GAMING: A Good Gardener

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A Good Gardener is a Unity-made wartime gardening simulator released on April 20, 2015 by Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick. An undefined war is going on, and you’re assigned a duty to help out: to grow a garden in a derelict lot. Day in and day out, you maintain your burgeoning garden while the war rages on in the background. Your only companionship besides your plants is your mysterious commanding officer who tries his best to keep an emotional distance between you. As the days crawl by, the truth of your war effort creeps to the surface while you learn what got you into this situation in the first place.

We’ll plant the seeds of our opinion after the jump.

Note: A Good Gardener is a game that’s difficult to talk about without spoiling the twist. The rest of this review contains spoilers.

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At the beginning of A Good Gardener you are assigned your task: plant the seeds given to you, water them once daily, and then retire to your chambers for the night. This is the game in a nutshell; this routine is the defining aspect of the game from beginning to end. You are given a small supply of seeds every day which is added to your seed box. From your seed box, you select the seeds to plant into the piles of fertile soil spread around the ceilingless room you are inside. You have a watering can to water your plants. Sometimes weeds will grow, requiring plucking.

This isn’t all the game has to offer, of course. Your commanding officer will show up on occasion to inspect how you’re doing, and to notify you when your plants are to be harvested. He’ll try to keep distance from you, only cryptically hinting about the war going on outside of your little room, but as time progresses he develops a strange bond with you. From him you learn a little of your history, why you’re trapped in a room to grow plants, and just what these strange plants are being used for…

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Now that is all the game has to offer. The storyline is filtered to you through interactions with your commanding officer, and in between it’s all about taking care of your plants. This gets tedious. Your officer doesn’t show up for several days after he talks to you, so in between all there is to do is to collect seeds, plant them, and water them.

You even have a limited supply of water, which can only be replenished in rainstorms using a waterspout. If you run out of water before a rainstorm happens, you’re screwed and will have to wait for more water before you can do anything else. So for several days in a row, there is nothing to do. You can’t plant new seeds, because they will wither and die. You can’t take care of the plants you’ve already planted, because you have no water to care for them with. All there is to do is sleep, sometimes for three or four days in a row before rain falls again.

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To be frank, this is really boring. The snippets of story you’re delivered are far an in between, so you’re forced to wait for incredibly dull lengths of time before you get another morsel of plot.

Spoilers

The commanding officer himself has his own backstory, which is not explained at all. He, at first, appears as completely emotionally distant and terse, only communicating about the status of your plants and warning you when the harvesting crew will come. But as time goes on, he starts to value the time he gets to spend in your little garden, mentioning that his own life is not going so well. It’s the only little spot of greenness in a tremendous war, even if the green is far from ideal. He expresses a mild interest in getting to know you, even if you can’t tell him your story.

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Spoilers

We have one complaint about this game, and it’s a huge one: it’s long and boring. Really boring. Tending to plants isn’t the most exciting thing, but the game prevents you from even doing that at points when your water runs out. Is the wartime government of this state in such bad condition that they could not even supply you with a water tap? Long, long days pass between visits from your commanding officer, and you’ll be sleeping through most of them. This isn’t fun or engaging. The twist comes very early in the game – we realized it long before our officer told us directly, and it was just patient waiting until the beans were spilled. Even after the official reveal, the game continued to drag on and on without telling us much. The officer complained about his life, admired our garden, talked to us about the war effort, and we just wanted to take care of our plants.

The officer, being the only other character in the game we can interact with, tries to be a sympathetic and relatable character but fails. We didn’t care about him, nor were we moved by the ending. He was our jailor, and we only had hopes to escape our condition. Even though he softened his military exterior to let us into the stress he was feeling about the war, we didn’t care. We didn’t want to have to listen to our captor complain about how bad his life was when we were a literal prisoner of war being forced to do labor for a war we tried to escape from. We just wanted to tend to our plants, as long as it was a day when we had water to do so.

Maybe this was an intended point of the game, to emphasize the drudgery of wartime life, but it didn’t resonate for us. We know that war is a dull drudgery when it is in-between bursts of violence, but having to be in the middle of that drudgery didn’t make for an entertaining or insightful experience. A Good Gardener is an extremely story-based game where the surrounding gameplay is dressing on top of that, but the plot was so scant that we didn’t care about it either. By the final quarter of our experience, we were playing the game just to end it.

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After the fact…

Maybe this isn’t a game to play in a single sitting, like we did, but our burning desire to see the story through drove us to complete the game in an hour. We don’t think that it’d be interesting in chunks either, though – what’s given to you between playthroughs is so sparse and dry that, if you have disordered or limited information processing, you might even forget what was happening the next time you boot it up.

That’s not the only accessibility issue we found. The bright-yellow subtitles are an eyesore to read, and nearly unreadable against the blue sky in color-blindness conditions, making the options difficult to configure. For a game with subtitles, you’d hope that maybe there’d be no sound cues, but the game helpfully lets you know if the watering can has run out by slowly decreasing in pitch – there’s absolutely no visual cues. That’s not good.

Not that any of it would have mattered, because you can let all your plants die with absolutely no expense to the plot. The officer will even hint that there are people less compliant than you, as if you’re expected to get a punishment for not obeying, but no such thing comes.

One final thing we wanted to note that was outside of the game itself was that the options screen was completely broken for us. Trying to adjust the options, whether by keyboard or by mouse, locked us into the screen and forced us to close out of the game entirely to start playing. This was a bad start to the game, and we admit put us in a negative mood from the very beginning.

A Good Gardener‘s strongest point, however, is in its visual and audio design. The game is undeniably beautiful and avoids some of the Unity’s engine’s common visual pratfalls. The plants and your commanding officer are all billboarded sprites, instead of 3D models, giving them a kind of storybook look. Everything is line-borderless and painted, making the whole game look like a fantastic graphic novel. The music is limited, but dynamic. It changes every time you receive a visit from the officer, adding instruments and new melodies, building upon itself with strange, tinkling tones. The only other two songs are one played when it rains, and one played after the harvesting crews visit. The rain song is mysterious and enchanting, while the harvest song has a strange, atonal emptiness to it. The music is good, but only having one song for the majority of the game turned very grating towards the end.

2 out of 5 – Not Worth Trying
A Good Gardener isn’t really that fun of a game. This may or not be the point of the game, but the problem with this is that it doesn’t hold our interest in any capacity otherwise. The plot is easy to figure out once you start playing, and is doled out to you in such small increments you grow incredibly frustrated waiting for the next snippet of story. Although visually beautiful, it doesn’t hold up to extended playing.

A Good Gardener can be purchased for $5.00 on itch.io.

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