In 2018, Australian studio The Voxel Agents released their fifth title, The Gardens Between, an adventure-puzzle game about memories, friendship and time. Combining a unique time manipulation mechanic with a heartfelt personal story, the game offers a satisfying and relatable experience about growing up, for players of all ages. In this episode, Lead Animator, Josh Bradbury, and Narrative Designer, Brooke Maggs detail how The Gardens Between seamlessly integrates smart game design with a beautifully crafted story.
JAMES PARKINSON: In 2018, the Australian studio The Voxel Agents released their fifth title, The Gardens Between, an adventure-puzzle game about memories, friendship and time.
JOSH BRADBURY: So, The Gardens Between was this little pet project that started around 2014, and up until 2016, where they were kind of trying to develop this game based on the idea of being able to scrub a story book backwards and forwards and edit things, and solve puzzles that way.
BROOKE MAGGS: It was a game of a lot of firsts. It was The Voxel Agents’ first 3D puzzle game, with characters who moved and had personalities. It was the biggest game the studio had made, with the biggest team. So we were all learning a lot as we were making The Gardens Between.
JOSH BRADBURY: The first version was actually a Little Red Riding Hood pop-up book, where you could scrub the pop-up book and little things would pop in and out. But what The Gardens Between ended up being only came together after we realised it wasn't that exciting.
JAMES PARKINSON: The initial inspiration came from the film Minority Report, and the holographic device that Tom Cruise’s character uses to scrub through footage of crime scenes. The Voxel Agents wanted to adapt that concept with the idea of scrubbing through memories. This formed the basis for a time manipulation mechanic that would become central to the game. And the second component was the story.
BROOKE MAGGS: It’s a surreal puzzle-adventure game that follows two best friends, Arena and Frendt, as they fall into this mysterious world of beautiful gardens, that have in them, fragments of memories of this friendship. And then you, as a player, manipulate time to solve puzzles, and unravel the story, and discover the secrets of each of these gardens.
JAMES PARKINSON: Separately, the time mechanic and the story may not have worked as standalone ideas. But The Gardens Between combines them in a really creative way, with purpose and balance, that results in a satisfying and relatable experience.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Voxel Agents is a small developer in Melbourne, founded in 2009 by Simon Joslin, Matthew Clark and Tom Killen. Their first game was Train Conductor for the iPhone, followed by two more titles in that series, and then Puzzle Retreat in 2013. While The Gardens Between was also released for mobile, it would be the studio’s first multi-platform title, also available for console, PC and Google Stadia. As their most ambitious game yet, a larger team was recruited for the project, including lead animator Josh Bradbury and narrative designer Brooke Maggs. When Josh joined the team, they were still working through early prototypes.
JOSH BRADBURY: So they brought on a bunch of concept artists and my good friend Jon, the art director on the project, presented this really nice image of two kids up on a mountain, looking into the distance. And that's kind of where it all started. And they built this playable prototype - we call it the Blue Mountain prototype - where the two kids would be climbing up this really stormy mountain, and solving puzzles as it went. And that was a really good starting point, but there were a lot of struggles that that specific iteration of the game had. Visually, it was starting to become what The Gardens Between was going to end up being, but it was really a vastly different game, and that was around 2016. And then I was brought on board because they needed someone to be able to animate the game so that scrubbing time backwards and forwards didn't feel like playing a video, it felt like interacting with a world. And so I joined just at the end of that Blue Mountain prototype. And we sat down and we were like, “we'll have to start all over again, but we're gonna do it”. And so we kind of scrapped everything except for the core concepts, and some of the visual style. And I didn't expect to be so ingrained. I jumped in as a freelancer, and by the end of it, I was one of the core developers on the game.
JAMES PARKINSON: Making The Gardens Between was a very collaborative effort, including the story, which was led by Director Henrik Pettersson, Art Director Jonathan Swanson and Brooke Maggs.
BROOKE MAGGS: And the development of this story started with concept art, and with ideas about telling a genuine story and an honest story about friendship, which was that childhood - especially childhood friendships, and the reason is because - and I remember us all sitting in the room, talking about how intense childhood friendships could be, and shared stories of a good friend we'd had in our childhood. And we noticed that everyone, just about, everyone's story ended in, “And then the friendship faded”, or “Then it went away”, or “Then I moved, and we never saw each other again”. And so, as intense as childhood friendships are, they can also end rather abruptly, and you can't really look back and say why. We really liked that story.
JOSH BRADBURY: And it's just you and them, when you're, when you're together, you're in a different world. And that was just really resonant with some of my experiences growing up. It started to make sense, as we discussed more and more the kind of core features of the game.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Garden’s Between was Brooke’s first time working on a game. As a writer and narrative designer, her job was to not only develop the narrative arc of the story, but also the characters and their backstory, which was important in establishing the world in which the characters exist.
BROOKE MAGGS: I came to work on The Gardens Between, kind of by serendipity but also by sheer dint of wanting to write and do narrative for games. That's probably the main reason. So I was hired as a writer initially, and I didn't know about the role of a narrative designer until I got more into the project. So a narrative designer is a highly collaborative role, I would say that can vary, depending on the studio and also the seniority of the role. But essentially, the core of it is design and using design elements to communicate the story to the player. And a narrative designer, who I really like, Molly Maloney, has communicated this really well, when she says, “The writer is concerned with the characters’ experience of the story, and the narrative designer is concerned with the players experience of the story”. So a writer might think about how the character is processing what's going on and what they might say next. And a narrative designer is thinking about, “Well, what can we put in the environment to communicate this story?”, but also, “How will the player interact with the story?”. Will they be able to speak?” And if so, we need a dialogue system and a narrative designer will help design that system. They also do world and story development. They communicate the narrative to the development team, whereas writers do that as well, but they, in larger studios, especially, often need to be at their desks writing. So narrative designers are often walking around and communicating with the team and identifying when meetings need to happen. They also track narrative specific elements like menu text, UI, and think about the lore. So there are a lot of other parts to games that are outside of the script that I don't think people would ordinarily realise are specifically the realm of the narrative designer.
JAMES PARKINSON: Much of Brooke’s actual writing didn’t make it into the game itself, but fleshing all of this out provided a guide for the other members of the team.
BROOKE MAGGS: And a lot of my work was writing and exploring and finding the kinds of themes and the tone that we would like to go for, writing about these characters, writing character profiles, helping give them quite different personalities, so that we could communicate them. And this role in particular is about designing the story into the game, with the game mechanics at the front, and using those to tell the story. But also working with other disciplines, and this is largely what I did in The Gardens Between. Because I think something I learned very early on, was no matter how much writing I did in a document, if the team couldn't see how that translated to what they were building, then it wasn't super helpful. Part of good world building for games, and good storytelling for games, is also about laying enough of a foundation for other creative people, to start to have ideas about their discipline, that they can then implement the story that you're trying to tell.
JAMES PARKINSON: The game opens on a scene of a stormy night. A tree house sits behind two houses, backdropped by apartment buildings and a railway line. As the camera slowly zooms in, you see the two kids, Arena and Frendt sitting in the tree house, which is lit up by a lantern. Suddenly, a sphere of light appears in front of them, transporting the two friends into a fantasy world.
BROOKE MAGGS: We came to a plot called the voyage and return plot, which has this idea of characters starting out in the real world, and then falling into a dreamy fantasy world to learn things, and gather skills and tools that they need to solve problems that they had in the real world. So we liked the idea that there was something outside this friendship that was threatening it. And that shot says so much about, “There's something going on, they’ve escaped late at night to sort of comfort each other”.
BROOKE MAGGS: And then we talked about how the transition between the real world and the fantasy world could work with a very small budget. And then, and also to communicate to the player that something kind of magical is happening now. And Jon storyboarded, this as this light coming in, and lighting the lantern that they have, in the real world, it's a very solid object. And then when you get to the gardens, the lantern is a more abstract, line-based looking object.
JAMES PARKINSON: Once in the fantasy world, the tree house now represents a boat, and Arena and Frendt have to travel between different islands, solving puzzles as they go. Each island or garden represents a different memory from their friendship, like building their tree house, visiting a museum together or playing video games on a rainy day. Their task is to use the lantern to transport the sphere of light to a beacon in each garden. Once this basic structure was decided, the team had to work out how to integrate this story into a puzzle game, and find balance between the two components. Here’s Josh.
JOSH BRADBURY: It's make or break, essentially, I think that was - those were our two pillars. And for a lot of the time, we had this idea of a story but the puzzles were often the hardest thing to really nail down.
BROOKE MAGGS: The challenge was telling that story in a simple way. How do we show them meeting for the first time with no text or dialogue? How do we show these two characters growing their friendship and getting to know each other? How do we show them comforting each other, or how do we show what they each offer to the other character? We developed this story then also by practical means, which was, what are some key events in a friendship that we can show that would feasibly have enough objects for us to put in a level that we could make a puzzle out of. And that was a challenge that took a lot of thinking. So we would then have to think about memories as objects.
JAMES PARKINSON: This was also challenging because you as the player don’t control Arena or Frendt. Instead, you manipulate time itself with only a few basic inputs, moving forwards or backwards with analog sticks or left and right triggers, and performing simple actions with a single button press. This was the framework in which the team built the puzzles around.
JOSH BRADBURY: We defined the parameters, essentially, directly in response to the goal that this would be a really accessible game. So we had the time manipulation mechanic, and essentially, that's a one dimensional line, backwards and forwards, and you can only go backwards and forwards. So we had two buttons there. And then we had an interaction button. And that was essentially the parameters that we constrained ourselves to, in order to create the kind of interactions in the game, and that was a really tough constraint.
JAMES PARKINSON: But keeping it simple, would prove much more effective in the long run. When designing how the time mechanic would function, and relate to the puzzles, the team would literally draw three parallel lines on a piece of paper, with the middle line being the main timeline, and alternate timelines above and below.
JOSH BRADBURY: Essentially, that was how we designed some of the puzzles, because the parameters were so constrained, we could represent the actual thing you were doing in the game with just a couple of lines on paper. But then, you know, we had to dress it up, because those lines on paper were really not that exciting.
JAMES PARKINSON: Coming up, how the core mechanics of The Gardens Between informed the puzzle design, and helped shape the game’s story.
JAMES PARKINSON: What started as a simple concept, gradually got more complex as The Voxel Agents got deeper into the puzzle design for The Gardens Between, which was one of the most difficult parts of development. Here’s animator, Josh Bradbury.
JOSH BRADBURY: There were a lot of moments where we, you know, we captured lightning in a bottle, and we're like, “This is what the game is”. And then we sat back and we couldn't quite work out how to reproduce it in another context. And we had to build out this game, this journey over a number of areas, and a number of scenarios, and each area had its own unique challenges. You can imagine, when we're kind of designing this game, it kind of needs to be this scripted, long form, like characters moving through the space and interacting with things, with branching paths, and it all has to come back to one spot, and then be able to move forward. It slowed us down a lot. And even when we found levels that felt really good. We could keep pointing at them and say, “We want a level like this”, and then we would sit down, we would prototype with with pencil and paper and Lego blocks, and try and work out another puzzle that would work with the story that was happening in that area, along with our light puzzle, and then try and get some time manipulation messes in there. And that was like pulling teeth every time. I don't think it got easier. And I think we're all really proud of what we were able to achieve essentially.
JAMES PARKINSON: With the story and the puzzles so intertwined, the team sometimes had to shift their focus.
JOSH BRADBURY: What we actually had to do was separate the puzzles from the story, just for our own sanity, to an extent. There was, kind of, two parts to our puzzle creation. One was the light transport puzzle, which was kind of the core loop where we have this lantern that the kids hold, and they try and get to the top of the area. And if they get to the top of the area with light in the lantern, then they've completed that island. And so we kind of used that and we added little interact-able objects that you could use, to be able to manipulate that light throughout the world, and the light was kind designed as a little focal point to allow us to draw the players attention to different aspects of the environment.
JAMES PARKINSON: The puzzle element began to take shape around the idea of the sphere of light and how Arena and Frendt would transport it to the beacon. The team came up with the concept of magic flowers that would give light and take it away, which were triggered by wind chimes scattered around the island. If you haven’t played the game, this may be difficult to visualise. But like any puzzle game, teaching these mechanics to the player is also a challenge.
BROOKE MAGGS: Just from a purely gameplay, mechanical perspective, we need to ease the player into the mechanics that they have, so you can move backwards in time, as well as forwards. You might need to move backwards in order to progress, which is something we need to introduce very early in the game. And then, you can move forward and backwards and influence objects in the gardens.
BROOKE MAGGS: The challenge they had technically as well, is how do you show the player that they are moving time? We don't have any UI on the screen, not very much. And that's really specific, because we wanted to keep it really clean and immersive. So how do you show the player that they are moving time? And the answer is, you have a lot of objects that fall or need to be reassembled, or also, there's a lot of leaves or debris that falls downwards when you move time forward, and obviously goes back up when you move backwards in time. So players go, “Oh right, I'm, I'm moving time now. And when I move time forward, the dinosaur bones assemble. And when I move time back, they disassemble. And that's probably one of the biggest challenges of this game, which was finding those things that you could make a cool puzzle out of, and that also told a story.
JOSH BRADBURY: We had to really kind of design a lot of the early levels, they had to remember what happened before and, you know, pay attention as they progress through like, pay attention to the screen and pay attention to specific objects, in particular, the little light and the flowers that give and take the light away. We really wanted to make sure that that was solid in their mind, and we wanted to nail that. What we wanted to instil was not just teaching the people how to play the game, but how to take in the game. Because if you ran through the game, and you were dead set on solving the puzzles, I think you can get it done in 25 minutes. But we really wanted to kind of foster that sense of discovery and reflection.
JAMES PARKINSON: Because you control time, it allows you to experience the game at your own pace, but also rewards you for doing so, revealing little hints along the way. For example, as you move along the timeline, one of the characters might point out an object you can interact with that will help you to solve the puzzle.
BROOKE MAGGS: The main mechanic relies on you being observant, and remembering the sequence of events, and the things you need to do. So we're asking the player to observe. And that's great for a game that's about memories and friendship. And you're investing in that friendship and almost storying to yourself what this level is about, and what are these objects from the real world, from their friendship mean, in the context of their lives. And then at the end, you're rewarded with a small vignette of Arena and Frendt, like a little moment from their friendship. And you can put together all of these objects you've been looking at in the gardens, in that vignette. And you just get, after a while, these vignettes that you can line up that tell a story. And of course, that’s really important for the end of the story.
JAMES PARKINSON: The puzzles also serve as a metaphor for the building of the friendship, which are beautifully expressed through the various levels, like the one where Arena and Frendt are constructing the tree house.
BROOKE MAGGS: Where you move, I think it’s Arena, forward and backward in time to jump on a saw that actually saws a piece of wood in half, that then becomes a bridge that she can walk across. So you, as a player have to move forward and backward in time for this to happen. You're also participating in the building of a cubby house that they built together. And it's just such a nice moment, and it's also a puzzle moment, as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: Brooke Maggs thought a lot about character development and how the two friends would be depicted in the game, leading Josh to express this through his animations.
BROOKE MAGGS: I chatted to Josh too, our animator about how our main characters Arena in front might move and how we could portray their characters. And I remember Henrik saying, “Well, if Arena is this bold, brash kind of personality, it would make sense for her to always be at the front when they're moving”. So she would sort of always march ahead and then Frendt being more curious, and paying more attention to the world, would linger and look at things, and Arena would sort of turn and tell him to hurry up. And they're the kind of things that we could use to communicate the character's story.
BROOKE MAGGS: We also knew that Frendt would probably be sort of a bit shy, but friendly enough to say hello to her first. And that being a very bold, brush character, that once she was comfortable with him, she would take him on adventures. And she'd be like, “yes, we're going to do this and explore that”. And their backstory came out over time, as ideas for these different events that we could put in the gardens.
JAMES PARKINSON: One of the big achievements of the game is how well it was adapted from console and PC to the touch-based interface of a phone. But because the mechanics were so simple and constrained, it made that transition seamless. The Gardens Between was a Winner of an Apple Design Award in 2019.
JOSH BRADBURY: They really showed themselves when we finished the game. And we kind of sat down and then we ported it to phone, internally, and most of it just worked. And we were just, we were so chuffed, because all of that pain of holding ourselves to that really restricted design space, was able to kind of give us that flexibility. And we've been able to get the game on almost any console you can think of, I think, which has been really beneficial. The biggest worry we had for phones in particular was that it's a game about taking in the environment. And a lot of people play with their phones in portrait mode, which severely reduced our ability to kind of show the important aspects of each area in this continuous camera movement, with character movement, kind of dance that we would have to craft each level. So that was a challenge. That was the biggest challenge, porting to a different kind of frame size. And there are some aspects of the game that may be a little too small on mobile. If we had designed it for mobile first, we probably wouldn't have done some things or had some things so small. But we designed it for computer and console and Switch first up, and kind of were able to manipulate the camera in a way that alleviated a lot of those issues.
JAMES PARKINSON: The story of The Gardens Between came about through adults reminiscing about their own childhood friendships. That brings a certain perspective in how we understand and process those relationships in our past, with the maturity of adulthood. But The Voxel Agents wanted the game to be relatable for people of all ages, including kids who may be currently experiencing the kind of friendship depicted in the game.
JOSH BRADBURY: I think one of the most exciting things for me was bringing that nostalgic reminiscence of those feelings. And it was really interesting to think about nostalgia and from our perspective, as I think we're really, you know, all mid 20s, just trying to understand our childhoods and analyse that and trying to kind of capture that feeling of reminiscing over those memories and being like, “Oh, it was like this”. And then maybe you're talking with your old friend like, “No, it was actually like that”. And so that memory world is shifted, and that's kind of represented in how we started thinking about the game. That was definitely where we were coming at it from, but we didn't want the game's audience to be only us. But the importance that we placed on no dialogue, or no kind of strong exposition. We tried to capture just an essence of play, in a very abstract way. We wanted to leave things open to whoever was playing the game to be able to bring their own experiences to the kind of canvas that we've set in front of them. And I think that has been successful with a vast array of demographics.
BROOKE MAGGS: And we were also thinking this would be really great for friends to play together, or it would be really great for an adult to play with their child. We were at PAX, which is a game conference, and we had a booth to show The Gardens Between, and we had a couple of demos on the floor, and we were walking between them. And I was paying attention to - we all were paying attention to who this game attracted, and who stopped to play. And we were really thrilled that many people of all ages stopped to play. And one of my favourite moments was when this little girl came over. She was very shy, but she just saw, “oh, you know, these characters - I imagined she saw these characters are kids. And then she saw an iPad. And she was like, “Yeah, I can do this”. And I came over and showed her a little bit of how to play, but she was picking it up pretty well. And we were paying attention to that, because we wanted it to be intuitive for younger players as well. And then she was a bit shy, and she sort of smiled and left. And then she came back, but she brought her older sister with her. And she was like, “Here, let me show you how to play this. Now, let's pretend that I'm the girl and you can be the boy”. And she just started to story, and tell her older sister who these characters were. And I thought that was really great, because she'd she'd looked at the character design, she'd looked at the world. And she decided she knew who these people were. I thought that was awesome.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gardens Between has resonated strongly with a wide player base, which is a credit to how well the story was crafted and integrated with smart, simple gameplay.
BROOKE MAGGS: One of the things I learned about The Gardens Between was that story doesn't have to be complicated to be effective, and to be personal and emotional. Nor do we have to explain everything in a game. And I think early on, we were really concerned about, first of all, the players’ apparent disconnect with the characters, you aren't moving the characters, you're moving time. And we were concerned that that would alienate the player from the characters. And we thought, “do we have to explain to the player who they are? Do we have to tell them - do we have to give them a role?”. And we played around with the idea of making them a God of time, and then, you know, actually placing them in the game. But then we realised there are a lot of games that don't really explain to you who you are, and that wasn't necessary. Because at the end of the day, it was enough that you were controlling time, and you were helping these characters move forward, and you're unfolding the story for yourself. And that the metaphor is you're reflecting on a time past.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much Josh Bradbury and Brooke Maggs, and special thanks to Simon Joslin at The Voxel Agents. If you haven’t played The Gardens Between, I highly recommend you pick it up. You can learn more at thegardensbetween.com
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
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