Videogame gardens can be spaces for reflection

Opinion
2 months ago by Henrique Antero

Earthtongue, Harvest Moon, and other gardening games take a more meditative approach to play.

Gardens provide solace and refuge from the frenzy of the world. The english philosopher Francis Bacon famously opens his essay Of Gardens by stating: “God Almighty first planted a Garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures.” Gardens are seen as a space for contemplation, associated with quietness, meditation, and a passive approach to life and time. But to a gardener, a garden is a place for thinking as much as it is a place for action— because behind the silence, life is always ebbing on every patch of cultivated soil.

I’m no gardener, but I learned this when I was little, about six, when my father took me fishing for the first time. He woke me up at 4 in the morning, and said that first we had to go to my grandmother’s house. I didn’t understand what our purpose there was until my father pointed me the flower bed, handed me an empty can, and asked me to dig gently. We needed bait. He warned me not to take too many worms, or the flowers would miss them, and grandmother would be mad. I had passed by this flower bed many times before, but it was by sticking my hand into it that I was able to consider the relationship between the flowers, the soil, the earthworms; even the fish, my grandmother, and myself (it was a particularly gross experience overall).

Earthtongue. Earthtongue.

Earthtongue is a videogame that invokes this apparent duality of gardens: a place for contemplation and, at the same time, action. The quietness, and all the moving bits. “Earthtongue was drawn from a desire to recreate the feeling of having a vivarium, as well as my own feeling of somewhat wishing I had become an ecologist,” creator Eric Hornby told me in an email exchange. You can let this virtual vivarium run in the background, watching while new species of insects or mold arrive and interact with each other; and you can spend points to intervene in the environment if you wish.

Gardens... can be a place for contemplation because there's so much going on below the surface.

In my experience, and because I don’t know what I’m doing, I have preferred to not intervene, as my actions have been known to bring doom upon the innocent beetles and mushrooms that live there. Earthtongue puts on us the responsibility to mediate the environment and its organisms: it rewards close attention, learning the patterns, a hands-on approach, and it also rewards just kicking back and enjoying the changes.

Earthtongue is unusual. Gardens too fall in-between our expectations. They can be a place for contemplation because there’s so much going on below the surface. They can be relaxing, but only through engagement, and on occasion: you have to be in the right frame of mind, you have to stop and smell the flowers. Gardens are hard work, but we tend to think of work as in creating something, and cultivating a garden is more about nurturing, preserving, and paying attention than it is about making.

Perhaps that explains why the act of gardening is not very common in videogames. Gardening prizes engagement, like most videogames, but gardening also lacks a clear objective and explicit rewards, and that is antithetical to most game design philosophies.

Space Gardener. Space Gardener.

While the relaxing pleasures of gardening are underrepresented in videogames, that doesn’t mean it’s completely lacking. Space Gardener, by creator like100bears, is meant to be “calming and peaceful to help you decompress a bit.” Not only is the game meant to be a relaxing experience, but it was also made as a way to escape stress the creator was dealing with at the time: “I had been working for 4 weeks out of 11 on a project and it wasn't going anywhere. My teacher was demanding a bunch of things I didn't want to do, so I scrapped it all and started over with a prototype of a flower growing procedurally.”

To grow plants in Space Gardener, you have to dig through a bunch of blocks to get resources, and then use these resources to get seeds. “I thought of games like Minecraft, where you can just enter a trance state while digging, and went with that,” says like100bears. Digging can be seen here as a smart way to convey the micro and repetitive aspects of gardening: picking pots, preparing the soil, germinating seeds, and watering often.

Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life.

Harvest Moon may be the best-known example of a relaxing videogame. “The most Zen gardening in a video game by far is in Harvest Moon. The daily reaping, milking, chicken lifting, and related chores require precision, duty, and calm,” wrote critic Ian Bogost when talking about Zen videogames. “Harvest Moon emphasizes the repetition of simple tasks as much as, if not more than, their outcomes.” In every Harvest Moon game, you begin with a disheveled plot of land. There’s rocks and branches and weeds everywhere. I learned to appreciate the sight: after the first conversation you’re left to do what you want with it. There’s little reason to clean everything in the beginning—you just need a little bit of space to plant your first crops—so it becomes natural to chop and pluck and break stones a little bit at a time, now and again. Through diligent work, your farm begins to grow and is made beautiful again, made to live up to its legacy.

And the farm grows on you, too. The name you gave it, your animals, your crops, and the people in town: it all starts to matter. That doesn’t happen through dramatic cutscenes and plot devices, but by sheer repetition. When you talk to your dog everyday after waking up, even if all it does is show some appreciation and wag its tail, you will inevitably learn to love the little rascal. The relaxation that Harvest Moon elicits is made whole through the relationships that evolve from it, that give it meaning and make it matter. Susan Clotfelter, a journalist and gardener, tries to explain the main reason for gardening in this article: “It’s because from the moment you plant that first seed, you claim a relationship with the planet—and it claims you fiercely in return.”

That is why gardening is often seen as a metaphor for self-improvement. Joseph Addison, an english poet and essayist, has said that gardens help cultivate “a virtuous habit of mind.” When you plant a seed, it’s a commitment. The garden asks few, simple, repetitive tasks of you, every other day. In return, it gives you respite from your own self for a little while. You’re being asked to extend your sympathy to these life-forms that depend on you (but which you cannot control or master) for the simple reason that they should continue living and that they make things a little bit more beautiful. You’re asked to do better, to be better: you may feel like tending to your garden even if grumpy, tired, or stressed, because when plants die, it doesn’t feel horrible, but it’s still death.

A Good Gardener. A Good Gardener.

Gardens are always in-between: contemplation and action, life and death, ourselves and the world around us. A Good Gardener, by Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick, manages to capture all three. “YOU ARE CHARGED WITH GROWING PLANTS FOR YOUR NATION'S WAR-EFFORT,” the videogame’s page says. You’ll only understand what this means after a few days of collecting seeds, choosing where to plant them, and watering them cautiously, because water is scarce and you can’t waste it. You will find out that the plants you’re growing are weapons. Axes, spears, swords, bombs.

The game in itself is one of the most relaxing I’ve encountered, assisted by the pleasant music made by Scott Archer. Carter, one of the game’s creators, told me that “the garden at first seems like a totally cute, fun, harmless activity… We didn't want to distract the player with a ton of rules about gardening, so that they'd have time to occasionally reflect on the situation of the game, and wonder about what they were doing and why they were doing it.” The game gives you time and space for your mind to dwell, and the ultimate purpose of what you’re cultivating adds a conflicting backdrop to the whole experience. Your plants, beautiful when flourishing, are harvested during the night by the army: you wake up to empty soil, and to continue growing them after that feels almost like a betrayal; against the plants and yourself.

Neighbor. Neighbor.

Of course, real-life gardening and videogame gardening are very different experiences. While in real life gardens are self-fulfilling, videogame gardens pose the question: “Why go on?” Why continue playing, if things are not really alive and don’t actually depend on me? A Good Gardener answers this question through The Supervisor. He is the one who locked you in this ravaged house in the first place so you could grow war plants. It’s part of your punishment for being a deserter. He visits you from time to time to check on your progress. He’s not nice at first.

“We wanted your supervisor in the game to have an odd presence—kind of awkward and intimidating but sometimes surprisingly warm”, said Carter. As time passes, The Supervisor  seems more honest and open with you. “A lot of the game's pace was designed around cultivating a relationship with him. We wanted you to slowly develop a... familiarity with him over the time you spent gardening day after day after day.” He pushes you to be efficient until the very end, but in one particular moment he expresses how stressed he is too, and how this beautiful garden of yours is his main reason to keep going, midst all the horrors of war. It’s ironic how this works, because to see him and hear what would he say next—that is, to learn where the story was going—was my main reason to keep on going with the game.

In videogames, gardens usually lack drive, or are driven by the simple accumulation of resources. But if we think of gardening as a means to an objective, we’re missing the point. It’s only through action and reflection that we can see more than the eye can see, the invisible lines that connect gardens to their surroundings, to meaning, to people. Neighbor, by Cardboard Computer and part of the Triennalle Game Collection, is a slow game—and the calm that it instills is directly related to how much time you have to explore without purpose.

Like gardens, Neighbor provide a self-contained space for cultivation. Not only plants, although there are many species of them, but also of yourself: you can write poems and love letters, cook plants and prepare medicine, sweep the floor (in the middle of the desert), craft dolls and jewelry, and go digging for hidden treasures. There’s no explicit objectives, only what attracts your attention. This is all conveyed through minimal interactions and text, giving you space to focus and pay attention to the smallest aspects of the experience: the passing of time and the movement of the shadows, the footsteps made while you slowly walk.

There’s also Sam, your neighbor. He comes around from time to time, and you can chat with him if you wish. Sometimes he brings gifts (a strange seed, for example), and you can also give something in return. Maybe one of your poems? He didn’t appreciate mine, but I can tell that he enjoyed mezcal, an alcoholic beverage that I distilled from some cacti I had grown myself. Like The Supervisor in A Good Gardener, when Sam comes around it’s always a pleasant surprise. A chance to see a new piece of dialogue, a smart remark or caring observation. And if that doesn’t seem like much, or if you think you wouldn’t care, I say you’ll have to experience it yourself: gardening in both of these games is a quiet activity, and every little interaction counts.

Stardew Valley. Stardew Valley.

These are games that understand that a garden makes no sense without its deeper connections. We could even say that a garden is a relationship much more than an object in itself. There’s no garden without a gardener, without someone to cultivate it, to preserve and nurture it. The same could be said for gaming—there’s no videogame without players—but those verbs aren’t the ones usually associated to videogames; rather: jump, shoot, and ultimately do. If gardening is “the purest of human pleasures”, how do videogames compare? How does it all connect?

Gardening is often seen as a metaphor for self-improvement... You’re asked to do better, to be better.

There’s no reason for gardening if we don’t get something out of the act, if we are not made better by it; and maybe gardens silently teach us to be more humane, more sympathetic to others’ necessities, and to appreciate the flourishing of those around us. In a world that is increasingly erratic, it’s natural to seek solace and refuge in our gardens, real or virtual. And this question becomes inevitable: “Why care about gardens (or videogames) when it seems there are so many threats around us all the time?” I don’t know if I can answer it, but I’d hazard a guess: maybe we should care about them because gardens and some videogames care for us too.