“A Good Gardener” Review
The atmosphere is as thick as the soil, and so is the numbing haze you get after planting two hundred seeds. A Good Gardener, and not “savage garden” as the game window points out and spoils the Big Twist which is neither big nor a twist, is a short story passing itself off as a one – room two – character game. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Is it?
You are a gardener in a war – torn Bosnia knockoff, except instead of food you grow weaponry. The seeds come in ammo crates, the cacti turn into bombs, and yet nobody thought to give you some rifle seeds. This must be why you lost the war — everyone else has assault rifles, you have swords made of plants. At least you got a medal, before it all burned down.
The gameplay is throwing seeds at the ground and then watering them. You go to your room after doing this. Most of the time you don’t have enough water and so you pick up the seed box then walk back to your room like a sad and crippled war veteran. When it does rain, you can put the watering can under a drain and water the plants the next day. Yes, it’s as boring as it sounds. You get used to it.
The game is presented prettily, as cel – shading never goes out of style and is hard to mess up. At the end there’s this nice sequence where the game’s title is interspersed between you running like a dope as fire comes around your village. At the beginning you can watch raindrops fall through a tin roof, and underneath you hear the rain plonk. In a small game, all joy is simple.
Did Wes Anderson touch the design document? No, I suppose there wouldn’t be one, except for a one – page pitch saying “what if you grew guns”. I should mention that you never get to use the weapons, except for a skin – tight red – suited cadet coming along and presenting it to you in an animation that’s a beautiful, stunning, 1FPS. At least I was entertained; I walked up to the cadet and he averted his gaze. That was cute.
Whatever progress you make in growing the plants seem to not matter. You grow, the J. Jonah Jameson character says five sentences to you, you grow again. You know he’s here when you find the seeds on your table and not your front door, which is something a Gamasutra blogger could devote an entire article to under the title of “Intuitive Design and UX in Story – Rich Interactive Experiences”. He comes too slowly for you to know him and too fast to — no, never mind. He cannot come fast enough. I’ve been gardening for twenty minutes straight. The fire is a favour.
What little Jonah says is the sweetest parts of the game, which up to that point is you in the vicious cycle of picking up seeds, putting them down, and going to your room within a minute. B.F. Skinner posited that behaviour depends on the consequences of previous action, and I posit game developers exploit this to get them addicted. Jonah comes in, and you want to keep playing because he says something interesting, and keep playing in the hope it leads up to something cool. There are small cool things. No big cool thing. What a shame.
Maybe that’s why I kept on playing despite not really enjoying myself. It is a slow burn, except for at the end. If all the dialogue was in a book, it would be two pages long. There are moments of brilliance in its design, such as the “save game” chair being repurposed into the “watch demonstration” chair, but only once. In a simple game, everything must be exploited to its full potential. Otherwise, the game must be made simpler, or add in complexities to make up for the deficiencies. At which point, it’s not simple.
Is the story decent? I want to clarify I compared it to a short story unfavourably. I never was a fan of stories too short for me to care about who’s in them, which is a length that’s endemic to games because making games are real hard and takes weeks of effort for even the shortest product. Even though this game has about an hour’s worth of stuff in it, two – thirds of that is spent gardening. For the work to be worth it, the reward must be sweet. I liked the portions where they inquired about my bum arm and my bum leg, making up some hand – wave for the silent protagonist. I liked that; it was smart writing. But that writing never comes through often enough, and as a result didn’t cause me to think about this game for very long.
I like the potential. The developers know what they’re doing, adding in small details and making the most of what they got. What they had was a nice story lined up in their heads that somewhere along the way got lost in the gameplay and ended up not being much a story at all. The music wasn’t unbearable; there’s some emotional turnover with manipulating your, admittedly small, expectations. But it works.
This game should be seen as something to point out as an example for developers and not as something to actually play. It does several things right but they are not the important things, for the important thing of story has fallen out the bottom… I wonder if the fire was a representation of the writer’s deadline, who had to finish up before it, too, engulfed him. It builds up and builds up, like rain in a bucket, before being kicked over. And because the story isn’t too good, the dull gameplay is also… dull. I’m not asking for Quake, but may I ask for Animal Crossing?
I have mentioned before that art is less about the end and more about the journey, which a pragmatist will spit on me for saying, to which I remind them that art is about thinking and feeling and not about selling those emotions. You could throw a blind horse – filly into an abusive class and make them walk home in hail, and it would trigger the same sadness as the complicated epic of a twenty – hour novel, but people enjoy the illusion of feeling sad because they want to and not because somebody decreed they must be, and the blind filly is a decree. While this game has a decent ending, the journey to get to that ending feels unearned. It triggered in me some awe, as I was expected to feel. But how we got there makes me feel the feeling is unearned, and thus the illusion broken.
And speaking as a pragmatist, I must ask the question if this was worth my time. I would like it back, please. I’ll use it to try your most recent work, which I am sure will be better. To rip off Roger Ebert, I know you can make a game like A Good Gardener, and now I await your better ones.
Rare footnote: $2 is too low to pay for this. $5 is also too low. Never undersell your work; you’ve already alienated 90% of your audience by not making it free, so go for broke and charge the other 10% the luxury of playing. Because games are a luxury product, and there are very few people who realise just how much they can charge for them. Is it unethical to charge so much? The same as artificial scarcity is unethical. The Pirate Bay will always be a haven of freedom for those who accept the reality of our Internet, making free all that deserves to be free. But the developers gave me a copy for free. You can’t call yourself a reviewer unless you’ve accepted a massive bribe.