Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Blueberry Gardening

Winner of the 'Best Independent Game' at this year's Independent Game Festival, Blueberry Garden wears the 'indie' moniker like a cow wears spots. This delightful creation was bestowed on us by Swedish developer Erik Svedäng, who's name and look are the icing on the indie-cred cake. The game's success even earned it a place in the Indie Gaming Bingo pantheon (albeit without a win), seizing the Indie Trendy, Gentle Piano Music, Abstract Graphics, and "Experimental" categories. The creator of Indie Gaming Bingo said writing about Blueberry Garden "is like trying to write a soliloquy about a rock."

Blueberry Garden is a very successful rock. Yet the discussion of the game has been relatively subdued. Perhaps this is because the game is relatively short, taking players about an hour to complete. Perhaps this is because Blueberry Garden does not seize the player with a dramatic narrative about fruits, depression, and horticulturists. Or perhaps, as some fear, we have become bored of independent games with a budget incapable of sustaining fascination for more than a few minutes at a time. Though all of these are partly correct, I attribute the lack of game/agricultural discussion to the fact Blueberry Garden succeeds in so many small and simple ways that there is little to do but garnish it with equally simple praise. This is my soliloquy about a rock.

Blueberry Garden, like so many indie games before it, values exploration above all else. The explorer itself, who looks disturbingly like a plague doctor, jumps and flies around a modest world of light tones and pastel colors inhabited by strange animals and magical fruit. The music, cued when flying, is composed of calming piano melodies and contributes to the day dream atmosphere exquisitely.
Svedäng encourages players to play through the game twice before beating it, which likely happens regardless of his suggestion. Despite the serene exploratory environment, this is a task to accomplish. It was my favorite moment when, after examining the effects of fruits and flying about carefree, I realized the world was flooding. Quickly, lessons were tested as I tried to stack blocks of cheese and various household objects high enough to turn off the murderous faucet. Alas, my miniature plague doctor drowned.

This experience occurred because there are no instructions, no labels telling the player what fruits do what, how to approach the task ahead, etc. This design choice should normally infuriate the player, and for some it did. The strange shapes and colors, the blue moose wearing sunglasses and the constantly hungry squares with party hats mystify the entire experience. For a moment, I even believed death was merely an aspect of the game. Perhaps, I thought, the game is testing how high I can go before I drown.
Blueberry Garden is a world barely defined. The rules and mechanics are not clear, nor is it easy to partake in exploration. The camera follows the beaked doctor closely, forcing players to map the single continuous world in their imagination, swooping down only occasionally to confirm a location. Likewise, the puzzles are not segmented or richly explored. They seem to exist haphazardly around the level, as if they were truly created by the environment, not the insidious hand of the developer. The brilliance of the oncoming flood and a veiled environment, is that exploration is first taken out of necessity, then out of curiosity, making the latter all the more satisfying.
Prior to playing Blueberry Garden, if someone were to suggest to me a strange game with these characteristics, I would be skeptical at best. Perhaps what makes the game so interesting is also why it does not fuel passionate discussion. Blueberry Garden normalizes obscurity and rewards exploration of an almost non-sensical environment. Svedäng even rewards those who complete the game with silly sketches and concept art seemingly out of a high-school notebook. Svedäng has created a game that is pleasing with non-traditional (or soon-to-be-traditional) elements that should intuitively annoy players. Our lessons have been learned: great games can be made with even the most counter-intuitive design choices. Perhaps Blueberry Garden heralds an age of innovation internalized. That is quite an accomplishment for a rock.

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