost to the grey fog of time and distance.
The Gardens Between explores the memories of a childhood friendship in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Other games like To The Moon or the recent Tacoma have dealt with replaying memories, but The Garden Between has the player manipulate the game differently, in a way that organically mimics how we mull over memories.
I’d like to get some technical aspects out of the way before I discuss the heart of the game. The Garden Between is available on Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, or Nintendo Switch, and I enjoyed playing it on the Switch because of the handheld mode. Holding the game in my hand just seemed the “right” way to view the game with its colorful, whimsical islands becoming almost like toys held in my hand. The HD rumble was used to good effect, giving me a very good “feel” of some of the finer adjustments. I will say I enjoyed some of the ambient sounds like rainfall and crickets in surround sound while the Switch was docked, which would be true for the PlayStation 4 version as well I imagine. On the subject of sound, The Gardens Between has great sound effects that really helped flesh out the idea of manipulating the passage of time, which I will explain in a bit.
Arina, a strong girl, and Frendt, a wise boy, travel between dreamlike islands on a raft made from their treehouse. As they explore each whimsical island, they unlock stars that fill the night sky, and each group of islands completes a constellation that unlocks a snapshot of a shared memory. Perhaps you will see that time they had a picnic with a telescope under a starry sky, or the lazy Saturday they built the world’s most epic blanket fort.
Each island is sprinkled with objects in a theme as if a giant child had left their toys strewn along the path to the peak of each island. One island may have a giant TV, a video game console, and controllers. Another island may have a dinosaur skeleton intertwined with the path. Many of these objects are in motion as time progresses, and have an effect on our pair of friends as they pass over through or by these objects. But I need to pause and explain how The Garden Between is actually played.
When you go back to a memory in your head, seldom do you play it straight through like a movie. Instead, you go back and forth on the timeline, pausing at certain points to try to remember. Was it raining that day? Were both my parents home? In a similar fashion, you don’t control Arina and Frendt directly as much as you control the passage of time as they walk in a spiral toward the pinnacle of each island. One button moves time and the friends forward, another moves both backward. Arina and Frendt may take slightly different paths up the island, and they each interact with different things. Arina can pick up and set down a lantern, which can collect a ball of light that hatches from a special flower bud. Frendt can activate special switches which changes something in the environment either by switching its state, like changing the channels on a radio, or speeding up its passage through time like the slow-motion collapse of the dinosaur skeleton I mentioned earlier.
Besides the toys and other familiar objects, other obstacles and puzzle elements help and hinder the friends on the way to each peak. There are the previously mentioned switches, and also negative flower buds, which absorb the light Arina bears. There are also pedestals Arina can place the lantern on, some which stay stationary, and some which jump around the island on comical tiny legs in sync with the two friends’ movement through time, forward and back.
My favorite puzzle element is the fog, which ties in with how memory works. Sometimes fog will block a path or obscure a switch, and only the intense light of Arina’s lantern can make it dissipate, just like directed thought can clear the fog of actual memories. The fog does not always hinder, though. Sometimes the fog creates a bridge over a treacherous depth and the light of awareness will banish the bridge, making progress impossible.
Perhaps we need the fog to soften the edges of some experiences so we can keep going?
Each island is completed when Arina places the light-filled lantern on an altar at the top of the island, releasing the light within into a star that helps complete part of a memory constellation. The trip to the top of an island is never straightforward, Arina and Frendt will go back and forth in time, changing small things, just as we worry over a memory, getting it fixed “right” in our heads.
The Gardens Between was a relaxing, contemplative experience for me. Not only did I enjoy the time bending and perspective shifting puzzles, I appreciated the relics from the past that I recognized on the island like cassette tapes and dot matrix printers. For players of a certain age, some of these elements may not have as much nostalgia, but the majority of the objects sprinkled around the islands will be familiar to all. The puzzles were just the right amount of difficulty and really made me think about how I process my own memories in daily life. The hints I would give for the game read like life advice:
- Notice everything around you
- Pause and explore all the options in every moment
- Do not rush into the future before you are sure you understand the past
- Look at the situation from a new perspective
- Don’t forget you have a friend that can help in ways you can’t access on your own
It is worth noting that The Gardens Between is between 2 and 3 hours long if played continuously. I don’t recommend you play it this way. The Garden Between is best enjoyed as it is laid out for you. Explore one island, or at most three within one memory constellation, then set the game down for a bit. The Gardens Between is a wonderful way to decompress at the end of a long day and remember the simple delights of childhood friendship. If you are looking for a game with a slower pace that will still challenge you, wander the Gardens Between.