Memory is a funny thing. It’s not a rigid affidavit of the way things were, it’s neither a tangible record nor a reliable source of information. It’s simply a lens, a viewfinder employed to review our history in bite-sized tidbits, and memory can alter the past the way stained glass alters light, making it brighter, grander, more exciting than it was.
The Gardens Between is a game about memory and, more specifically, about how it’s such a selective thing; how in the moment of loss, you forget the bad and only remember the good. It tells the story of Arina and Frendt, two childhood friends who spend possibly their final night together in the tree house between their neighbouring homes, poring over their best memories. As a result, The Gardens Between presents a loose, low-detail narrative that may prove a little too saccharine for some, but which is undeniably feelgood in its bittersweet execution.
A single mechanic propels the action, such as it is, forward and back, as Arina and Frendt conjure a world where their tree house is a little wooden boat ferrying them through an archipelago of memories, where each little island is a snapshot of their shared history. These snapshots are presented as small hills littered with oversized items forming surreal, sometimes nonsensical dioramas. Couches, lamps, TVs, toy cars, cakes, sweets, Jenga blocks and dominoes create vivid, memorable levels through which you’ll guide Arina and Frendt. There’s no danger in The Gardens Between, no monsters or peril, nothing to flee from, fight, nor fear.
Instead the entire game is controlled by pushing the left stick forwards or back, which moves time in the corresponding direction. The goal each level is to collect an orb of light in Arina’s magic lantern and transport it to the pinnacle of the level, where a portal waits to take the children into the next stage. Along the way, various obstacles must be overcome using lateral thinking. For example, flowers appear here and there that will steal the light if it gets too close, but depositing it into a cute little robot cube will allow it to be carried safely past the obstacles. In one instance the orb is hidden in a giant bowl of popcorn; as you approach it, the bowl tumbles from the couch and the orb is lost. However, Frendt has the ability to manipulate little switches to let you move the robot cubes forward and back through time instead of the whole level. So, you position the cube in the path of the tumbling bowl, then switch time control back to the world and walk forwards; now when the popcorn falls and the orb flies out, the cube will catch it. Walk backwards and the cube will return to its first position, filled with an orb of light that Arina can now collect in the lantern. It sounds complicated, and the latter half of the 20-odd levels get pretty taxing, but the system never changes.
Probably the most charming element of The Gardens Between is the way it skews logic to suit its puzzles rather than the other way around. You’d think it would feel forced or, worse, lazy, but it actually reinforces the fact we’re seeing this through the eyes of children and the normal rules of logic and physics only apply to other people. This is imagination, not the real world or even a fantasy world; there are no consequences here, no fail states, and there’s joy in that. The atmosphere is almost refreshing, nourishing even if you play it when your mood is low; the bright, delicate score is a perfect companion to the colourful aesthetic that feels custom-built to cheer you up.
You can find downsides if you look for them. It’s short, for one, and there’s no replay value whatsoever. And it can be occasionally frustrating when the aforementioned muddying of logic comes into play and you end up staring at a puzzle for ages before you resort to a trial & error tick box and solve it almost by accident. Also, despite the sweetness of the world and its two mute characters, there’s nothing to invest in or worry about, nothing to compel you on but the simple beauty of it all. Some will find it criminally dull; others, like me, will appreciate a game that asks so little of you in a world where AAA titles seem to revel in filling your life with busywork. All The Gardens Between wants is your attention for a few hours, but I promise you’ll remember it when you’re done.
Simple and relaxing
Light on story
Not overly compelling