I love gardening in video games. Planting the seeds, watering them, watching out for that first little sprout and then seeing it grow. The themes and ideas behind gardening can add so much more depth to a narrative or, in the case of video games, meaning within the player. In the book Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom, Dan O’Brien explains:
“Gardening is not just a pleasant thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, or a way to reduce one’s supermarket bill — gardening is a human activity that engages with core philosophical questions concerning, among other things, human well-being, wisdom, the nature of time, political power and ideals, home, aesthetic experience, metaphysics, and religion.”
Even though gardening is used very rarely as a game mechanic, I’ve found it to be a relaxing and reflective process. Video games have the potential to conjure up vast and unique emotions within a player, and I think the ambient and thoughtful process of gardening makes its own contribution toward this. Some might consider relaxing activities mundane, but there is much to learn from these slow, meaningful styles of play. So, what influence does the act of virtual gardening have on the player?
When gardening, there is one quality that is of the utmost importance: patience. Waiting for something to grow and bloom after nurturing it for days (or weeks) is a slow and diligent process. To expect immediate gratification is to miss the point of gardening. The want for a quick reward comes from a place of consumption instead of care. It definitely sounds odd talking about patience in relation to gameplay, but gardening games do rely on the patience of the player.
A majority of video games have a constant feedback loop — this action and re-action tends to happen quickly so that the game stays interesting and keeps the player’s attention. Using first-person shooters as an example, running around, shooting enemies, dodging, etc. can all contribute toward keeping the player captivated. They are attuned to the game’s high-intensity gameplay. Although this is most obvious during exciting and intense sequences, I think that this idea can also be applied to relaxing and ambient play.
In relaxing play, the action and re-action loop is slowed down, and the rhythms of the game and the player are set at a sedate pace. It is in these moments that a great deal of emotion and meaning can grow. Walking through a beautiful landscape, pausing to listen to music, or taking the time to nurture and care for plants all hold quiet and humble experiences. It’s the act of humility and care that improves both the garden and the gardener.
These ideas are explored in the succulent-growing simulator Viridi developed by Ice Water Games. In it, there is no story, characters, goals, or missions. Instead, the player is invited to pot and care for seeds, which grow into colorful succulents over time. This game embraces the care and patience of the player, and I personally leave it open in a separate window on my desktop so that I can watch the snail crawl along and listen to the twinkling music.
Viridi is a soothing and relaxing experience — an ambient place you can return to for a moment of peace and tranquility. When playing Viridi, both the player and the machine exist in a relaxing state where there is no challenge or conflict. The plants continue to grow and the snail continues to circle the pot. Even when the player does nothing, the world of Viridi still feels present, as time continues to pass. Gardening in this context offers a place of stillness and reflection. It inspires the player to slow down and take a moment to breathe, to momentarily separate oneself from the fast pace of life and the cluttered nature of the mind in order to focus completely on something mundane and relaxing. It’s a meditative experience.
Viridi examines gardening in its purest form, but what can the act of gardening do for a game with a story? A Good Gardener created by Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick uses the garden as a thematic and symbolic device. In it, the player is a prisoner whose duty is to grow plants for a war effort. As the player plants seeds, waters them, and pulls weeds, the plants grow into tall, beautiful flowers.
However, after a couple of days, the player’s successfully grown plants are taken away from them. You wake up to find that the plants you nurtured and cared for are gone, and a factory that was previously abandoned is now active. It looms in the distance, black smoke billowing from the chimneys, polluting the air. This cycle keeps happening; as you grow more plants, they are taken away from you and used as resources in a war that is happening just beyond the garden’s wall.
A Good Gardener is an emotional game because it exploits the player’s caring and nurturing nature. The feelings that develop between the player and their plants is used against them. This fits perfectly into the themes of war and loss. Moreover, the game is able to juxtapose the garden — a symbol of peace — with the theme of war and organic beauty with the mechanical ugliness of weapons. It also explores the idea of humanity’s attitude of domination toward nature, seeing nature as just a resource to be controlled and shaped by humans.
It’s not noticeable at first, but upon further inspection of the beautiful plants you are growing, it becomes apparent that they look like weapons. The tall bamboo shoots have spear heads and the bulbs are shaped like bombs with their stalk as the fuse. There are so many layers of meaning and understanding that derive from using gardening as part of gameplay that it can only add further depth to the narrative. A Good Gardener is an emotional and powerful statement on war, identity, and loss, all explored through the act of gardening.
There are so many other games that really capture the philosophies and feelings of gardening and express them in different ways. In Orchids To Dusk (spoilers!), when the player runs out of oxygen and falls to the ground, their body transforms into a burst of plant life. Their death has contributed to life on the barren planet. In lil ghost garden and Succulents, gardening is an act of bringing beauty to a dark and empty space, returning life to a place where there previously was none. And games like Planetone are interactive spaces where planting influences the game’s music.
Gardening is an alternative style of gameplay that engages with the player differently. It’s a thought-provoking action, and one that inspires patience, caring, and humility within the player. Through relaxing play, the player can immerse themselves in a quiet and calm space. Gardens can also be used as a complex thematic device — as a space of peace and as the product of the player’s kind actions. All these pocket-sized games are available for free or a couple of dollars on itch.io (Viridi on Steam), so please check them out if you’d like a relaxing and enjoyable experience!