The UnderGarden

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Drift, soar, and relax your way through a vibrant garden.

PC Release: November 10, 2010

By Ian Coppock

The definition of playing video games to relax has changed in the last decade. It used to be that relaxing with games simply meant popping any title (be it a shooter or an arcade game) into the slot and losing oneself for a few hours. In recent years, though, a large number of gamers have sought to take that relaxation to a more literal level, playing explicitly tranquil video games in the hopes of achieving that tranquility themselves. The UnderGarden belongs to that “zen” sub-genre of games: a category of titles that seeks to provide a relaxing counterbalance to the stresses of an ever faster-paced world.

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“Zen” games comprise arguably the most amorphous game genre because they take many forms. Some, like Viridi, are abstract simulators, while games like The UnderGarden are side-scrolling platformers. Regardless of their guise, “zen” games share a common goal of providing a relaxing sound-and-game-scape for stressed out players to lose themselves in. The UnderGarden sets out to achieve that goal by giving players a delicate world whose loudest component is bright color.

The UnderGarden allows players to float around vibrant cave gardens as a cutesy space koala (that’s a sentence no one wakes up expecting to hear on any given day). The goal of The UnderGarden is simple: make it from one side of a side-scrolling level to the other at whatever pace the player deems fit. Along the way, this little Lilo and Stitch-looking creature has the ability to pollinate dormant flowers and make them spring to glowing life. The more flowers players pollinate, the higher their score.

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Ooooooooo….

In addition to bringing these flowerbeds back to life, players are expected to solve the occasional physics puzzle. These puzzles aren’t remotely difficult even on later levels, as the point of the game is to provide a relaxing environment rather than a challenging platformer. Using their pollination abilities, players can grow and use special fruits essential for progressing further in the level. Bomb fruits can make short work of stone walls, while anti-gravity fruits allow players to lift obstacles out of the way. The UnderGarden adds more fruit varieties as players progress.

Finally, players can also choose to have some little musicians accompany their space koala. These dwarf koalas can be found contentedly playing away on musical instruments in rhythm with the game’s background music. They don’t really do anything practical for gameplay but the beats and tunes they add to the music can change flowers’ colors. Players can carry the musicians and other items around using the space koala’s telepathy ability, which causes nearby objects to tether themselves to the player.

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Whee!

There are several design elements informing The UnderGarden‘s attempt at relaxation, and the most prominent one is visual design. Though the game’s background imagery of rock walls isn’t all that remarkable, the multicolored arrays of glowing plant life are absolutely delightful. Players can easily cause these flowerbeds to spring to life by absorbing pollen particles and then floating over the roots. The plants add a soft glow to the game’s hazy world and their colors span the rainbow. It makes for a pretty display.

To compliment its color power, The UnderGarden comes equipped with sharp textures on its character models and environments. All of this game’s visual elements look gorgeous even at a close distance, though the game’s lack of anti-aliasing also makes everything look somewhat serrated. Couple this textual fidelity with a smooth framerate and the result is a world that’s easy to get lost in.

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(contented sigh)

The second element underpinning The UnderGarden‘s “zen” vibe is its sound design. The game features a relaxing selection of atmospheric music; echoing piano chords and single electronic keystrokes form a genuinely soothing foundation of sound. These ethereal sounds are occasionally built upon by the aforementioned musicians but sound relaxing enough on their own. By the same token, though, the music changes very little throughout the course of the game.

The UnderGarden‘s in-game sound design is quite calming as well. The birth of plant life is accompanied by a quick-fire medley of strings and flutes, while the space koala’s floating makes a little whoosh noise. Developer Artech Studios also took care to mute harsh sounds like explosions to preserve the game’s focus on audio tranquility. When combined with the music, it makes for a nice package. The UnderGarden might very well succeed in providing a relaxing vibe through sound alone.

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Some crickets would be nice.

Though The UnderGarden succeeds at soothing the eyes and the ears, its gameplay is simplistic. There’s no real challenge to the title; players simply float around in spacious underground caverns and occasionally have to blow up a wall to proceed. Because The UnderGarden requires so little challenge, the experience can feel cheap. Challenge doesn’t necessarily preclude relaxation, but The UnderGarden apparently disagrees, since aiming a plant cannon is the most work the player’s ever going to have to do.

Then again, The UnderGarden never bills itself as a challenging platformer and wears the “casual” label like a badge of honor. Indeed, the word “casual” appears twice in the game’s description box on Steam. The UnderGarden isn’t interested in providing a challenge so much as giving players something pretty to look at. That can mean that the gameplay comes up feeling shallow… but the game’s beautiful visuals and sounds don’t hurt for that.

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Behold! The Stonehenge of Omnipresent Supergalactic Oneness!

Though players indifferent to shallowness may shrug The UnderGarden‘s gameplay off, they might not have such an easy time doing so to with the game’s options and PC performance. The UnderGarden is a stiff PC port whose options menu is a joke; a few token options for audio levels and screen resolution and that’s about it. Like most games with limited options menus, The UnderGarden‘s system demands are not taxing (especially by 2017 standards) but the lack of options is still disappointing. Players should be able to have all sliders and toggles available in the event of a problem, such as the game’s tendency for disappearing audio.

In addition to its music sometimes vanishing, The UnderGarden has a few other curious issues. The game’s PC controls are… not great, requiring players to point and click where they want to float instead of just holding the mouse button down or using WASD keys. Thanks to the aforementioned limited options menu, none of these controls can be rebound. Furthermore, while The UnderGarden works with a gamepad, it only does so if the gamepad is turned on first. In other words, players who decide to switch to a gamepad mid-game have to exit out of the game, turn the controller on, and start it back up. Otherwise the game won’t recognize it.

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Hyacinth, we have a problem.

Setting aside The UnderGarden‘s problems for a moment, does the game succeed in its mission to relax players? The answer, like the definition of a “zen” game, depends on players’ tastes. Some players might find The UnderGarden a relaxing title thanks to its sophisticated visuals and ethereal music. Others might find its gameplay too shallow and its aesthetic to be a skin-deep distraction. Regardless of preference, The UnderGarden is an admirable study in the interplay of sound and visual design, aptly combining relaxing music and bright colors to provide a soothing world. It’s a shrewd combination of color and music theory.

The format fluidity of the “zen” genre makes it difficult to pinpoint where The UnderGarden fits in that landscape. The sub-genre doesn’t have a dedicated audience the same way first-person shooters and puzzle games do, making assessing The UnderGarden‘s impact on “zen” games, if any, hard to assess. The game remains little-known in the wider gaming world, especially since the closure of Artech Studios back in 2011, and its amateurish PC port precludes a wide fan base on Steam. The UnderGarden, like the world it presents, is its own little bubble.

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I’ve heard of soft lighting, but soft lightning?

The UnderGarden is indeed a relaxing experience, but relaxing isn’t necessarily the same thing as enjoyable, as the game’s control and gameplay issues demonstrate. It’s a soothing little game that provides a world easy to get lost in at the expense of wonky controls and performance problems that seldom happen but are frustrating when they do happen. Players can weigh those pros and cons while considering the title, but The UnderGarden still at least deserves a place in “zen” game orthodoxy for its exploration of video-audio concoctions.

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You can buy The UnderGarden here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.