The time-shifting puzzles were inspired by the 2002 science fiction film Minority Report. Back in 2011, The Voxel Agents were thinking about a game centered around memories that you could subtly change. "We made 30 different prototypes with really varying ideas," Matthew Clark, the director and programmer of The Gardens Between said. The studio was only two years old, though, and wasn't ready to take on a project that was so ambitious. "The scale was huge, it was content heavy and just very expensive to make," Simon Joslin, the game's eventual level designer and executive producer said. "We didn't have the funds, so we set it aside."
"It's important to cherish and appreciate those special times."
The team worked on a smartphone game called Puzzle Retreat before returning to its time-bending prototypes in 2014. Much of the four-year development cycle was dedicated to the puzzles, which were extremely complex to design. Many started on paper as two simple timelines for Arina and Frendt. Though you push the characters forward simultaneously, they often diverge and encounter different objects. These points of interaction create forks, or divergences, that impact everything else in the level. The team had to map all of these out, as well as every possible permutation if players accidentally triggered them out of order.
Testing and subsequently tweaking the island puzzles had massive ramifications. "Moving a single object before or after another object can change every single possible permutation for what the player can do in that world," Joslin explained. "[The game] was such a nightmare to design."
The puzzles needed to be thematic, too. Every garden is part of a cluster that, once completed, unlocks a complete memory shared by the two girls. The aforementioned computer puzzle, for example, is succeeded by a level about a giant set of dinosaur bones. Finish both and you'll see a vignette of a museum exhibit that contains both relics. All of the gardens, then, had to fit both the game's linear story and slowly escalating difficulty curve.
The head-scratching puzzles and breadcrumb storytelling work in tandem. If you're stuck on a particular puzzle, your thumb will naturally leave the analog stick, causing time to freeze. I did this all the time both to contemplate a puzzle and admire the gorgeous art by illustrator Jonathan Swanson. On a subconscious level, I was also scrutinizing every detail that would eventually form the plot-critical vignettes. It meant the complete memories felt more vivid, and fully realized, than a traditional cutscene. You're only getting glimpses of Arina and Frendt's friendship -- but like our own fuzzy memories, it's enough to feel a nostalgic longing for the past.
"I barely have time for friends now," Clark said. "And it's kind of a shame. But it's also important to cherish and appreciate those special times."
I won't spoil the ending (you really need to play it for yourself). If you're interested, the game is out now for $19.99 on PS4, PC and Nintendo Switch.