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.