The Gardens Between is a tranquil, introspective, immersive adventure puzzler developed by Melbourne devs, The Voxel Agents. In The Gardens Between, you follow two children (best friends, Arina and Frendt) as they traverse through a mysterious archipelago built from the scattered remains of their shared, jumbled memories. The meaning behind these mysterious islands becomes clear in due course – through the manipulation of time.
It is the gameplay of The Gardens Between that is profoundly unique in its execution. The game already boasts numerous awards and accolades, including Best Game, Most Innovative, and Excellence in Design. The story is told through a single shot, even from the very beginning – hitting the start button does not jar into a blank loading screen. Rather, you are immersed immediately, as the camera slowly zooms in on Arina and Frendt, playing together in the treehouse in their conjoined backyard- a sharp disconnect from the grey, urban surroundings.
The main objective of the game is to sail from island to island, then find and carry a light source from one end of each island to a pedestal at the other end. The light is carried in a lantern which Arina holds. It is Frendt who wields the ability to clear obstacles, open pathways, and find new light sources through his ability to manipulate objects in time.
The player quickly learns the mechanics of the game upon entering the first island, where there are a few, quick puzzles to solve. Arina and Frendt move upon their pre-determined paths once the player moves the joystick to the right (Right moves time forward, left moves it backward). Frendt is able to single out certain objects and move them backwards or forwards through time, while everything else in the world remains in stasis. This allows the two to progress through the island. For example, the path ahead may be blocked by a toppled dinosaur skeleton (the unravelled memory of their museum visit). By manipulating segments of time, the player can clear the path by putting the dinosaur skeleton back together, thus allowing Arina and Frendt to move to the next puzzle.
As the game progresses, the puzzles increase in difficulty. Time manipulation becomes much more precise, and later puzzles become much harder to solve as not all objects obey the natural flow of time. It also becomes necessary in certain areas to go back and forth through the level several times in order to sync all of the actions just right and unlock the memory.
Constellations appear to be a running theme throughout the game. When an island is “solved”, the memory correlating to that island appears on the screen. That memory eventually morphs into a constellation. Here, you can also control the flow of time, but only to play the memory out. It is simply a brief snapshot into a moment. And that’s what our memories are – they feel timeless, and we play them out over again and again, but in reality, they’re only a few brief, enjoyable seconds.
The Gardens Between is an amalgamation of the bittersweet nostalgia and vivid imaginations of childhood. From the initial scene, it becomes clear that Arina and Frendt’s adventure is an escape from the mundanity of reality, where the melancholic rumble of thunder and trains persists. It also shows how much we rely on our friends, as the puzzles cannot be solved by one child alone.
Playing with time is part and parcel of nostalgia – always wishing we had more time, wishing that we’d known that we were in “the good old days” when we were living them. The Gardens Between takes a closer look at our childhood memories and literally dissects them, taking them apart, playing them backwards and forwards. And for anyone who enjoys a good puzzle game, there were so many moments when I thought, “I have no idea how to solve this,” only to suddenly see the answer appear.
If you enjoy atmospheric, thoughtful puzzle games, this is definitely the game for you. The Gardens Between releases September 20th on Nintendo Switch, Steam, and PS4.