Blueberry Garden

So, last weekend Steam had a sale on a big package of indie games. Some of them I had already played, but enough of them were of interest to me that I had to snatch it up. And since it looks like I’m not finishing my last game any time soon, I might as well dig into them now.

First on the docket: Erik Svedang’s Blueberry Garden, a short 1Steam tells me that it took me “0.9 hrs” to play it to completion. 2D platformer in a charming hand-drawn style. I’m not the first to make this comparison, but: its closest relative is probably Knytt, in that it’s a quiet game, a platformer based on exploration rather than combat, where a large part of its appeal is simply observing the art of the highly open landscape and the weird creatures that inhabit it. But more than that, Blueberry Garden is about figuring out how a world works, without aid of instruction or exposition. Although the world model and controls are platformer material, it’s got the heart of an adventure game. One of the weirder ones, like Myst or For a Change.

Or, for that matter, like Windosill, which it also resembles in its initial price point. It’s listed on Steam for under $5 US, and not because it’s old. Again like Windosill, it’s short and arty, which puts it in the same niche as a hundred free browser-based Flash games. It’s priced accordingly, but some consider even that pittance too much.

And now that the vague generalities are out of the way, it’s time for spoilers.

Given the game’s tranquil, exploratory atmosphere, it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s a time limit. The main goal throughout most of the game, it turns out, is to save the garden from flooding by turning off a large faucet. Not that I understood this at first — on my first go, I squandered precious time just noodling around. The thing is, the faucet is the first thing that the game shows you, but without context, it’s hard to know what to make of it, and consequently easy to forget about it. On my first sally, I eventually noticed that the water level had risen to the point where I was wading whenever I revisited my starting point, and I wondered why. My best guess was that it was something I had done, perhaps the combined weight of the large items I had stacked up putting pressure on the wrong spot. (The stack of large objects is essential for reaching otherwise-inaccessible locations.) Only on my second try, after failing the first, did I see that faucet with enough information to grasp its importance.

The game’s victory screen contains a URL where you can leave comments. There, I discovered that my experience of the game was actually pretty common. Is it what the author intended? Probably not; I imagine that the introductory scene of the faucet was intended to convey information on first viewing. Not necessarily to make the player immediately say “Aha, that faucet must be a flood threat”, but to make the player say, on discovering the flooding later, “Aha, this must be because of the faucet”. If I’m wrong about this, and my experience was the intended one, I have to say it’s a masterful touch. It all but guarantees that the player will see both the good and bad endings — and, giving the generosity of the time limit, the player will likely see the bad ending only once. It also breaks the game into two pieces, one before you come to understand the threat and one after. These acts are very different in tone, despite the fact that the game doesn’t actually change at all between them.

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1. Steam tells me that it took me “0.9 hrs” to play it to completion.

4 Comments so far

  1. Sean Barrett on 18 Aug 2009

    I believe your experience is the intended one, inferring from the author’s presentation about the game at Assembly ’09. (Unfortunately there was only about 10 minutes worth of real material squeezed into a 50-minute(?) presentation so I’m not sure it’s worth watching, but: )

  2. Jason Dyer on 18 Aug 2009

    Man, that Gamespot review is harsh.

    Do you think the context of the IGF (which often has demos rather than full games anyway) bent the results?

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 20 Aug 2009

    Quite likely. Context does alter expectations. But by the same token, the context of Gamespot also bent the tone of that review.

  4. Jason Dyer on 20 Aug 2009

    Well, I suppose the deeper question is if there’s something fundamentally “wrong” with how the IGF works that perhaps means the winners will be of a very particular sort.

    Or what it is that the indie subculture approves of that the general public does not.

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