In Rosa’s Garden, the recent iOS and Android game by Charlotte Madelon, soft shades of red, pink, and yellow fill the screen as roses emerge gracefully from the game’s digital earth. Delicate field recordings chime in the background — the rustle of wind and the chirruping of birds — while plink-plonk sound effects skitter as rose varieties are combined. Once two roses have been matched, the player taps on them and the screen erupts into a shower of pastel-colored petals. Planted into the ground, these seeds sprout more beautiful flowers, the cycle thus continued.
The past few years have been host to a flurry of gardening video games, most of which foreground growth and cultivation over the industry’s more traditional subjects of conflict and challenge. Last year, Owen Bell’s Mendel arrived on PC, casting players as a robotic astrobiologist on an alien planet whose only mission was to aid the blooming of its bizarre, gently undulating plants. A Good Gardener and Viridi were both released in 2015, each exploring horticultural play albeit to different ends; the former a first-person adventure, the latter a slow-paced succulent simulator.
Eric Barone’s Stardew Valley has arguably taken agronomy to the video game masses while the upcoming, adorable-looking Ooblets looks to mix similar small town roleplaying with Pokémon-esque monster rearing and its own plant life. At this year’s E3, it was announced that the next game in the Animal Crossing series — arguably the progenitor of such gardening video games alongside Harvest Moon — will be released in March 2020, arriving a full seven years since the last mainline entry in the franchise, Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
Often these games emphasize the methodical processes of the IRL pastime over the explicit advancement of a narrative or the mastery of game systems. You won’t find the sprawling, seemingly unending open worlds of mainstream games in these titles either. Gigantic map and multiplying objectives are swapped for more manageable enclosures. Rosa’s Garden is refreshing because of how small it is. Even Stardew Valley’s big world seems miniature because of its top-down viewpoint and discrete areas. While we might technically classify its vegetable-focused play as farming instead of gardening (like the upcoming Ooblets), its reduced scale and laborious, but often hypnotic, manual processes (there’s no farm machinery in the game) feel more in tune with an allotment or home-growing tradition unlike, say, the industrial-sized, agri-business operations found in Farming Simulator.
What the Animal Crossing games, Stardew Valley, and Ooblets all do is mix free-form play with a relaxed atmosphere, elements which seem to have resonated with players keen for a change of pace from the barrage of stimuli and hyper-kineticism video games are best known for. They’re chill in the same way real gardening is.
“People do things at a different pace, switching into nature’s time.”
Harriet Gross, professor of psychology at the UK’s University of Lincoln and author of The Psychology of Gardening, tells me gardens — both in terms of visiting the botanical variety and engaging in the hobby of maintaining one — have been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They’re distracting in a positive way, able to capture the subject’s attention outside of their daily routine. “What comes up regularly when people talk about gardening is that it takes them out of their stressed life. People do things at a different pace, switching into nature’s time,” she tells me. “It allows them to let their minds wander in a way that they don’t have to control because of work pressures, family pressures, or personal distress of other kinds.”
Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing enable us to step out of our own schedules and into their idiosyncratic takes on time. Barone’s game speeds things up so a day lasts 12.6 minutes while seasons only last one in-game month. The original Animal Crossing, meanwhile, occurs in real time. It’s tied to the GameCube’s internal clock and reflects particular holidays such as Halloween, while also putting its own spin on Christmas (Toy Day) and Thanksgiving (Harvest Festival). Vegetables grow, rain falls, and the sun shines in a way that mimics the natural rhythm of life. But by making time such an omnipresent resource, these two games are also curiously stressful, each minute ripe for the efficient optimization of labor.
Owen Bell wanted Mendel’s extraterrestrial gardening to sit outside of such pressures, and for its players to feel truly distanced from the onslaught of their working life. “Optimization is in the zeitgeist right now. We need to be the best versions of ourselves: good at our job, good as friends, good at life,” he says. “This pressure to be the best extends to games as well. That’s why I didn’t include any kind of goal, score, or tasks to accomplish in Mendel. In moderation, goals and other external motivators are powerful, but when they become the exclusive drives to do anything, it’s overwhelming. I didn’t want Mendel to be part of that.”
Viridi and Mountain’s mobile experiences also offer sanctuaries for players to potter around relatively free from the capitalist logic of production embedded into much of modern life and technology. In Viridi, players literally just water plants while a delicate ambient soundtrack oscillates in the background, floral growth occurring while the app is in fact closed. Mountain is even more minimalist, akin to watching a meadow slowly bloom as strange bits of detritus slowly fill up the geological rock players are asked to passively inhabit.
Goalless play is also built into Tiny Garden, a beautifully realized diorama where players maintain an itsy-bitsy patch of earth. Flowscape, another modest experience, asks players to paint (although set dress might be more apt) an idyllic 3D nature scene before taking National Geographic-worthy photos. What’s beautiful about these applications is that simply spending time in them can feel like a minor act of resistance, just by virtue of their function being fundamentally useless. Suddenly, to do almost nothing is freeing.
“Gardens can often be a place of retreat and escape.”
As well as work-related anxiety, gardening games are also responding to our own increasingly claustrophobic urban environments. Bell tells me that he wanted to make Mendel a very calm space, a desire born from being bottled up in a New York City he describes as being made of “concrete, steel, and glass.” It’s also the challenges of living in such environments which Gross partly attributes to the resurgent interest in real-life gardening and houseplants. “Younger people are becoming more involved in gardening, not just as an eco-response, but living in much more pressured spaces like apartments where there isn’t a lot of green space.”
Curiously absent from these titles’ digital flora is the death, decay, and decomposition integral to not only the ecosystems of gardens, but also their psychological benefits. “Gardens can often be a place of retreat and escape but also a place to see the continuity of life,” Gross explains. “Things come and go, life goes on but life also ends.” In Stardew Valley crops can indeed fail, made clear to the player by turning a queasy brown color, but it’s because of player action, not natural processes. Closer to a natural cycle is an early version of Rosa’s Garden, which is still available through Itch.io. Almost as quickly as the roses sprout into life, so too do they wilt and die, the garden floor quickly becoming a carpet of murky grays and greens.
Some games do emphasize rot, though. Lichenia, a browser game released earlier this year, is described as a “city building game for the Anthropocene.” Its SimCity-like visual presentation flickers with digital distortion as players are instructed to “grow a city like a garden” in an attempt to maintain careful equilibrium between human-made structures and the natural world. The game’s mechanics are purposefully obtuse. Let the landscape tip too far in favor of a sprawling city and its environment responds by deteriorating into dark compost colors. 2018’s RimWorld, another city-builder, channels a similar climate anxiety with crops which turn a putrefying brown because of in-game rising temperatures.
Our ongoing moment of eco-crisis might be a latent influence on some of these gardening games, but survival game Among Trees seems to be taking video game gardening into the resource scarcity crisis, which might occur in the event of the worst possible climate catastrophe. Only a few tantalizing GIFs currently exist (unless you purchase the closed pre-alpha version of the game), but they show players foraging and watering tiny germinating plants in an eerie, albeit lush, forest environment.
One might wonder how gardening would function in Among Trees’ post apocalypse. Would tending to plants provide the same therapeutic benefits its real-life counterpart does or, with survival dependent on successful cultivation, would the activity lose its positive, restorative effects? Such a scenario chimes with Claire Denis’ recent sci-fi movie, High Life, where a crew of outcasts live on board a spacecraft hurtling toward unavoidable death. A beautiful garden, almost impossibly green, sits at the ship’s center, to which the inhabitants frequently tend. Even during acute stress, quietly caring for the vegetation offers them a kind of solace. Partly, it’s that quality which appeals to Madelon and what she wanted to channel into Rosa’s Garden.
“Gardening allows me to be in the present moment, to not think about political situations or climate change,” she tells me. “It’s a healthy way to relax.”