Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Organic Feel of 'Botanicula'

This week at PopMatters, I praise Botanicula's organic feel.

I picked this game up a while ago from one of the many indie bundle sales that seem to be popping up everywhere. Playing it around E3 time turned out to be a great way to experience the game, as it is quite different from the many brown, cover-based, swear-tastic, military shooters being pushed this season. The game's truly fantastical setting was a welcome palette cleanser after so much military fantasy.

However, even though Botanicula, I still feel like it is one of the most "authentic" games I've played in a while. It's difficult to explain (and I go into greater detail in my column), but everything about the game feels fitting. It's full of creatures and environments that could never exist in our world, but everything seems perfectly logical in the context in which it is presented. It's kind of like seeing a Tim Burton movie or reading a Dr. Seuss book; there is an internal logic that makes all the weirdness feel natural. Throw in the downright lush sound effects and musical score, and you get a game that feels organic.

Botanicula is Amanita Design's best game yet, which is impressive considering the high bar they set with Machinarium. This small team continues to push the boundaries of the point and click adventure game. With Botanicula, they ditch the inventory and item combination dynamic in favor of prioritizing interaction with the environment. You can click on pretty much everything in Botanicula and expect that something will happen. Sometimes, this reveals the solution to a puzzle. Other times, it simply introduces you to one of the game's many charming characters or one-off animation sequences. Even though the game has only one main storyline, the multitude of small offshoots make playing the game akin to exploring the many small details of a landscape painting. Some elements of the game are simply there to exist as charming bits of interactivity instead of predetermined pieces of a game system. It's a bold choice that makes the world feel less contrived (and more natural) than most other games.

Finally, as was the case in Machinarium, Botanicula folds some reflex-based challenges into the traditional point-and-click structure. It's nothing too extreme, but having to manually flex certain branches or actively navigate a dangerous cave offers a physical connection to the game's environment. It's subtle, but knowing that I'll have to do more than click on things dramatically expands the potential for exploration and puzzle solving. It also illustrates one of the ways the traditional adventure game structure can be blended with other genres.

There's plenty more I could say about Botanicula, but I'll end by simply recommending that you play it. In a world full of games trying to approximate the real world, Botanicula shows that you don't have to create a photorealistic world in order to make a game that feels truly alive.

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