Cloud Gardens is a game by any definition. If you’re someone who thinks that “games” describes something that’s inherently and centrally about challenge, progression, and victory states – then we are never going to agree on this, first of all. But the thing is, Cloud Gardens has got all those. They’re pretty conspicuous, even. They’re tools that it uses. What it doesn’t do is design around them as the point of games.
The thing you do in Cloud Gardens is to place objects inside little urban-wasteland scenes. You can place seeds, which attach themselves to the scenery, or bits of scrap – from tiny beer-bottles to road signs to entire cars or rooms. Some of the scrap bits also glue on, and some have gravity and collision physics and will drop into place, topple and roll around if not placed in a stable spot – and a lot of the levels are pretty vertical. Every piece of scrap has a radius of effect when placed, and plants within that radius grow a bit. Scrap bits destroy any sections of plant they directly touch when first placed, but after that plants can grow over or be planted directly onto them. When plants grow enough, they produce flowers and fruit which you can harvest for new seeds. To finish a level, or advance it to the next stage, you need a certain amount of plant cover.
This has the shape of a puzzle: you have limited resources (space, scrap, initial seeds) and have to make efficient use of them. You can make mistakes – trying to prop one car up on top of another, only to have it topple over and crush lots of plants. There are lots of games that play around with this kind of optimal-placement puzzle; the question of ‘I want each piece of scrap to affect as many plants as possible, but also I don’t want to put down too many plants and not leave room for future scrap’ is very familiar. The authors could have designed this as a tight little optimisation puzzle game.
But they very much didn’t. Every level of the game, despite being a confined space with finite resources, is really easy to overcome. The level-complete notification is pretty subtle – you can keep playing after it’s done – and often I didn’t notice I’d won until some time after. Most of the time you have way, way more than you needed by the end. Cloud Gardens isn’t a game about careful optimisation with scarce resources. You’re given way more scrap than you need to solve the level, which converts into way more seeds, which you multiply with yet more scrap. By the level’s end you usually have a space teeming with flowers and fruit that you never had to pick – there’s no score, no bonus for it, so you may as well go with whatever’s prettiest. This is a game about abundance.
Cloud Gardens feels like… when I was foraging wildfoods in bush Alaska, one of the fruits of late fall is the highbush cranberry. Highbush grows over a lot of the Pacific Northwest; it’s a straggly in-between plant, a very spindly sapling or a very sparse bush. There’s a lot of variation by local climate; the more rain, the more abundant and sweeter the fruit. (It’s always a bit too tart to eat in handfuls off the tree, but it’s the difference between pleasantly sharp and mouth-shriveling, drown-in-sugar-before-touching sharp). And in Yakutat it rains. I’d go out to gather and feel overwhelmed with the glut: every bush was heaving with more plump red berries than seemed plausible. I could pick more than needed with minimal effort; and there’s a special feeling there, the particular joy of this is so much, of ‘will this be enough’ being a distant speck in the rear-view mirror.
There are rewards for progression, paced in a game-like manner: you start out with very few kinds of plant, quickly unlock a few more, and then gradually get others. Different plants have different strengths – the wisteria grows kinda small but has hanging flower vines that reach into open space, the ferns cover up surfaces indiscriminately but take a long time to produce, the broadleaf tree is big and slow-growing and offers lots of fruit. But these powers overlap a fair bit, such that there’s rarely an obviously correct plant for a particular spot, and that lets you treat this as an aesthetic choice. I often found myself wanting to exclude or emphasize particular plants to get a distinct feel for a level: putting down a cactus changes the whole mood. Which is a big part of how actual gardening works.
But only one part! A lot of gardening games look at gardening and decide that it’s mainly about diligence and patience: be sure to water all the things regularly, harvest at the right time, and so on. Do the small tasks of regular maintenance, over and over, dedicate time to them, and things will grow. That’s a critical quality for a real-world gardener; to be a good gardener you don’t just have to love green things and fresh produce, you have to love low-key grind. My mother’s like that; she really enjoys taking a chunk of her day to water and tend and monitor everything. It’s not a chore for her, it’s how she chills out; and she has a very lovely garden as a result. I love green things, but I don’t get much out of this part and do not stick well with it; and this, for a gardener, is an absolutely fatal flaw. But there are lots of other aspects of gardening, and a gardening game doesn’t have to focus on all of them.
(I have yet to see a gardening game that’s mostly about considering sunlight, soil type and drainage, which to real-life gardens are as the law and the prophets. And I can’t picture what such a game would look like, beyond an opaque spreadsheet sim*.)
Cloud Gardens is concerned with the design part of gardening, the curation and arrangement, putting plants down in a particular way, thinking about how they’ll grow into the space – and then you just get to see that happen and be around the resulting green space, without any grind required. So as genre goes this is most obviously a Chill Game, right. (It’s got ambient music which you will absolutely not remember, but if you try to play it without the music it’ll feel like a strange lifeless experience.) But it’s a Chill Game which – okay, so often the question of player action seems like you have limited options. Either player activity is about Challenge, or it’s about perpetual grind, or it doesn’t really matter and it’s just click-to-continue, or it’s a directionless Creative Mode. And Cloud Gardens – is sort of a lichen, all and none and more than the sum of its parts, carving out its own odd little niche.
Aesthetics are a big deal here. It’s a game of little voxels; the author worked on Kingdom, which was similarly a pixel-art game heavily reliant on atmosphere and visual mood. The overall effect, though, is not a million miles from the original Myst. Calm artefact-worlds, small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, constructed in oddly-enjambed ways and then abandoned.
Part of that means that you are also, at times, doing some light architecture: sticking arches onto pillars, concrete slabs onto other concrete slabs, stacking boxy rooms into little towers. Taken purely on its technical qualities, this is kind of a weak element; the bits snap onto one another okay, but rotation can be a bit awkward, and the camera often doesn’t cooperate as nicely as it could, and – but this doesn’t matter too much, really. For one thing, there’s the Brutalist principle that you can make a really ungainly building made of weird bad shapes, and as long as you integrate a lot of plants into it, it’ll look great. Then – well, these are ruins, and unearthly ruins floating in a sea of mists at that, so it’s not jarring if your arrangement doesn’t entirely make sense.
A lot of gardening games are about taking untouched or neglected land and Improving it – which, in general, means clearance and irrigation, erasing everything distinctive about the land in order to make it suitable to plant anything you want. Here, you’re working in very anthropic environments; there’s no wilderness here, everything is a fragment of bridge or train-station. And you’re not converting city back to wilderness, not entirely; you keep throwing more garbage in there, rubber ducks and road-signs and rusted-out cars and broken cathode-ray TVs. And you’re doing so in ways that are useless to people; stairways get blocked because you need a place to pop down that table or that vending-machine, you jam down bench-seats across train-tracks because that’s where it’ll boost the most plants; the space has more and more man-made shit in it while getting less and less useful and comprehensible for human use. This, too, is abundance, but not in any economic sense. You’re not harvesting fruit for consumption or for money, just for more seeds, for the land itself. The only animals are the crows. Perhaps you’re making this world for them.
(* I honestly think Tropico‘s the closest here, which considers elevation, rainfall and (I think) something like fertility or soil richness for the productivity of farms? And I am told that Sakuna: Rice and Ruin has similarly fiddly systems for rice terroir.)