Yeah, man. That sure sounds relaxing. So why is it that Artech's new downloadable game The UnderGarden leaves me feeling listless, bored and vaguely irritated?
According to the game's marketing materials, The UnderGarden is a "Zen Game." That sounds very nice. But wait, what does that even mean? Is this game meant to be relaxing? Meditative? Is it simply that it's easy? Or perhaps it will help me to achieve some sort of enlightenment?
I can't say I'm clear on the answer and neither, it would seem, are The UnderGarden's creators. The game certainly bears all the hallmarks of a relaxing experience -- as I played, my screen was regularly awash with soft blues and bright floral hues, a glowing tableaux of blossoming sea anemones speckling the walls of a coral reef. The soundtrack is a peaceful mix of inoffensive synth woodwinds and pentatonic scales layered over a soft tribal beat. The main character is a near-perfect blend of Gizmo the Mogwai, Sackboy and Tinky Winky the Teletubby.
The UnderGarden tries many of the same tricks but with a gauzy new-age musical backdrop, over which it superimposes a muddy, overly-busy mix of synths and chords.
But it all feels so calculated and uninspired. The past couple of years have seen several great text-free experiential games like 2009's Flower and this year's Limbo. Despite (or indeed, perhaps because of) a complete lack of exposition, both of those games managed to convey unique, memorable experiences. By comparison, The UnderGarden feels like a well-intentioned imitator, a me-too game that doesn't quite understand how to capture the magic of those it so desperately wants to be.
Where Flower felt tightly focused and almost revelatory in the way it told a wordless story of loss, creation and life, The UnderGarden appears content to wander. Players simply float around the game's levels, solve some simple physics-based puzzles, grow some plants and ... that's it. And where Limbo used symbolism and Jungian archetypes to tell an abstractly forbidding story about death and childhood, The UnderGarden merely displays an odd fixation on reproduction, populating its levels with glowing eggs, sperm, zygotes and fallopian tubes.
Zen Buddhism originated with what is known as the "Flower Sermon," during which the Buddha gathered his disciples and, without speaking, held up a flower. He then sat silently, waiting for them to see that direct experience is a path to enlightenment (and one of them did). And yet early in The UnderGarden, one of the the self-proclaimed Zen Game's loading screens requested that I ask myself: "Where is this place? Why is this place?"
Unlike the Buddha, who waited for his students to grasp his lesson on their own, The UnderGarden felt the need to prompt me. That's not very Zen, dude.
This review is based on the XBLA version of The UnderGargen provided by Atari.
Kirk Hamilton is a musician and freelance writer based out of San Francisco. He runs the gaming blog Gamer Melodico and writes about games, music and culture for a variety of publications. He can be found online at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter.