Five of the Best is a weekly series about the bits of games we overlook. I’m talking about potions, hubs, bags, mountains, anything really – but things we ignore at the time. Then, years later, we find they’re cemented in our memory, inseparable from our experience of the game. Turns out they were important after all. So now we’re celebrating them.
Five of the Best works like this. Various Eurogamer writers will share their memories in the article and then you – probably outraged we didn’t include the thing you’re thinking of – can share the thing you’re thinking of in the comments below. We’ve had some great discussions in our other Five of the Best pieces. Some of you have memories like elephants!
Today’s Five of the Best is…
Gardens! Lovely leafy gardens with bees and butterflies in. Peaceful places where birds chirp and your next door neighbour’s cat poos. There’s a serenity to gardens, and curiously enough, it seems to carry over into games. I wonder if it’s because games evoke the feeling of being in a garden, or if there’s something about what we see in gardens which brings the feeling of calm. Curious, isn’t it? I bet one of you knows.
But the real question is: which games have the best gardens? Here are five of the best.
A while back a desk plant craze landed in the office. We were all doing it, expensing purchases at the local artisan florist and muttering about growth periods and those funny spiders that can cause our leafy friends such problems. I had a beautiful rose-gold ficus, that over the course of a month or so was killed with kindness, watered and watered until I basically had a puddle of wanton ectoplasm next to my monitor.
I am better with plants now – my second desk plant is doing well in my living room while I work from home. But I learnt a lot about nurturing during that first homicide. Plants need work. They need thought and a certain kind of attentiveness, some of which is actually a form of intelligent restraint.
Mutazione gets this. Sure it’s a laid-back soap opera about a group of characters living on a neglected island. But it’s also a game in which you grow a series of gardens, learning which plants like to live alongside which other plants, which plants work in which settings, and even which songs to sing to get certain plants to grow.
It’s wonderful – a game of kindness and observation. A game of focus and restraint. I played it and poured one out for my rose gold ficus – a plant which, it turns out, I should definitely not have poured so many out for.
StreetPass Garden was one of several DLC titles built around 3DS’ delightfully quirky StreetPass feature which, for the uninitiated, encouraged players to go outside, potter about a bit, and, all being well, reap low-key rewards whenever they successfully encountered another 3DS-harbouring human on their travels.
Garden, it’s fair to say, wasn’t the most action-packed of the eventual dozen or so StreetPass games that made it to 3DS, but the latent, and later awakened, horticulturalist in me found it hard to resist its idyllic allure – all quaint rural charm, ivy clad cottages bathed in the hazy sun-dappled light of a warm spring day, even a ruggedly handsome gardener, Mr. Mendel, only too happy to lend a hand and tend to your bush.
It was, in essence, a sort of simple garden cultivation sim, where your pleasantly unhurried aim was to foster a burgeoning collection of plants, gathering seeds and nudging them to life – with success directly tied to the number of people you’d met on your recent real-life travels. These passersby would show up as Miis in-game, forming an orderly line of flower-pot-wielding weirdos, whip out their watering cans and bring your initially underwhelming seedlings to full botanical splendour.
Wonderfully, there was an unexpected, almost unnecessary, amount of detail to the whole affair, with over 80 plants to grow and a total of 300 colour combinations – all of which could be sold to order in the nearby “town”, raising funds to fancy up your own plot of land, selecting garden styles, splashing out on lovely pots, even cute ornamentation.
And that, for me, was its greatest appeal. As with a real garden, there was a certain amount of toil involved in getting things just so, but once the work was done, once you’d fulfilled your last order of the day, there was genuine satisfaction to be had, kicking back and momentarily revelling in the simple horticultural pleasures your efforts had wrought, and the calm of your own little leafy corner of the world.
Nintendo does a fine line in post-apocalyptic games, even if they’re counter to the typical fare. Splatoon presents a world without humans that’s brilliantly colourful, while Pikmin transports you to an Earth after some unnamed calamity that offers a different tone painted just as vividly.
There’s something quietly melancholy in pottering about an abandoned Earth, made all the more touching by your proximity to it all – in Pikmin, you’re stalking untended gardens that, much like my own backyard, are full of the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life: the tossed-aside cans, the discarded batteries and the downed garden tools. It’s a place after human life that feels entirely alive.
Oh, and it’s got plenty of its own life too, with all sorts of strange creatures pottering about. That’s what Pikmin gets so right about gardens, really – these are places that are so human, so familiar, and yet if you stop and stare awhile they’re places that are completely alien too. How very Nintendo to fit all that into a cutesy RTS.
Untitled Goose Game
There are three gardens in Untitled Goose Game. Two are your traditional English back gardens, while the other resembles more of an allotment. Each garden has a distinct identity that, perhaps just like in real-life, seems to be an extension of the owner’s personality. Of the back gardens, one is nice and neat, with plants, paths, patio and a pond, while the other is more free-form. A statue of a fish here, an old bath-turned-flower bed there. There’s even an easel sat near the back that reinforces the owner’s eccentric and artistic ambitions.
These individual gardens do share some similarities though. They’re all perfectly tended and they present perfect snapshots of an idyllic life in the countryside. As someone who grew up in rural Oxfordshire, they feel like gardens I could have and probably have visited at some point in my life.
The inhabitants of these gardens go about their routines in a rather zen-like way, be it relaxing with a pipe and paper, hanging up washing and painting a picture, or simply cultivating some veg. It’s all so lovely and chilled, and all in all a rather blissful existence for the owners. That is until a goose comes along and wrecks everything.
The Goose is a hurricane in feathered form, with the swaggering confidence of a drunken teenager who’s about to boot over a garden gnome. Tearing up crops, toppling statues and swiping home comforts from under the owner’s nose, this beaky bastard cares naught for the bucolic vibes of these small plots of land.
But no matter how much mischief that ghastly goose makes for them, the residents will always put things back the way they were. Then, with a little sigh of relief, they’ll settle back into their routines. As they do so, you can almost hear them saying, “This is the life.” And to be honest, when all they’ve got to worry about is a troublesome goose, it really is.
I can’t read the name Viva Pinata any more without hearing Elvis sing Viva Las Vegas. Play it in your head a couple of times – see what I mean?
What I loved about Viva Pinata was how bold the idea was. A game about gardening. Who on earth makes a tentpole Xbox 360 game about gardening? A game about gardening to attract paper animals you usually string up on trees and smash to pieces. I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking ‘wow that looks gorgeous’, but I never thought it anything more than a play for a family audience.
But when Vivaaaaaa Pinnnata came out I was surprised by how hard it actually was. It wasn’t easy attracting the right animals to your garden, then getting the right candies to coax them into a bit of rumpy pumpy, then making sure they didn’t fight with the other animals, then making sure the baddies didn’t mess your garden up. There was a brutal simulation going on underneath the pretty exterior, and it could gobble up entire weekends of time.
I remember Eurogamer’s old editor Tom Bramwell being absolutely hooked on the game. He couldn’t put it down, nor could he stop boasting about all the rare beasts he’d attract. If only real gardening worked the same way!