[PAX East] Getting lost in The Gardens Between

[PAX East] Getting lost in The Gardens Between

There’s a puzzle in upcoming indie game The Gardens Between in which the solution requires us not do anything. We leave the controller and buttons alone, avoid pushing or pressing anything, and we wait. We just… wait.

We wait, but not because we’ve walked away and left the game on pause or put it on autopilot. We wait because we’ve done a bunch of stuff before (and after) that moment in time, setting up the world in hopes that everything aligns perfectly for almost an eternity. It took me several minutes during my demo to figure this out. To leave things alone. And when it worked, my mind was shook.


The Gardens Between is filled with these AHA! moments, leaving us patting our backs when we tinker with a puzzle long enough to get it to finally go right.

Developers Voxel Agents have created an experience that revolves around two things: childhood and time.

Childhood means that when we’re young we grow up with wonder, with friends, with adventures. But, childhood eventually disappears. Friends leave us. The world becomes more gray and more mundane. Time moves on. Childhood, then, only exists in memory. The Voxel Agents choose to help us remember childhood by giving us more time — literally. The plot of the game centers on a pair of young friends, a girl and boy, as they become lost away from home, happily stuck together on fantastical islands that capture essences of their youth. Toys, VCRs, video games… these are all baked into the environment. Throughout the demo at PAX, the friends are always together, interacting when needed and splitting up to explore their own little paths, but always within a stone’s throw of each other. This is a story about childhood friendship, and our friends are the most important things; we don’t want to be too far away from them, and neither do the kids in game.

The stunning visuals fill the world with color. It’s Monument Valley meets RiME meets Breath of the Wild. As we move, the beautiful islands rotate and spin, but always remain intimate. Each island is a self-contained level, and their designs need to completely support the puzzles. The words “charming” and “sweet” come to mind, especially when it comes to the characters and how they react to their environment through stares and points and interactions. The Gardens Between is as much an adventure game as it is a puzzle game. In it, we don’t necessarily control the characters but the world and the flow of time around them. The duo moves along a set path, and as we “play” and “rewind” time we can affect how they react to their world.

The game’s Director Matt Clark noted that some of the inspiration was from the time-scrubbing scene in the film Minority Report, where Tom Cruise’s character adjusts time forward and backward to find the perfect vantage point. That idea works flawlessly here. We can watch the entire scene unfold from the beginning to the end of the clip, find out where the first puzzle point is, and begin making adjustments. Certain actions transcend time, such as guiding a character’s gaze to a specific button by activating a marker or light. Every puzzle unfolds this way, requiring us to ultimately place a lit lantern on a pedestal at the end.

The PAX floor demo layers up on these puzzles quickly. The first just has me rewinding a small section to have the characters grab the lantern and fill it with light. Another drops me under a giant tabletop with toys strewn about. As the pair walks ahead, they come across a collapsed Jenga tower blocking their was that can only be cleared when time is rewound. Later along the path the tower needs to collapse again to free the lantern light, so time needs to shift around and a switch activated. But that’s nothing compared to the paused-time puzzle above. In the level, a TV and VCR remain suspiciously ahead. As they approach, the boy pushes a couple of buttons on the remote, but since the VCR is unplugged nothing happens. Once I figure out how to get the devices powered up, the scene plays out… but nothing happens. I try everything: unplugging and plugging in the VCR, undoing the puzzle thus far, letting the boy push buttons as the scene plays to completion. Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m SURE that the remote would activate something now that the VCR had power, but the short second or two that the remote’s fast-forward button was pressed isn’t nearly enough to do anything.

Until it is. Until I realize that there isn’t enough time for it to do anything because I wasn’t letting it. I back off, and as the boy begins pushing the remote buttons I let go of the game’s time advancement and stay there frozen on the scene as the VCR continues to wind tape. And the path clears.


A moment of pure delight washes over me, and I feel like I’ve just cracked THE CODE.

If the rest of The Gardens Between ends up being filled with these kinds of novel little moments, my back might hurt from patting it so much. The game launches later this year for PC & Steam.