The Gardens Between is an unexpected lesson in theoretical physics

The Gardens Between is an unexpected lesson in theoretical physics

September 30, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan


It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

The Gardens Between is about two kids, Ariana and Frendt, exploring surreal islands that are made from objects in their shared memories. But you don’t actually control either character directly — you control the flow of time. At first this seems like a difficult thing to wrap your head around. But because of how you are able to observe the forward and backward movement of time, it all makes sense, as you’re able to understand the causality of events. However, when I think about how the characters might see these events unfolding, I end up giving myself a headache. But I can’t stop thinking about it.

Controlling time in The Gardens Between is a bit like scrubbing through a video: tilting the analog stick to the right moves time forward, tilting it left rewinds, and not using it at all stops time completely. And while you can never move time faster than normal speed, tilting the stick only slightly causes time to move slowly. You can also only control time so far as Ariana and Frendt are able to progress, because eventually as you move time forward either, or sometimes both, character will encounter something that stops them.

Their end goal on each island is to reach a large pedestal at the top, and they have to do it while Ariana is in possession of a white orb in a lantern-like thing she carries. Mainly your job is to use your perspective outside their timeline to manipulate things to help them progress, which sometimes involves prompting the characters to interact with certain objects. But for the most part, you are using that perspective to understand and affect the causality of events.

On one island you might find that Ariana can collect the white orb early on, but as she proceeds she encounters something that absorbs the orb as she passes. In order to get around this you need to scrub through the timeline for something she can put the orb onto that will avoid these absorbing objects, and allow her to collect the orb again later on.

In the game, this series of events might go something like this:

  1. Ariana and Frendt set off through the island.
  2. Ariana and Frendt walk past the orb-absorbing object.
  3. Frendt rings a bell that causes the white orb to appear.
  4. Time rewinds to when they would have approached the white orb, but hadn’t because it wasn’t there.
  5. Ariana encounters and collects the white orb.
  6. Ariana loses the white orb to the absorbing thing.
  7. Time rewinds to have Ariana collect the orb again.
  8. Ariana puts the orb on the first pedestal.
  9. The pedestal moves, and in doing so, gets too close and loses the orb to the absorbing thing.
  10. Time rewinds to have Ariana collect the orb again.
  11. Ariana puts the orb on the second pedestal.
  12. The pedestal moves further down the path as Ariana and Frendt walk past the orb-absorbing thing.
  13. Ariana re-collects the orb from the pedestal.
  14. Ariana and Frendt proceed to the end of the level.

But from the perspective of the characters the series of events would unfold like this:

  1. Ariana and Frendt set off through the island.
  2. Ariana encounters and collects the white orb.
  3. Ariana places the orb on a pedestal.
  4. The pedestal moves further down the path as Ariana and Frendt walk past the orb-absorbing thing.
  5. Ariana recollects the orb from the pedestal.
  6. Ariana and Frendt proceed to the end of the level.

It’s in thinking about these differences in perspectives that I start to get a headache, but a good kind. It’s similar to when you watch too many videos about how the fourth dimension works. It’s inherently a concept that is difficult to wrap your head around since your brain isn’t built to understand the world in that way. From their perspective there is no way to understand, or even observe, the causality of events that occur for them to reach their goal. Objects could appear out of nowhere, one of them could suddenly teleport, or seemingly nothing could happen as they stroll through the island.

While it’s fascinating to think about things in this way, the game isn’t presented from their perspective, but one where you can observe the causality of events. Yet from that perspective it manages to convey some complicated theoretical concepts about time and space in a way you can understand, without you really noticing it. Just keep some pain relievers handy.


The Gardens Between was created by The Voxel Agents. You can get it on Switch, PS4, and Steam (Windows / Mac OS) for $19.99. It takes about two or three hours to finish.



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