The Gardens Between Is the Time-Manipulating Game About Best Friends That You HAVE to Play

I've been following the gorgeous, narrative-driven puzzle game The Gardens Between since I first heard about it early last year.

Thanks to my interview with the game's narrative designer, Brooke Maggs, I knew a bit about the game going into it. It's about two best friends, Arina and Frendt, who wind up in a mystical land composed of puzzle gardens that symbolize the most important moments of their friendship. I also knew the puzzles would involve manipulating time—though I had a tough time envisioning precisely how that would work.

The team behind The Gardens Between were kind enough to send me a review code of the game for the PlayStation 4 when the game release in September so I could finally experience Arina and Frendt's adventure for myself.

The game opens on a dreary, stormy night. Between two houses, we see an alley leading to a small playground with a treehouse, and that treehouse is occupied by a girl named Arina and a boy named Frendt. They've apparently snuck out of their rooms in the dead of night to hang out with each other.

They look a little sad, but nothing appears to be out of the ordinary until time seems to freeze, and then run in reverse. As rain droplets fly back upward into the clouds, a strange sphere of light appears between the friends before it transports the treehouse and its inhabitants to a strange island.

The Gardens Between: Frendt and Arina falling in treehouse

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

Here, the game truly begins. The two wake up on a sandy beach surrounded by floating cardboard boxes packed tight with duct tape. But instead of controlling the characters directly, you only control the flow of time. Pushing right on the control stick moves the friends forward, so that they dust themselves off and start journeying up a small mountain path.

If you keep pushing right, you'll make it all the way to the altar on the peak of the mountain. However, you can't really do anything with it yet. Only when you experiment by pushing left on the control stick do you discover that you can put time in reverse. The duo walks backward to where they landed, and objects that fell from the sky levitate upward to their original places. By going all the way to the left, you can activate something that happened before Arina and Frendt arrived, resulting in a lantern being activated by a glowing orb. Arina can carry this lantern and take it to the end of the level to move on to the next.

The Gardens Between: Frendt and Arina lighting lantern

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

This time travel mechanic is simple but extremely effective as a story and gameplay device. As the characters move, their environment always shifts with them. All of the movement in the game is controlled with one stick, and any interactions with the world take place with the press of the same button. While Arina can lift a lantern that carries an invaluable light around, Frendt can activate certain machines throughout the worlds—but only when they're standing in precisely the right places. Every single action in the game is accomplished with these basic inputs.

From there, solving the puzzles in The Gardens Between is really about understanding cause and effect. If there's a way you can move something out of the regular flow of time, that's usually something that will come in handy as you figure out an island.

There are leaping robots who jump in special patterns, carrying Arina's lantern from place to place. Purple fog can only be crossed if there's a shining light nearby—but when platforms are made of the stuff, they can'be traversed with a lit lantern. There are also yellow flower bulbs that create light that can be captured by your lantern, as well as pink plants that will snuff out the light if you get too close. Learning how to implement both to your advantage is critical to unlocking the full story.

The Gardens Between: Leaping jumper robot

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

None of the puzzles are too hard, and I don't want to spoil solutions for anyone, but I love that many of them are about manipulating time in interesting ways that simply don't exist in other games—whether that means making sure it's in constant flux, or that it's at a standstill at just the right moment.

The Gardens Between: Popcorn on the couch

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

Part of what makes this work so well is that not a single line of dialogue is written or spoken throughout the game. It doesn't have to be. The mechanics are so much clearer to the player when they discover them for themselves, and each action and scene tells the story through emotions and through the memories you build, which at times feels even more impactful than any scene with words could be. As you move back and forth in time within each level, it's like reliving a memory again and again.

The Gardens Between: Playing video games on the couch

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

Each garden island within the game is littered with objects that serve as physical reminders of the friends' time together as best pals. These islands are each bunched into little groups, and when they're completed they connect to form constellations representing powerful moments in Arina and Frendt's history. Only by watching closely can you piece together every element of their friendship and discover just why they're so close, which can feel as awe-inspiring as it is bittersweet.

The Gardens Between: Television and video games

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

The game's animation is also beautiful and distinctive, and with a stunningly soothing soundtrack, its relaxing mood is tough to beat. In fact, at no point during the three or so hours that it took me to beat the game did I feel stressed, even when I had no clue which action I'd need to take next. Any time I did feel stuck, I simply wasn't looking at things from the right perspective, and the solution wasn't ever that far away. I never was trapped in any place long enough to feel frustrated or think a puzzle was too cryptic. It helps that the game always makes it extremely clear when you can't progress further under the current criteria, or when you can't move any further backward.

The Gardens Between: Stuck at a bridge

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

I also adore The Gardens Between because, though it requires the player to be thoughtful, it never requires lightning-fast reflects of technical controls. The fact that you can move forward, backward and interact—and that'it—will make the game super accessible. Without any instructions or dialogue, anyone can also play it regardless of language barriers. If it weren't so intricately laid out, requiring a careful attention to detail, I'd say its simplicity could make for an amazing mobile game.

There aren't really any downsides to The Gardens Between, and I'm torn between thinking the length is perfect and wishing there were more of it to experience. The passage of time can also feel a little slow occasionally, but this is deliberate, as the game wants you to experience every second of the journey.

At its core, The Gardens Between is really about the power of friendship, and is much about letting go as it is about cherishing what's most important. If you're looking for a quick and low-pressure puzzle game that might make you shed a tear, I'd highly recommend this one.

The Gardens Between banner

(The Gardens Between via The Voxel Agents)

The Gardens Between is out now for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Steam for $19.99.

 

If you're curious about how the game was made, click HERE to read our interview with Brooke Maggs, narrative designer of The Gardens Between.