Wot I Think: The UnderGarden

By John Walker on November 15th, 2010 at 12:24 pm.

AWWWWWWW! Cuddles for everyone.

The UnderGarden was recently released by Atari for download. Promising a zen-like experience, does it induce calm and joy, or demand determined meditation? I’ve finished it all up, and am absolutely determined to tell you Wot I Think.

Let’s get this out the way, so we can focus on the lovely: Clearly there hasn’t been a more euphemistic-sounding game title since Stick A Sausage In A Bagel 3. But forget all that. There is in fact a far more appropriate thing to muddle it with is CBeebies bedtime favourite, In The Night Garden. It’s a gentle, beautiful, floating puzzle game, existing somewhere in the midpoint between Ecco The Dolphin and Okami, filled with creatures that look as though they’d market extremely well to the under-5s.

It’s also a game that exists in the midpoint between ambient casual “experience” and challenging puzzle game, which is where this gorgeous, breath-taking, sedate experience ever-so-slightly falls.

You play as a strange little bear-pixie creature, who flies around underground caverns and passages, spreading pollen onto stubs of vegetation to let them burst into vibrant, colourful life. To do this you use the minimal controls: a button to swim faster, one to enter the level entrance/exit portals, and one to create a orb around you that forms string-like bonds to moveable objects – fruits from grown plants that weigh things down, or float, or explode. These objects are then used to solve puzzles which allow progression, to spread more pollen.

And spreading pollen really is it. In fact, even that’s not at all necessary – really the only meaningful purpose in the game is to reach the other end of the level, and thus unlock the next. Everything you do along the way is your choice, motivated by seeing tasks ticked off each level’s score sheet.

What you can do is attempt to flourish 100% of a level’s flora, discover all the hidden gem-like flowers scattered about each level, find the trickily-hidden gemstone, and do something with the tiny musician creatures that live in these caves.

These musicians are my favourite and least favourite things about the game. They’re so unbelievably adorable, each performing a tune on their instrument of choice, that when put near others will match up and elaborate the score. This also fits in with the gentle ambient background music, altogether creating something pretty wonderful. They can be picked up like fruits, gathered as you play. And I think that’s something you’re meant to do. But I’ve finished the game, and I still don’t know for sure.

On completing a level there’s the score card that informs you of what you’ve missed. Next to the gem-shaped space is a musical note, and I spent most of the game trying to fathom why I was sometimes achieving it, and sometimes not. For a long time I thought it was when you used the level’s exit portal while carrying all the musicians. But if this were the case, there’s no internal consistency. Some levels are split into two, with a portal in the middle through which you cannot bring musician creatures. So I’m supposed to only care about the ones in the latter half? So why do those first halves have ways of opening up short-cuts to early sections if not to bring them with you? And how come when I’m sure I’ve done it in the second half it doesn’t give me the achievement? Or maybe I’m just supposed to group them together? But surely if that were the case it should make a sound, give an indication that I’ve achieved something at that point?

This is the flaw in The UnderGarden. For its remarkable loveliness, it’s woefully unclear. There’s an argument to be made that learning how to play the game through exploration and trial and error is a great feature – I’m completely okay with that. But when that’s the case, it has to be clearly fed back when you’ve discovered something.

But that doesn’t stop it being compelling to play. It’s such an unendingly pleasurable experience to cause the plants and flowers to blossom as you swoop past their buds. Small caves explode with colour and sound, like you’re painting the world with a magical wand. It’s here that the game, almost literally, sings. If anything, the white orbs that will rob you of all your pollen, or the strange ghostie blobs that impede your progress, just get in the way of the delight that comes with just flying around.

Carry up a musician animal-thing and the plants will swell and swirl, cycling through colours, and it’s breathtaking. Every movement, every change, is accompanied by music, the orchestration reacting to your actions, underlining the impact you’re having. It’s feedback on a scale so rarely achieved.

On too many occasions you will find yourself being bumped around by annoying features, confused by what it is you’re supposed to be doing, or frustrated that the scenery seems to be against you. Sure, these are the framework for the puzzles, and often they can be very rewarding – physics puzzles based on manipulating the environment around you – but they’re still getting in the way of the magical painting. Like the game’s loading tips occasionally offers, “Sometimes it’s just fun to float around.” And that’s true, so why make that awkward?

The game has specific mouse/keyboard controls for the PC, letting you direct your character with a cursor. But I found sticking in a 360 pad, and using the direct controls of the thumbstick, to be a far more satisfying way to play. Although there were some strange bugs where some controls would seize up, and quite a few occasions where dragging things through small gaps led to the frustration of getting stuck.

But I still want to drag people to see it. “Come see this! Watch!” And I still want to insist that you try it, because it’s so beautiful. My game-hating girlfriend genuinely had her mind changed about what games can be by briefly watching me play. I keep wanting to play it for a couple more hours. I’ve replayed levels I’ve completed twice before not just because I want to find the gem I may have missed, but because I want to play it some more. And then there was the extraordinary moment when I thought I was finished, very satisfied with the experience and happy to recommend it, when I noticed the portal at the centre of the hub screen and realised I was only halfway through. That’s a special treat.

At the tiny price of £6.99, a game that lasts longer than most AAA releases, and consistently provides this adorable, magical beauty, it would be crazy not to try it.

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33 Comments »

  1. Urael says:

    Oh why the heck not. Today isn’t a particularly macho day for me anyway. More delightfully ambient time-wasters, please, gaming world. :)

  2. nullpointer says:

    I totally agree with the delightful ambience in this game and I can see how hypnotic it can be to drift through. However, I found the controls really frustrating. Perhaps playing with a gamepad would work better, but with a mouse it felt like i was dragging my pointer through an invisible and willful treacle. It doesn’t help that the main character looks pretty dopey anyway, and bashing him into the walls while i was dragging him along like a stubborn child seriously got in the way of my immersion..

    • Chris says:

      I agree, movement felt a little bit too much like hard work. Especially when the lil dude decides to walk at about a quarter of the speed you go when you’re floating.

      I get the whole zen like thing, but I still feel this game could do with a little bit more consequence of my actions.

  3. Shadowcat says:

    Does the UnderGarden sing of unencumbered gameplay, or do its white orbs of DRM rob you of all your, um, pollen of freedom?

  4. MarkSide says:

    Half-way through: As far as I can tell you MUST pick up each of the musicians in the level at least once, and I’m pretty sure all the musicians from a given area (on one side of a portal) have to end up on the same screen (or near enough that you can hear them all playing together). They are cute!

  5. Kirrus says:

    The screenshots remind me of Trine, slightly. Can it be equated with that game at all?

  6. AndrewC says:

    We have enough trouble working out what musicians are for in the real world.

  7. Gpig says:

    They’re cute and you want to bring them on to the next level with you but you’re not sure you’re supposed to and ultimately you can’t because musicians are unable to progress to the next level.

  8. Shazbut says:

    Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasises experential insights alone, cultivated through various forms of meditation practice, be they koans, breath meditation, Shikantaza (“just sitting”) or others. It is iconoclastic, not religious and not philosophical. There is no teaching, just the constantly maturing non-attachment to all phenomena that happens in practice in order to realise, for yourself, the source of the mind/body complex and to rediscover your original mind – Nirvana – the mind that doesn’t split the world.

    I’m going to guess that this game doesn’t have much to do with that. I’ll still try it though.

    • stahlwerk says:

      It’s a very loaded concept, and it’s funny that it has become so pervasive in marketing as an adjective (“that’s very Zen”). But maybe that’s one of the very Zen things about Zen.

      “Zen-like” in VGs has more or less become a description for activities where the outcome is not connected to your actions, and one possible outcome is not preferred over another. Which goes a bit against most definition of games, in my opinion, but hey. I myself am more of a “protestant” gamer, I want to be directly and proportionally rewarded for my actions.

      Although I wonder if anyone will ever call a frustrating 80s-style “one-life and a highscore that’s all” shmup “catholic”. ;-)

  9. The Hammer says:

    Man, I’m tempted to get this, although I do worry my recent gaming has been dominated by extremely pretty 2D games!

    Maybe an after-Christmas buy…

  10. Bhazor says:

    Hey a review of UnderGarden without mentioning Aquaria. That might be a first.

    Though it totally is Aquaria but less butch. Yes this game is less butch than a game about mermaid princesses.

    PS I utterly love Aquaria. Still one of my all time favourite indies.

    • JNZ_NBG says:

      Well you just said everything I wanted to say so no need to go on about that…

      Also I accidentaly forgot to fill out name and site warned me that i am posting too quickly,but I didn’t post anything….

      I feel so depraved…

      And eaten by Spamotron…

      Mental note:
      Must register…

    • JNZ says:

      Well you just said everything I wanted to say so no need to go on about that…

      Also I accidentaly forgot to fill out name and site warned me that i am posting too quickly,but I didn’t post anything….

      I feel so depraved…

      And eaten by Spamotron…

      And changed IP and email

      Why am I even bothering, there is nothing usefull in this coment.

      Mental note:
      Must register…

  11. TheTourist314 says:

    I have finals this week, but I welcome any distraction that allows me not to think about tests even for just a little bit.

  12. Dys says:

    So, I really don’t want to labour the point, and I know it’s obvious and probably puerile, but….

    …a game in which the central theme is the spraying of your seed all over everything…

    …and they called it ‘The Undergarden’?

    That is seriously not coincidental.
    Though it may be Freudian.

  13. Thiefsie says:

    Looks like a kind of 2D version of flower… which was interesting for a while until it got boring. This seems more clever and a little less of a once trick pony. Might give it a shot…

  14. JNZ_NBG says:

    This sounds like pretty 3D copy of Aquaria

    Also I accidentaly forgot to fill out name and site warned me that i am posting too quickly,but I didn’t post anything….

    I feel so depraved…

    And eaten by shark…

  15. TheRog says:

    Ugh. I tried the demo of this yesterday. I did not enjoy it at all. I really liked the idea of it, but when it came to actually playing the thing it just didn’t deliver. I found the controls clumsy and the little gremlin slows down way too much when picking up certain fruits. I don’t know if the puzzles get any harder, but the ones in the trial are so insufferably easy that I wasn’t even sure they were puzzles. It’s like placing the red key on a table just to the left of the red door. It was so simplistic that I was left waiting for the actual puzzle to appear.

    • Thermal Ions says:

      Haven’t yet tried it myself but my wife tried the demo and found the time limit on it expired before she’d gotten a handle on how to play it properly and be even remotely convinced it was worth purchasing. She’s more a PvZ type of casual gamer though so I may have a different experience.

  16. Matt says:

    Every time I see this game’s name I just think of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5B52nGHzww

  17. tomhet says:

    I’ve just got this game on Steam, but it crashes on loading screen :(

    And I’m not the only one apparently: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1579944

    Currently it seems that the problem is with the russian Windows installations, so if you have one of those, я бы не рекомендовал покупать игру, пока не выйдет патч.

  18. Wulf says:

    Sigh. Okami.

    Where art thou, Clover Studios? Why hast thou forsaken us?

  19. dogsolitude_uk says:

    I downloaded the demo off the Atari website, got dumped out of the demo without any warning after 15 mins, and am now left with the code on my hard drive…

    The game’s lovely, but the way the demo worked was rather rude, resulting in HD clutter like that.

    Anyone know what DRM it has that might limit installations etc (I have two PCs and two laptops), or should I just get it on Steam?

  20. RCGT says:

    “There is in fact a far more appropriate thing to muddle it with is CBeebies bedtime favourite, In The Night Garden.”

    Eh… wot?

  21. MadMatty says:

    hmmm Just trying to finish Aquaria right now actually- it is beyond doubt the most beutyfull 2D game i have ever seen or playe- and jolly playable too, in its Metroid´NESs….

    think i´ll give this a try a bit further down the line…

    Could someone MOD this game, introduce a guy with 2 chainsaws and an AK-47, and just run berzerk thru the whole thing?

    Just Wondering.

  22. sporitus says:

    That is the Aquaria clone !!!
    Well, looks beauty, but if the story the same is cool as in the Aquaria ?

  23. TooNu says:

    This game is wonderfull. I’ve never said that about any game.

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