My dad is a programmer, so growing up, using computers was second nature to me. I think my parents were ahead of the curve, recognizing very early on the potential of games and interactive programs as powerful teaching tools. I learned about English, math, and history by playing games. I learned typing from Mavis Beacon and geography from Carmen San Diego. Perhaps more fundamental than any of that was the reading and critical-thinking skills I gained from interactive story games. One in particular stands apart in my memory. Ruff’s Bone is the story of a tenacious pooch who pursues a thrown-bone into the depths of the earth, passing through obstacles and distractions to retrieve his bone and return it to the surface, presenting it to his master. Games like that and many others were instrumental in developing my ability to learn and to think. They inspired me to learn by filling me with wonder, not just of the virtual, but of the reality behind the virtual. As a child, I never played to escape from reality, but rather to expand my understanding of it.
More than any game I’ve played in recent years, Botanicula took me back to that childhood, where games were not a job or even hobby, but a source of wonder.
Developed by Amanita Design, a team of less than ten Czech artists and programmers, Botanicula is the story of five oh-so-adorable botanical friends who embark on a journey to save a tree from the scary-dark spider-creatures that are sucking the very life from it. In the games’ 4ish hours, you will click your way from screen to screen, solving challenges and helping out the multitude of critters you meet along the way.
If the games’ message isn’t clear enough from the description, Botanicula is about saving the trees. If you’re skeptical, consider the fact that one of their primary delivery platforms, Humble Bundle, is donating a portion of all proceeds to the World Land Trust, an organization that is dedicated to saving the trees. Which is great; I wholeheartedly endorse care for the environment.
You could call it a puzzle game, but the puzzles you’ll encounter are very atypical, sometimes frustrating in the vagueness of their solutions. As I played through the game and my delight occasionally gave way to confusion, I found myself wishing that some of the puzzles were easier. But the confusion too, finds its place in the games’ larger meaning. As developers make their point that preventing deforestation matters, they refuse to hold your hand. Gone is the hint feature of Amanita’s last work, Machinarium. When a woodland mama communicates that she won’t give you what you need to progress until you can put some food on the table for her three adorable woodland youngsters, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own. You need your critical thinking skills activated, and not just to play the game, but to make a difference in the real world, for saving the trees can be tricky business.
Understand: much ado has been made about the creativity and ambiance of the game. Yes, yes; visually the game is fascinating in the way that laying in warm grass and staring at twigs and dirt and roots through a magnifying glass is fascinating. What’s more, this collage of a world is certainly not a still life. It is completely alive with the hums and crackles of living things, and as your victories are highlighted by some of the cutest triumphant music you have ever heard, your inner child will leap for joy. Yet for all this, Botanicula’s greatest strength is not simply its sheer beauty and wonder, but the way it uses those things to make its point. Botanicula is at its most beautiful when it is most clearly inspired by nature, and that is the point: that nature itself is the inspiration, and because of this innate virtue, it is worth preserving.
I am one of those who dares to dream that games would continue to shake off the constraints of a bygone era and continue to become a medium capable of edifying and not simply entertaining players. By creating an inspiring world so fully alive with sound and color, and by forcing the player to engage their critical thinking in unconventional ways, Botanicula makes a point worth making.
Videogames’ latest coming of age opinion piece was written recently by Taylor Clark for Kotaku. In it he speaks boldly against the “dumbness” of games in their present state, calling for more “smart games”. He makes some valid points, but I can’t help but feel as though he makes something of a false dichotomy between “smart” and “dumb” videogames. Botanicula is certainly not just another “dumb” game. But when I play it, I do not feel older and smarter, I feel younger and more alive.