Having finished off Crackdown 3 late last week, I went looking for something that would be a total change of pace. Where that game was all bombastic, explosive excitement that required the brains to be left at the door, I went searching for something quieter. Something more introspective, and considered. A game that would tell a gentler story that would make me feel... something. Anything would do, to be honest. I just wanted an experience that, in the best possible way, wasn't "exciting" and didn't cause my blood pressure to rise.
And damn, did I find it.
Looking back over my XBL achievements and my PSN trophies, I seem to go through a phase of wanting a game like this at around about this point every year. It could be something in the air, as winter gives way to spring and the sun comes out, and I gradually pull out of the depressive funk that I usually slide into around about February/March. Instead of closing myself off in the comparatively soulless grind of endless AAA games, I wander off to find something small. These games often end up being ones that I'll remember forever. The Gardens Between is definitely one of those games. A couple of years back it was Abzu. Before that, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture filled the void. Journey came before it. I honestly think The Gardens Between merits mention in the same breath as those - some of them being among the best games I've ever played.
It's a really short game. Lachesis and I played it together over two nights - the second of which was literally us playing the final level and the final constellation, and then feeling sad as we watched the ending. Sad partly because it was over, and partly because of the events unfolding onscreen - events that suddenly put the entire game into a context that we'd been trying to piece together over the previous couple of hours of play, and a context that meant a second playthrough was somehow more satisfying than the first, and even more heart-ache inducing. I'm not going to give away that ending or state that context here - I'll just say that it's another game where I reached the end and just sort of paused, controller in hand, quietly contemplative. Gameplay wise, it's a puzzle game that involves rewinding time to manipulate the environment to solve puzzles - which start simple and gradually become fiendishly complex. The art style and the music set the tone of the game perfectly. It feels like a rose-tinted memory, which I suppose is exactly the point. If you're into this kind of thing, you should definitely play it. And if you aren't sure whether you're into this kind of thing or not, then you should definitely play it.
After finishing it, I carried right on thinking about it - both as a game, and as a creation by a human being. As a piece of art, I guess.
I don't know for sure how personal a piece of work The Gardens Between is. It feels like a labour of love, and the tale it tells feels like an incredibly personal one. It speaks of a period in life that all of us adults can remember - with memories often a bittersweet mixture of happiness and sadness. It's a game that simply couldn't have been created by a AAA studio, and one that I feel the gaming landscape is richer for the presence of. I'm finding more and more that stepping outside of the AAA environment is where I'm finding the most memorable gaming experiences.
I'm not saying for a moment that AAA game developers aren't passionate. They must be. I can't imagine for a moment that it'd be possible to work on a project of the size and scope of an AAA game without being swept away and consumed by it. But ultimately, they're big teams - and a big team inherently means compromises. It's impossible for anything else to happen if something is to actually be produced at the other end of the process; the only alternative is a slow grinding halt as people wanting different versions of a creative vision clash and refuse to give ground - and that's entirely putting aside the endless drive for cash that drives the big studios and publishers. I've said before and I'll say again now, far too many gamer's view these developers through a romantic lens - fantasising that they exist only to serve their audience when the reality is that they exist to serve shareholders. If their shareholders are best served by keeping a community happy, then that's the line that will be taken until a new opportunity to monetise appears.
Stepping away from that endless cash drive that motivates so much of the AAA segment of the industry is where you find the game designers that are the most free to indulge their creative impulses. True, they need to narrow scope and really hone in on features, as without the luxury of a massive development budget they simply can't produce games of the scale of an AAA, but it's often inside these limitations that they thrive. These smaller games are often driven by a narrative idea and a single mechanic - and both of them will be strong because the entire game revolves around them. These are the games that will be considered art in the years to come; the ones that were able to present an uncompromised creative vision in no small part because of the comparatively low budget with which they were produced. You're best placed to deliver on a creative vision when no-one else is holding the purse strings - that is to say when the creative teams and main stakeholders of the business are the same people.
You read about this problem in the gaming press and in gaming community all the time. The conflict between creatives and the corporates seems to be the common thread running through so many of the recent disaster stories of game development, from the recent Bungie/Activision split around Destiny, to the articles claiming that Dragon Age 4 has been rebooted from a solid single player game into an online monetisable monster. I wonder how indie game developers see this, watching from the sidelines - probably wishing they had the budgets of these studios but simultaneously grateful for not having the internal political tug-of-war games. Personally, I just like seeing games like this do well. The more we play them and talk about them, the more likely we are to get more of them. And the world needs more games like this. Games that make us feel something, instead of endlessly chasing loot for a dopamine rush that ultimately leaves us empty. Games that can evoke something other than aggression and need. Games that will leave us thinking.
Honestly, these are the best kind of games.