Remember when friendships were easy?
Whoever sat behind you in homeroom became your best friend by virtue of sharing last-name first letters. You hung out with the kid down the block ’cause they had whatever Nintendo or Sega system you weren’t allowed to have. You’d bond over shared taste in music or humor.
Not so easy anymore, is it?
We still live in nostalgic moments, reminiscing about simpler times, before video game criticism was tarnished by empty arguments over graphic wars, before political tensions made the worst Thanksgiving dinners worse. The older we get, our relationship needs are more complex and narrowly defined.
And it’s no longer just about proximity or mutual interest. It’s about compatibility, whatever that means to you. The Gardens Between, an in-development indie game coming to PC and Mac early next year, is about those better times.
There are two protagonists, but you don’t necessarily control either; you control the movement of time within small spaces. Fast forward time and the girl who forges a path ahead triumphantly skips her way down the unobstructed, designated path while the boy goes down his.
“They’re in this garden and they’re traversing to the top in order to light the beacon and start filling out a constellation in the sky,” lead animator and core game designer Josh Alan Bradbury said. “They’re on a set path to the top and it’s up to you to move time forwards and backwards to manipulate different objects and items and events in the right way that allow them passage.”
The Gardens Between is an adventure game that might remind you of Monument Valley or the more recent Oxenfree. As the childhood friends scale their way up to the top of a level, they pass by the objects most representative of their friendship and youthful nature like, say, a bottle of coke or an SNES.
As Bradbury put it, it’s a surreal puzzle adventure game.
“Each garden/level is focused around moments that these two friends have spent together,” Bradbury said. “Our storytelling aspect of the game is heavily environmental. It’s all about how these characters move within the space, how they interact, and what these oversized crazy objects peppered within these gardens mean.”
Exploring this dream-like world is about exploring those childhood friendships.
“You get starry eyed about those moments that you spent with your best friend,” Bradbury said. “When you’re an adult, you realize you weren’t really very good friends. But those moments were so special to us, and so we’re trying to capture those.”
It’s the simplicity of solving a puzzle together, or of playing through a quick animation on a screen the two kids stare up at, side by side, that evokes memories of childhood play and a sense of wonder. You wouldn’t be discussing the intricacies of your philosophical view on whether or not retweets count as tacit approval or arguing over how reciprocal the generosities within your friendship has become.
Kids don’t care about that kind of thing. We didn’t care about that kind of thing.
“In your mid-20s, the concept of friendship is tricky — how do you make new friends? You just can’t,” Bradbury said. “You gotta like, organize it as an adult. This game is also us looking back and thinking about, ‘Wasn’t it simpler back then — where we just had a best friend and that was it?'”
“When we’re sitting down to work out situations that are best to convey a childhood, things that come up all the time: acts of creation, acts of play, acts of exploration,” Bradbury said. “Those things where we step outside of ourselves and find something new or create something new — that’s the stuff that sticks. We definitely do focus on those situations because we feel that’s a very universal experience.”
The time-traversal mechanic doesn’t just play into the puzzle elements of the game. It also functions to service this metaphor of nostalgia in which you’re going over the same memory over and over.
“A lot of the time in the gameplay you’re going forward and backwards over the same moments in time, which is very reminiscent of memory and of recreating memory,” Bradbury said. “Sometimes you have the light in your lantern and sometimes you don’t, but it doesn’t really matter. Eventually you resolve that memory together.”
“We just really wanted to be as honest as possible about the nature of those early friendships and how important they are and how pivotal they feel.”
And they were pivotal. Not everyone is lucky enough to have sustained their childhood friendships through to adulthood. But even for those who haven’t, there’s always the memory of the time we spent together that we can look back on fondly, through rose-tinted glasses.
The Gardens Between is a reflection of exactly that sentiment.