The Gardens Between changes the game

Simon Joslin talks through this gorgeous story of childhood.

The Gardens Between is the winner of a 2019 Apple Design Award, which recognises the creative artistry and technical achievements of developers who reflect the best in design, innovation and technology on Apple platforms.

When asked to describe The Gardens Between, Voxel Agents co-founder Simon Joslin doesn’t mention the word “game”.

“It’s an homage to friendship – the kind of childhood friendship that feels impossibly large, when the bonds seemed unbreakable,” he says.

The game’s design – down to the sketches on loose-leaf paper – is meant to evoke memories of childhood.

From its first moments, there’s clearly something different about The Gardens Between, the 2018 Mac App Store Game of the Year and a stirring example of what happens when a project is powered by heart.

“We wanted it to be a broadly welcoming experience that expands the idea of what a game can be,” Joslin says.

The Gardens Between is a brilliant game; it’s also a story about childhood friendship. Nostalgic elements – like retro game consoles – pop up throughout, adding to the inventive sense of non-linear storytelling.

It worked. Yes, it’s a surreal puzzler in which you control the passage of time instead of characters. But it’s also the story of two best friends and how their relationship is changed by the years.

The beautifully crafted graphics alone make the game worth playing, but it’s the sweet narrative that truly hits home. Joslin turned back to the clock to walk us through the development process.

We started from scratch, abandoning common game tropes like ‘forward is always better’ or ‘finding a key is a step of progress’. Instead we made a ‘voyage and return’ story line, best known through tales like Alice in Wonderland, where the characters fall into an imaginary world that metaphorically represents challenges they are trying to escape.

In The Gardens Between, you’re not controlling time as much as memory. It’s like a conversation between two close friends about past events. The details aren’t always accurate, and it’s in the retelling that your shared memory merges. It’s a poetic merge of gameplay and storytelling.

The Gardens Between was created by the Melbourne-based company Voxel Agents.

We created The Gardens Between to be a broadly welcoming experience that expands the idea of what a game can be. It invites players and ’nonplayers’ through a relatable, simple story. It’s straight from the heart, building on our own lived experiences.

We wanted to welcome a broad and diverse community with the highest level of accessibility. The game is free of text or speech. Not only is it hard to deliver the same story across translations and customs, the problem with written language is that the specificity of words constrains the possible interpretations, making it rigid and in effect inaccessible to some. A lack of words leaves room for interpretation that speaks to each and every player’s own experiences.

The imaginative, intricate design of The Gardens Between started as a series of colourful concept sketches.

There is a Japanese philosophy that goes something like ‘Your garden is not finished until you’ve removed everything that can be taken away’. We embrace that in our game design. Our studio philosophy is that everyone plays to learn, to explore, to experiment.

Yet for many people, that whimsical approach to learning gets lost. While some have forgotten play, many simply haven’t found the right game. We wish to remove barriers and make surprising games that anyone can pick up.

The Gardens Between will never rush you. This is your game, to be enjoyed on your own terms. We didn’t want to diminish the journey by rushing you through.

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