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Critical Essay Series: Blueberry Garden

Can a game that is based solely on the idea of level exploration actually work?

Blueberry Garden is an indie game from the mind of Erik Svedang. What gave the game some early buzz this year, was the fact that it had won the Independent Games Festival’s Seumas McNally Grand Prize. Previous winners include other indie darlings like Crayon Physics Deluxe, Aquaria, and Gish. So Blueberry Garden definitely has quite a pedigree to live up to. Luckily it does what all of those games had done well; it sticks to a simple concept and takes it to its full fruition.

Much like how Crayon Physics Deluxe is based around simple physics puzzles and Gish revolves around platforming, Blueberry Garden concentrates around level exploration. Yet a big question lingers, can a game that is based solely on the idea of level exploration actually work?

In the beginning of the game, you are not given any instructions other then simple text boxes that tell you what the various command keys are. Then after a few minutes, you are left to your own devices. This, even for a simple game, can be a bit confusing. So you do the only thing that comes natural, you explore the level trying to piece together a simple objective. Within the first ten minutes, you realize that through the very essence of exploration; new objectives, the story, as well as the world at large begin to reveal itself to you. What is more interesting is the fact that there is absolutely no other game mechanic in the game.

The whole game is about being able to explore and finding new objects and fruits that take you deeper into the map. To many of those that are used to the traditional form of progression (objective to reward to bigger objective to bigger reward) this would be a little off putting. However this style of strictly “exploratory gameplay” really does work, which makes Blueberry Garden so interesting.

As stated before, building a game around a central concept is nothing new. In fact, for many indie games this tends to be a proven formula that breeds a solid product. However, in the case of Blueberry Garden, a game where the core objective is to find an objective can be a bit counter-intuitive with established “videogame logic”.

In all honesty Svedang’s “experiment” in creating a game where exploration is its sole purpose sounds like a train wreck in theory. However with every design choice in the game meant to harmonize around that central aspect of exploration, Svedang creates a totally new experience unrivaled by anything out there.

By making every design choice revolve around the idea of exploration, Svedang makes Blueberry Garden work. That is the reason why the game is so short (the game can be completed in about 2 hours). That is also why the beautiful piano accompaniment swells when you are discover a new fruit or when you are about to reach a new area. Not to mention, the fact that the game has a very clean, hand drawn art style. All of these decisions are made to complement the exploratory aspect of the game. These complementary aspects are put into the game to make it work.

Since the whole crux of the game is based on the idea that the player wants to explore this world Svedang had created, he had to make sure everything in the game complemented that central idea.

The reason the game is so short, is because making the game any longer would seem like a chore. The reason why the piano music swells when you fly is because it is the game’s way of encouraging you to keep exploring. Why the hand drawn art style? Because the game wants the player to feel invited and not threatened so they will keep exploring new areas. Without these design choices, the game would be an absolute mess. Even though Blueberry Garden is quite minimalist when compared to other games, its design choices are more thought out then most games with multimillion dollar budgets.

In the end, the game works in that strictly “exploratory gameplay” concept, because Erik Svedang understood that every aspect of the game would have to complement the idea of exploration. What all of this bears is an experience so focused and so unique, that a game like Blueberry Garden could only exist in fringes of gaming, because a major publisher would never take such a massive gamble. For that reason, it is sad that Blueberry Garden had not gotten more main stream press upon its release; however it does stand a strong chance of surviving in the minds of those who play it, by becoming an indie cult classic.   

[Blueberry Garden is developed by Erik Svedang and is available on the PC in downloadable services such as Steam.]    

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