This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
The Voxel Agents' The Gardens Between takes players to striking islands built of fragments of childhood memories, evoking a kind of nostalgia as players use their time traveling powers to solve puzzles and strengthen the bond of friendship.
These beautiful places built from objects of memory earned The Gardens Between a nomination for Excellence in Visual Art from the IGF, and Gamasutra spoke with Matthew Clark of The Voxel Agents to learn more about how these storytelling places came to be and the thoughts that went into their design.
What's your background in making games?
Playing Donkey Kong Country waaay back in the day, my friends and I used to make up new levels on pen & paper and imagine playing them. In 2007, I got a job at Pandemic Studios with the team that made Destroy All Humans!. There, I learned a lot about the process of making games, and in 2009 I started The Voxel Agents with two close colleagues of mine. It’s been a major goal for us to make original and innovative games that anyone can play, and we’ve been doing that for almost a decade now!
How did you come up with the concept?
You know that famous scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is waving his hands about, scrubbing through video looking for clues? That was our key source of inspiration.. We built several vastly different prototypes to explore that one core mechanic of scrubbing in time, and one of those prototypes blossomed into The Gardens Between.
What development tools were used to build your game?
We use the Unity Game Engine - it has massively simplified the process of making games for us so we can put all our focus on making the game look great and be fun to play without worrying about making work on different platforms.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Our original prototypes were done back in 2011, but for a long time they were just a series of interesting ideas. We didn’t start really working on The Gardens Between until 2015. We had this really interesting mechanic that we wanted to explore, and we knew we needed to tell an interesting story, so we found some other like-minded souls and got to work. That’s where we met Jon Swanson who has refined all the beautiful art in the game, and Brooke who helped us craft the narrative from our own experiences.
Each of the islands of The Gardens Between tells its own story with its environmental elements. How did you work the art so that it would convey these narratives?
It was a very early goal for us to tell a story without any language, text, or dialogue, so visual storytelling was very strong in the game right from the first prototypes. As the player rewinds and goes forward again, you look over the same point multiple times, so it’s very important that the art style and composition of each island rewards multiple moments of scrutiny. We want each of the spaces in the game to encourage deep observation.
There are so many different items and elements on each island, and yet it all seems to suit the place and the imagination of the children moving through it. What challenges did you face in filling each places with memories and experiences without making it feel cluttered?
We wanted each garden to feel like a close, intimate space. A lot of the composition and layout of the spaces comes from photography and film language. Huge amounts of care and polish and attention to detail go into each scene (That’s why it’s taken us 3 years to build!).
The Gardens Between creates a sense of childhood nostalgia through its visuals and play. What thoughts went into capturing this feeling with the game?
When thinking about childhood, we can only really draw from our own experiences. Amongst our development team, we all grew up in the 80s and early 90s, so that is where our vision of childhood comes from. We wanted to tell a story about friendship, and childhood friendships always felt so critically important, like your whole life revolves around you and your best-friend. Those memories are always bigger and grander than the real thing, and that rose-tinted nostalgia is a small part of the story that we are telling.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I really love the concept behind Baba is You. It’s such an awesome idea I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. Cuphead also looks absolutely stunning. I’m really looking forward to the day when we release The Gardens Between so I can reclaim some time to sit down and sink my teeth into all these great games.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
The biggest hurdle and the biggest opportunity are the same - in 2018 it’s easier than it has ever been to build big, fun, beautiful, & inspiring games. A quick look at Steam, or any other platform, will show you that there are so many games coming out, and so many people with stories to share that it's becoming harder and harder to have your game discovered. As it gets easier to make games, we will see even more games come out. I think it’s fantastic. Play is how we learn and share ideas (It’s also how puppies learn - but that’s another story) Playing games from creators with diverse backgrounds and ideas will bring us all closer together <3.